Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

—–

The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

Don’t be too Sure of Yourself: Why We aren’t Good at Predictions

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I’ve made my share of mistakes predicting the behavior of others. I am not alone. Political commentators and stock brokers are poor prognosticators, despite their cocky self-assurance. Still, you’d think an intelligent person might be able to anticipate the behavior of those around him — friends and co-workers of regular acquaintance.

Here are some reasons why few of us are good at this:

  1. The mistake of believing we think the same way. We have much in common with other humans, but not everything. Look around you at the superficial differences: bodies high as the sky or wide as a block; hairy and hairless; and all the hues of the rainbow if you include the artificial colors on top. Just as exteriors are unalike from person to person, so are the interiors. Your way of thought, perception, and motivation may be at odds with the person whose fortune you wish to tell. Don’t expect him to do what you might do.
  2. Situations vs. traits. Many folks are “nice” in the daily course of life. They pet dogs, smile at children, and make charitable donations. Under pressure, however, some apply vanishing cream to their virtue. I’ve observed people I thought I knew turn monstrous — like a wolfman at the full moon: lying, breaking promises, and embezzling. I am not talking about patients. These individuals rationalized their misbehavior using doctrines of fairness drawn from the “Bizarro World” and considered unscrupulous “means” permissible because of high-minded “ends.” MORAL: you don’t know for sure who you are dealing with until your counterpart has been tested by temptation or fear; rage, humiliation, or misfortune. The Stoic philosophers remind us to test ourselves. Only in this way, they believe, can we recognize ourselves as we are, let alone grasp the workings of anyone else. Indeed, they argue that self-improvement should be the goal of any good life.
  3. Expecting too much or too little. Some of us see the best in others, some expect only the worst. If your default prediction doesn’t match the behavioral tilt of the man whose actions you are trying to anticipate, you will be wrong.
  4. Simple explanations. The world is a complex place. Bolts within wrenches within hands. Existence is too convoluted to comprehend all the factors that might make it intelligible. We simplify life by using shortcuts and broad, pithy descriptions of one another: “He is cruel” or “He is greedy” or “He is hard-working,” for example. A more refined evaluation, however, would reveal a hard-working man at one job, uninvolved in another. Our labels are misapplied — too black or white. We are tempted to demonize too many. Equally, leave the halos for the angels, not your fellow-man.
  5. Absent historical data. Are you aware of the detailed life history of close friends? Even with knowledge of their every possible trauma and trouble, prediction is difficult.
  6. Absent current data. Perhaps your buddy is experiencing medication side-effects or coming off his antidepressants. Maybe his mother or spouse is dying. Changes like these can cause him to be a new man, not the man you know.
  7. Unresolved issues. A teen was a hell-raiser: she cut classes, ran away from home, shop-lifted  and had a too-early initiation into the world of sex. There were plenty of unfortunate explanations for this, but two decades on she appeared past “acting out” her troubles. Only she wasn’t. If you crossed her, she resumed the shape of the human wrecking ball she’d been at age 16. No one predicted it.
  8. Expecting logic to prevail. We are told not to converse about politics or religion. That is, not encourage our conversation partner to switch candidates, adopt a new religion, or give up faith altogether. Jonathan Haidt and other psychologists note that Homo sapiens tend to arrive at emotionally driven decisions about highly charged issues and only then think of reasons to support them. A failure to factor emotions into your estimation of future conduct reduces predictive success. We all have witnessed behavioral train wrecks when powerful emotions take charge of the flesh and blood locomotive.
  9. Self-destruction. Some folks burn down the barn to kill the rats. At the extreme, you find this in the Euripides play, Medea (she murdered her children because of betrayal by her husband, Jason) and in horrific murder-suicide news stories. Don’t expect future negative consequences to be considered in advance by everyone; and, even if noticed, to cause a course change.
  10. Actions and reactions. Life provides moving targets, rather like a computer game. A good chess player “sees” several moves ahead. A wise person also adjusts his next step in response to the after effects of his last. It is almost impossible to know what another will do unless you understand all the things he will meet down the road, including his reaction to anything you do.
  11. Poor affective (emotional) forecasting. Daniel Gilbert and colleagues looked at how happiness might be affected by work disappointment. They studied assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin who either succeeded in getting tenure (the guarantee of a permanent job) or failed to achieve this goal (which usually means leaving for a different college or another line of work). Measures of happiness taken over a 10-year period indicated “the outcome of the tenure decision did not have a dramatic and robust influence on (the) general happiness (of the teachers).” The researchers concluded that we commonly ignore our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our future reaction to life’s disappointments. Put differently, we are lousy at forecasting our future emotional state. The divorce rate supports the same conclusion; as does the common, but erroneous, expectation of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award.

