What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I

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Long ago my maternal grandfather told me he missed the boat on his 1912 journey to the USA, trying to sail from England to America. He was late for the Titanic. My mom heard this in her own childhood, decades before movies like Titanic made such stories more common.

Grandpa was a warm, dashing, multilingual man; originally from Romania: the loving and lovable grandfather of one’s dreams. Leo Fabian was easy to look up to; and not only because he was over 6′ tall, slender, straight-backed, and imposing in an era of men of more modest presence. Grandpa owned a wonderful, rascally smile and enough charm to enchant a small village, a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man. He was the life of the party.

Soon enough I learned that alcohol had been a nemesis never defeated, ruining him in the eyes of his son and much of the world. By the time I was a teen I saw my grandfather hungover, chagrined, and shrunken. My last memory of him is when he offered a weakened, but still welcoming smile for me, his oldest grandchild, from his hospital bed.

Of course, he was a story-teller. No surprise, the Titanic tale was unverifiable.

I think my informal education began with observations of Grandpa, who unintentionally provided me with lessons he never intended to teach. I learned that people with admirable qualities, even those full of love and humanity, can be grievously flawed. Moreover, I realized you can’t believe everything you are told, no matter how much you admire the teller. These were necessary lessons, cruel lessons.

We are carried through life in a flood of such instructions, some needful of learning, some wrong; some unlearned, never learned, or learned badly. All of us are lifelong students enrolled in the school of experiences, a university whose classes are taught in the midst of a vast river: now calmly flowing, now surging. Drop out and avoid experiences at your peril: little learning is found below deck, where the beautiful, sunny, glorious days on the water will also be missed. No perfect grades, either, even for those of us who man the sails and survive the episodes of seasickness.

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Since I’ve been on the voyage for a while I thought it might be useful to pass along some ideas not expressly taught, not usually written, and not often offered as sage advice. This is not exhaustive and not everything you will read here can be proven. Still, I began this blog with the idea of presenting ideas about life for my children and I now have a grandson who might profit from them (or run screaming into the night believing elders are best ignored). Here, then, for whatever value you assign, are off-beat bits of what I think I know:

  • I have met no one I thought to be completely evil, evil 24/7. We’d have an easier time identifying them if they were. Indeed, some of the least trustworthy folks were quite charming and generous. The world is full of gray tones. Still, dark gray is to be avoided.
  • Life lessons are often age-dependent. The lessons of youth apply to that time, the lessons of age to another time. Just as the customs of one country differ from another and must be used in the right place and moment, one should acquire the knowledge applicable to the period of life in which you live and use it in a timely way. Perhaps our learning ought to come with a “use by” date. Beware of employing old, once effective strategies which now fail with some regularity. We cannot “freeze dry” our lives. We must continue to adapt.
  • “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.” So said Vernon Law, the best pitcher in baseball in 1960 and a member of the World Series Champion 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Fame, that is to say “celebrity,” is fleeting. Ask Vernon Law, still alive at 86. I’ll bet you don’t know his name unless you were a baseball fan 50 years ago or live in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to spend one day in Willie Mays’s skin in his prime, a contemporary of Mr. Law. I’m sure I’d immediately have become addicted to the excitement and adulation.

13 Oct 1960, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- 10/13/1960-Pittsburgh, PA: Photo shows the seventh game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vernon Law, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, is shown in mid-pitch action. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” And just think, Oscar Wilde wrote this before Kim Kardashian was born.
  • If you believe everybody should be able to reason his way out of a paper bag, remember that half of the population has an IQ score below 100.
  • “If you want revenge, be sure to dig two graves.” An old Italian expression about the cost of undiminished anger.
  • The older you get the more time you spend on maintenance. Your body requests nothing when young, quietly obeying your every command, but recording your debt to it. The bill comes due later. By 29 I had to stretch before softball games. As I approached the age at which my dad had a heart attack (47) I began regular aerobic exercise to stay in shape. Stretching by now was a time-consuming daily event. Doctor visits, instances of physical rehabilitation, and occasional surgery enter the picture for many of us, jamming up the schedule. All of this happens gradually, little things accumulate. The change is both astonishing (because you didn’t think it would happen to you) and unremarkable (because you adjust to most of the nicks, scratches, and dents). Things wear out, something you knew abstractly, but hadn’t yet lived. Then you begin to have regular conversations with your friends frontloaded with physical concerns. You hear yourself making comments like this:

“The funniest thing happened yesterday, Steve. I was relaxing in front of the TV and — in the middle of everything — my nose fell off. Lucky for me, I caught it on the way down. A little glue and it looks like new, right?”

