Tell Me What You “Want” and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.

What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.

Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.

Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.

Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.

Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.

I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.

Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.

Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.

You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.

Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.

When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.

My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.

Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.

Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.

How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.

Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.

You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.

If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.

I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.

Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.

Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.

You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.

Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.

Is Infidelity More Than a Matter of Sex?

One morning Gregor S. realized his wife was more interested in the vacuum cleaner than she was in him. No, not in a perverse way. She simply wanted to keep bugs and dirty things out – everything else in its place – more than sex with her spouse. Priorities were thus arranged. The house was spotless, her marriage immaculate and chaste. Their children, Gregor reminded himself, were the fruits of a different stage of history, when the carnal batteries were juiced; before his wife’s facial expression alone told him, “Don’t even think about it.”

Frau Samsa began the romance with the promise of fidelity and still lived by the letter of her oath: no other man enjoyed her charms. The husband, however, expected ranking ahead of cleaning supplies.

Sex was like a Christmas toy, the thing you once raced downstairs for, soon consigned to a dusty closet shelf. When those bygone fleshly episodes came to mind, Mr. S. alternated among moods of wistful remembrance, moments of serious conversation with his beloved, and angry comments.  Temporary changes resulted, as fleeting as sound and smoke, to paraphrase Goethe.

When had this metamorphosis in his bedroom occurred, he wondered? What was Greg to do now?

The master masturbated, immediate service always at hand. His eyeballs scanned internet pornography, a turn-on without risk of rejection: where video women invite touch by anyone watching. Impersonal, of course.

Mr. Samsa did not wish to cheat or pay for sex. The guy wondered, however, whether months of abstinence again qualified him as a virgin.

In the USA, he’d be labeled a cad had he found a mistress. Society would say he had no cause, if it considered cause at all.

I treated more than a few such men. Usually middle-aged. A buddy told me he heard the same story from several guys at our 40th high school reunion. Sadness claimed them more than anger.

Another couple. In their 30s. The wife was gorgeous, saucy, bright. Her husband wasn’t interested enough in the sensual part of their marriage. On the other hand, he played lots of softball, an activity for which he was enthusiastic and energetic. The excuse to this wife? “Gee, I’m too tired now.”

One could make a long list of activities preferred over coupling by the sexually disinterested: intimate time with friends, focus on children, allegiance and availability to parents, church tasks, and work. Even reading. When relationship problems surface (all marriages have them in their course) one partner may say sex must wait until understanding is first achieved. Not always. Sex does, at times, help repair a frayed connection.

Let’s expand the definition of fidelity. My guess is the unstated commitment to another includes conversation, interest, and concentration as well as passion. Respect, tenderness, and devotion, too. Does the word fidelity apply to those who show regular contempt for a partner; neglect or indifference? Does taking the other for granted break the marital promise? Can the failure to defend and support a spouse in society fracture the unwritten covenant? Are loyalty and constancy words only applied to the sex of things?

An ancient Buddhist teaching says there are five ways a husband should minister to his wife:

By honoring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, by providing her with adornments. (From DN 31: Sigãlaka Sutta; III 180-81, 187-91).

The wife has a similar list. Note that sexual fidelity is allowed no prominence.

An affair can happen without premeditation. We look. There is a spark. For a man, the tinder is almost always dry. But, no adultery for heterosexuals is possible in the absence of willing, interested, or instigating women. Once the dalliance is over, the relationship with the spouse might continue as before, assuming there is no revelation of the indiscretion. Meanwhile, other bond-breaking actions can be chronic, more intentional: criticism, humiliation, rejection, avoidance … How do you weigh the physical vs. the emotional, one vs. the other?

Please understand me. My questions are not rhetorical: posed as if I had a definite answer. The domain is complex, the choices agonizing.

Different models of commitment exist beyond the North American heterosexual variety. Among gays, allowance is often made for other physical contacts even in committed relationships. Does this risk throwing-over the partner? I imagine it does, but mostly in an already unsatisfying partnership. I have no data here, so am open to enlightenment from gay readers.

In this uncertain territory I claim certainty about one thing alone: that spouses usually promise more than sexual fidelity when they join; at least if wedlock is driven by love instead of necessity, security, or lust alone.