Without the ability to predict matters in our own lives, should we expect to read the tea leaves of others?

In summary, the next time you are about to take out your crystal ball, overconfident about your knowledge of the human condition, remind yourself of the following quote of H.L. Mencken. He was a scribe well-known for cutting us down in size:

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

A little humility is a good thing to keep in your back pocket for those times when the cigar of hubris explodes in your face. I need all the humility I can get, otherwise I’d offer you some.

H.L.-Mencken-amused

The top image is a 1910 poster of Alexander, Crystal Seer uploaded to English Wikipedia by Ali. The undated photo of the man with the cigar is H.L. Mencken.

Taking Yourself too Seriously and the Value of Going “Out of Your Mind”

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Right this second you are doing something worthwhile: you are not thinking about yourself.

There are usually better things to do than self-inspection. If the inward look were producing self-knowledge or healing, I’d encourage you. Too often, however, the rusty mind is just sawing wood for a building that will never be built. This is a ruinous misuse of sawdust.

We need time off from looking into the psychic house of mirrors we are trapped in: the head.

No one is the center of the world despite having been engineered to believe otherwise. Therein resides much unhappiness. Once one grasps this human design flaw, correction doesn’t require a factory recall. With a little tinkering, achieving a share of happiness becomes easier.

First, let’s define the dilemma, then address the remedies. Except for the golden few who view life as comic, we all suffer from it. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

We are in solitary confinement, able to see only through our eyes, and hear the internal voice alone, save an occasional hallucination.8-)

Our life is all we have, and the one perspective we are born with. No hiding place is offered, nor a different vantage point. Every event is personal in its impact, however indifferent were the fates delivering it.

Without resilience, courage, and a capacity to deflect life’s arrows or ignore the pain, the internal questioning begins. Replaying the dead past endlessly does not generate happiness. The world’s hard knocks require a rebound: a return to the game. Weeks or months of self-preoccupation only exacerbate the wound.

I am not talking about real soul-searching or the best psychotherapy, either of which can untie the ropes binding us. Nor the torment of tragedy. Rather, endless rumination that is like running around a track until the path you’ve worn becomes a deepening trench leading in a circle.

How much do we matter, really? Are we worth the self-preoccupation? Might we not do better to spend time more productively, more joyously, more helpful to ourselves or others?

Our lives come and go. The world rotates without assistance. Will rejection by a potential mate be recorded in any history book? Will winning a promotion or losing a job influence the war in Syria?

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George Elliot wrote in Middlemarch:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy it: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory (of the world) we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Approximately 360,000 births occur daily and almost 152,000 deaths. It is a wonder newborns aren’t packed and delivered by the gross on a United Parcel Service truck. We are each too common. Few of us will be remembered, even as a footnote, in 100 years’ time.

The only one who gets marked in a memorable fashion is usually the person who holds the pen and writes on his internal self, a screen to which no one else has access. He marks himself and he mars himself.

Most of us can do better. No, this doesn’t mean we must accomplish wonderful things or produce famous children.

One should recognize that most events are “below the level of tragedy except (in) the passionate egoism of the sufferer,” (again, George Elliot’s words). We are no different from our fellow-man, who might cheer our escape from a too severe view of life, and benefit by a helping hand.

Do not be ashamed if you find yourself stuck on your own internal reflection. Nature made you so. How then to take yourself less seriously?