Of course, what is Steve going to say? That is, if he is able to speak. I wish I could pinpoint the exact date I turned into this person — like, perhaps, Tuesday, March 8 — but I can’t.

  • Even so, you will still think of yourself as about 20% younger than your real age (assuming you are over 40), perhaps explaining the frequent mismatch between the way people dress or wear their hair and what might be considered “age-appropriate.”
  • We are poor at affective forecasting: predicting our future feelings. An example: “When I make $10,000 more I’ll be happy.” Ask those who have won the lottery for the answer.
  • We are also bad at affective forecasting when it comes to negative events. Given enough time we tend to get over things. However, you might not want to wait months or years. The profession of psychotherapy depends on this, in part. There are also countless exceptions when no amount of waiting will lift you to a higher altitude. Psychotherapy is available for this, as well.
  • Some people, almost always men, succeed in life because they are like blunt objects with eyes, who see a door and keep banging on it until the door finally collapses. A number of women marry such a man thinking he will protect them. They admire his persistence or give in to his unrelenting will, though they aren’t emotionally drawn to him. You will also notice many of his kind on the political stage.

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  • Look around you. If you think we humans are rational at all times you haven’t been paying attention. By the way, you are human, therefore …
  • On the other hand, if we were absolutely rational we would be machines: I’d rather have love, even at the cost of heartbreak; joy, even at the cost of disappointment; pleasure at the cost of pain.
  • Time will change you or at least it should. More even than learning from experience, the body and brain do their own shape-shifting and gradually alter who you are. Some of what passes for wisdom is simply getting older, inhabiting a different physique with an altered mix of chemicals running around.
  • No matter how intelligent or physically attractive you are, a number of people won’t want to spend time with you. You will likely believe this is your fault. “Maybe I’m not funny enough, smart enough, well-proportioned enough,” you think to yourself. More often than you imagine, however, it is just because you part your hair the way their father did, a factor of which even they are unaware. Transference is everywhere, not only in the therapist’s office.
  • We all need some amount of compartmentalization and denial. Otherwise life is simply too much. Within limits, the ability to lose yourself in an activity as simple as reading a book or having fun at a party is a great gift. Self-consciousness, being preoccupied with your thoughts about yourself, demands an escape.
  • Sunny days can turn cloudy. I learned to look back and figure out when exactly my mood changed and thus determine what bummed me out. Unravel your discontent early enough in the day and you will sleep better.
  • If you provide friends with too much truth about themselves you are in danger of losing them. Provide them with too little, however, and they aren’t worth having and you aren’t being a good friend.
  • I discovered the generation gap around age 26. Lecturing at Rutgers University I mentioned Adlai Stevenson II. The statesman had died only about eight years before. Stevenson was twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and remained a prominent international figure at the time of his death. No one in the large lecture hall of undergraduates knew who he was. These days I find myself spending more time explaining what I’m talking about when I refer to the past.
  • A Bulgarian patient once said, “In the United States people live to work. In Bulgaria we work to live.”
  • I’m still learning. A Thursday night PBS interview of Vice President Joe Biden offered the following anecdote. Judy Woodruff asked him about his plans after leaving public service. Biden referred to issues about which he was still passionate and for which he intended to continue his work:

My dad had an expression: ‘A lucky person (is someone who) gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what he is about to do, and thinks it still matters.’

Biden remains, despite enormous life losses and setbacks, a happy man. By his father’s standard, he is lucky, indeed.