If you believe extra-marital amour is always unjust, realize a marriage can die in multiple ways, not only that one. The worm in the rose bed takes many forms. Relationships crack when understanding is missing and a partner is lonely: where the chill of an adjacent body is unrelieved, and both magic and kindness have disappeared. Couples therapy only works when each party’s part is faced.

Moral superiority dependent solely on your avoidance of other beds may be a mirage.

The top screen shot comes from the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, a Columbia picture starring Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. The photo below is a software-generated landscape created with a program named Terragen, this one the work of Fir0002. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

Levels of Infidelity

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Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.

Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?

The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”

  • Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
  • Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
  • Mutual masturbation.
  • Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
  • Making out and fondling while clothed.

The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:

  • Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
  • Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
  • Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
  • Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
  • Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
  • Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
  • Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.

As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.

What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!

Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?

Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if

  • your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
  • your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
  • the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
  • the spouse is abusive?
  • you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
  • the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?

In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:

  1. What is the definition of infidelity?
  2. Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.

I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.

Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.

The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.

Sooner than you think.

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

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In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, a few of my patients spontaneously offered some interesting commentary. It amounted to the following: they felt uncomfortable celebrating his assassination. They viewed the immediate and most visible response to bin Laden’s death as if the general public entered into some bizarre and gigantic adaptation of the scene from the Wizard of Oz  in which most everyone is singing “Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

Please understand, none of them thought he was a good guy. They all believed he was an evil man on the order of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. All of my patients believed that the world would be a better place without him. And, they understood the sense of relief, exhilaration, and justice expressed in the streets and around Ground Zero of the 9/11/01 attacks.

But, he was still a human being, murdered with relatives — who included his children — close by. And here we were, waving flags, chanting “USA,” singing, and celebrating. It simply felt uncomfortable for the few patients who mentioned it, who were also aware of the bittersweet nature of this man’s death, especially for those who were most harshly affected by his life.

This got me to thinking about how we view moral rules and exceptions to those rules, including the biblical admonition not to kill.

What follows is a brief commentary on a few of the Ten Commandments — how they are understood and how most of us create some wiggle-room with respect to carrying them out or not. You will note that I skip a few:

  •  “… you shall have no other gods before me.” I find this interesting because it does not say that you cannot have other gods. Rather, you are told not to place any other gods higher than the god of the commandments. Remember that polytheism was common in the ancient world, so a relative ranking of gods might not have struck people as unusual at the time these rules were written.
  •  “… for I the lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me …” Here, it seems not only that are you in trouble if you reject the almighty, but so are your kids, and your kid’s kids, etc. Contemporary civil justice rejects this notion.
  •  “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well …”

Relatively few among us in American society follow the letter of this direction. Even if we do not personally work (or study), we may employ others who work in our stead. Interesting too, that no mention is made here of the inappropriateness of slavery. Rather, it seems to be considered acceptable, and advises only that you give your slaves one day of rest per week.

  •  “Honor your father and your mother…” Well, does that include a parent who abandoned you or abused you, too?
  • “You shall not kill/murder.” This allows for no exceptions, but civilized societies commonly make exceptions for self-defense, justice, and war.
  • “Neither shall you commit adultery.” Although most agree that this shouldn’t be done, it is obviously done quite a lot. Some even justify it. See my blog: Infidelity and Its Treatment
  •  Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Boy, if we really could wipe out the “desire” mentioned here, Western economies would fall like dominos. Envy fueled by advertising is omnipresent. Without that desire, cars, jewelry, homes, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds would be valued only in terms of utility, not because they are necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the toughest things in life is to match up what we say and what we do. Life is complex and some amount of compromise, not to mention relativism is inevitable: not every situation easily permits the use of a hard and fast rule. Certainly, these commandments have not been taken literally in every situation as we live them, whatever lips service we might give to their importance and guidance.

It is more than understandable that Osama bin Laden’s death would be celebrated in this country; or, at least, provide a sense of some relief and satisfaction, despite the biblical injunction not to kill.

Somewhere, though, in the fading sounds of the near festive gatherings surrounding the announcement of his death, is the quiet rejoinder of John Donne. The last four lines, in particular, just might capture a bit of the sentiment that my patients were referring to:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The photo above is part of the house which John Donne occupied in Pyrford, England; taken by Suzanne Knights, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne’s words come from his 1624 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17.

Growing Apart in Marriage

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In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.