  • Sitting alone and inactive breeds claustrophobic thoughts the way a cesspool breeds mosquitos. Get out of the house.
  • Consider reading Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher. Epicureans have gotten a bad rap, thought to be self-indulgent louts. They did prefer pleasure over pain, but applauded honor, as well. The Stoics, including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, are also worth attention. Their words, read as a regular discipline and reminder, may reduce feeling sorry for oneself.
  • Mindfulness meditation, if practiced daily, can put you in the moment and cut the strings to thoughts pulling you inside.
  • The Bible and other old religious texts reflect on the state of being human, even for the unfaithful. Of particular note are the “wisdom books” of the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
  • Consider public speaking (Toastmasters) and training in improvisation. The latter develops the ability to listen and react, not stay inside your head and generate what you should say in advance.
  • Generosity with time and money in ways small and large is a method for improving your mood, the well-being of the other, and increase your focus outside yourself.
  • Socialize and laugh.
  • Make a daily list of things you are grateful for.
  • More thinking about yourself will not solve the problem of over thinking about yourself!!! This might seem obvious, but many people stuck in endless ruminations reflexively turn to more internal cud-chewing as a solution to their dilemma.
  • Examine ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) instead. This form of treatment, unlike most types of cognitive behavioral healing, engages you less “in your head,” and more through non-linguistic means including acceptance, meditation, and action.

In the end, we come back to where we started: man is not the center of the universe, he only thinks so. To realize you’re not that important is both a curse and a blessing. The humility thereby produced will allow you to experiment on yourself rather than churn inside or cower in the shadows.

Unless you are capable of making history and enduring the cost of that worthy attempt, the possibility of less self-imposed unhappiness is available. Do your part, do your best — don’t do yourself in. A quiet mind can be enhanced by finding a humble place in the world.

Then, the next time someone says you are “out of your mind,” you will smile and say thank you.

The rabbit photo is called A Bunny Too Serious, by Laura Rantala. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Ultimate in Name Dropping

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We do our very best to make ourselves feel important. This starts at an early age, when we are too small to amount to much, but able to identify with those who do. “My mom is better than your mom” is a way of proclaiming to the world and ourselves that we have value because of who we hang around with, who made us, and who protects us.

In this kind of “My dad is bigger than your dad” category of speech, however, there is one name that trumps all others: God — the big “G” or “A” or “J” or “Y” or whatever name or acronym or letter you care to substitute.

I am not about to bash religion here. Nor will I praise it, but simply comment on how some people abuse it.

Those folks tend to use the name of God the same way that others do when they refer to the luxury car they drive or a super-model girlfriend. Their perhaps subconscious intention is to stake a claim to a lofty status in the world. God is reduced to some sort of personal mentor or best buddy in high places — very high places. This is especially true when they believe that God has a particular, personally charted plan that, for example, explains why the apartment they’d been hoping to get was available just when they needed it.

Really? God is a real estate broker? God cares whether you have an eastern view out your window so you can see the sun come up? God wants you to have a dishwasher in the kitchen at no extra charge? This isn’t religion, but simple arrogance and conceit; sometimes also a self-defense against the fear of being just another lowly and vulnerable human being.

Some people, usually televangelists, report secret messages God has communicated only to them. Such bulletins echo their own previously stated beliefs. They often come in the form of statements like, “God brought the hurricane down on that town because there was too much sin in that place” or some similar pronouncement. Apparently, the fact that people who weren’t sinful also died in the hurricane is not troubling, either to the messenger of God or to the Almighty himself. But to be God’s emissary — to be the only one of the seven billion people on earth who God chose to offer this bit of wisdom — wow! “See, I’m pretty special, God talks to me about stuff he doesn’t say to any of you.” In other words, “My dad is really, really bigger than your dad!”

Isn’t it curious that these latter-day, self-proclaimed prophets never report the following? “God came to me in a dream last night. He said unto me, ‘Reverend, you are an ass. Why do you think I would want to use you — you — as my mouthpiece. You’re a schlemiel for goodness sake! Keep your mouth shut for once and stop telling people you’ve got a personal pipeline to me. You have no idea what you are talking about!'”

What I’m getting at here is a bit like what is observed as sports fans raise index fingers and shout “We’re #1” when their team wins. We? They may be working dead-end jobs and coming home to ungrateful families, but there is solace, consolation, and uplift in being a part of an athletic powerhouse; in getting some trickle-down benefit from victories that are experienced vicariously. Value is conferred on a single individual when he associates himself with something bigger and better.

Still, few sports fans make the to-do over their favorite team that is done by those who claim a special God-given status and believe themselves to be on the “A-List” of his best followers. God’s extraordinary attention to them is better than an invitation to a State Dinner at the White House. These folks say that God is #1 in their lives, but it is actually the other way around. For them, their special standing with “the Big Guy” is what is important. You don’t have to be creative, talented, or charismatic because God is your buddy. Mary Jo, down the street, may not have time for you — she just dumped you, after all — but God still thinks you are the real deal. Holy Cow! Who needs Mary Jo or Kim Kardashian anyway, when you can have God as a trophy friend?

Might the bible or some other ancient religious document have anything to say about this? Indeed, Micah 6:8 suggests that maybe we aren’t supposed to glory in any kind of special status with the alleged Creator of the Universe:

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Humbly. Enough said.

The above image is a portion of Michelangelo’s 1509 fresco The Creation of Adam, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God touches Adam’s finger to give him life. It was photographed by PDArt and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.

Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.

Unfaithful and Feeling Guilty: Now What?

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/56/Pashtun_Couple.jpg/256px-Pashtun_Couple.jpg

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.

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it raises an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble, let’s start with the quality of humility. And it’s important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack of confidence. Rather, it involves this recognition: in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, small part. Unless your name ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize most problems as transitory and temporary is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” At least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek, and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are available for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner. Equally, your head is required for good judgment and to learn from experience, be cool under fire, and forge ahead despite fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said one should be grateful to old-age because the passions then rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

This means being a “grown-up” demands one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as events transpire. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” There is no point in repeating the old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me he believed if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he imagined he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead. But, he realized, there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and the version of himself who faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might view matters differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the “grown-up?” Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling without rest, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside, holding to principle or compromising. And accepting a sizable portion of defeat as inevitable.*

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are inescapable, and too strong a defense against them deprives you of the most important and precious things life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, acceptance, and affection. These require unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, an example of responsibility-taking and honesty. As the reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life.

The sages say honesty simplifies life. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually, it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s awful spot, and therefore should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them. Perhaps they should not be judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much, and you will be caught in the sadness of time-past and unfulfilled longing and regret while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come. It deprives you of the same present moment passing by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values and putting those values to work in more than words. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact we are all mortal, all in-transit, but the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting,” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us, as will Earth if we don’t mess it up.

In demonstrating our commitments we must do work. Freud was right when he said love and work are the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator to the game playing out before him.

One other quality I should mention in this pantheon of talents is gratitude. Appreciation of what you have, especially simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children or grandchildren, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life too easily dismissed.

Increasingly I believe we must spend time looking in the mirror before pointing fingers and attacking. We are not so different from those we vilify. Make friends as you mature and on into your senior years. You’ll be happier.*

With aging into old age we are well-advised to let go of attachments to things. If, like me, you’ve lost your hair and some pace in your once swift steps, you recognize a body in the process of transformation. You can rage against such changes, or you can hold to all the “things” you “have” with lightness, not gripping them in desperation. Mother nature will win this one. Such alteration — previously unthinkable — isn’t personal. The defacing hand of the universe gets to everyone in time.*

Accept, accept what is outside of your control.*

Letting go (not giving up) offers less suffering. Detach gradually with a spirit of equanimity. Every well-used car wears out the tire tread in time.*

Since this essay is being revised in a pandemic, I’d like to believe we’ve learned from this turn of events. Among the lessons would be that no life is without suffering, as the Buddhists would remind us even in peaceful, “normal” moments in the world. We all share the press of change and strain not present before disease flooded the globe.*

A mature individual places significance on finding connection with those who, like us, are treading the water in the sea of woe we now live in. Those lacking physical touch and managing economic distress silently beg for helping hands in those of us not in dread of the lack of food or the inability to pay the rent. An enlightened person recognizes and responds to the shared dignity and need of others now more than ever.*

John Donne reminded us 400 years ago, “No man is an island.” His poem ended:

any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.*

We are, as the cliche goes, more alike than we are different. Maturity sets aside selfishness and class or racial distinction. Those in the military swear not to leave a fallen comrade behind. The planet’s widespread distress has enlisted us all in the army needed to raise up each other.*

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up go to Adlai Stevenson II in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 65-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/64/Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG/500px-Whirling_Dervishes_2.JPG

Please note: The presence of an asterisk in red/orange * indicates the preceding paragraph has been modified or created since the original post was published in 2009.

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The third picture is inside-outside Innovation, taken from Innovation Management.

Next comes Letting It Go, the work of incidencematrix. A fritillary butterfly is about to leave an open palm.

Finally, the Whirling Dervishes photo is by Vladimer Shioshvili. Like the previous image, it and also comes from Wikimedia Commons.