The top photo is The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Taken in 1907, it is among the most famous photographs in history. The lowest class accommodation was literally the lowest on the ship and those who were “upper class” did, literally, look down on you. My grandfather likely took his voyage on such a ship, but I have no idea where he was situated on the boat. The second image is called Life Buoy, the work of Shirley. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

How a Dangerous Patient Got That Way

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When I first saw “Mr. X” in my waiting room, I thought his head was on fire. Striking, spiked red hair aflame. My mistake. It was his heart.

Before long, he would be on the verge of doing harm. Or, as he saw it, putting things right; being something like an avenging angel on the side of all that he believed to be just and good; a kind of holy warrior.

This is the story of how he went from being depressed and disgruntled to someone who might kill. But it is also a story about what happens when hearts are inflamed with rage.

Until only a short time before the “X-Man” consulted me, he was the sort of guy who, when you saw him in a crowd, the crowd stood out. Hardly a mutant superhero. His physical stature and undistinguished facial features made him appear to be an average man in every way: average nose, average mouth, average height — you get the picture. Back then his hair was conservatively fashioned, not spiked, and my patient colored it a less startling shade.

Mr. X did not welcome attention, you see. Attention in his life had never signaled kindness.

His parents were unkind. His teachers had been unkind. His first wife was unkind. And his kids wanted no part of him other than financial support. They believed his first wife, who said that he was a scoundrel. Thus, we have a man who was abused and neglected, bullied by school mates, and badly treated by wife #1. The divorce had been financially ruinous and somehow that woman had managed to win his children’s favor.

The X-Person was reasonably bright and worked in a technical field of endeavor. He’d made a decent living, but watched as others surpassed him. Some of them were minorities, and rather than looking at possible short-comings in himself (his relatively clumsy social skills, for example), he thought that they were getting unfair promotion. In short, he became a bigot.

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Then the final blow: a financial downturn and the loss of his job. He came to me after several months of a futile job search. He was both depressed and embittered. My patient had tried to play by the rules and, it seemed to him, the referee was always penalizing him. Having no close friends, the only things he could count on were his second wife’s support and that of his religious faith, which he relied on more and more. It was not the religion of his parents, but one that he’d chosen some time after his divorce.

Therapy was aimed at keeping him afloat emotionally so that he could succeed in finding a proper job. To the extent that he opened himself to looking at his life of travail, the treatment attempted to help him grieve his losses. But, let’s just say that the goal of keeping him from curling into a ball was working, while relieving him of his back-pack of unresolved grief was not.

Several months in, however, it was clear that he was beginning to think about violence. Acting out. Targeting others. And he increasingly saw the religious texts that he faithfully read as indicating that wrong was being done in the world and that it was his job to right that wrong. Indeed, he felt that it would be irresponsible and sacrilegious not to.

Interestingly, Mr. X was untroubled by war and wished to have no part in supporting it or protesting it. Nor was he concerned with children who were abandoned or starving. No, his concern was for the unborn, but his anger was against those who conspired to prevent their birth. Specifically, physicians who performed abortions.

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This X-Man was uncomfortable after telling me this. He was more than smart enough to recognize that, if he talked about a plan of action or specified a target, I was required to report him to those authorities who might prevent the worst. When I questioned him about the inconsistency between valuing the lives of the unborn and the likelihood of destroying lives of innocent bystanders in addition to the “murderers” he hated, he brushed-off the thought. When I mentioned the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” he was unfazed. Yet it came from the book he called “holy.”

To my patient, there was no problem in killing the MDs, and anyone else who might die in addition to the doctors would be “collateral damage,” worth the accomplishment of his goal. He did not expect to be punished by the god he worshipped and didn’t care what civil authorities might do to him.

It was clear to him and to me that my concern about potential carnage (he denied “yet” having a plan and claimed he hadn’t definitely decided to do anything) was getting in the way of his treatment. Within a few weeks he indicated that he could no longer trust me because I seemed too concerned about “the others” who, he believed, were beneath contempt. He wasn’t sure if he wanted another therapist when I offered to help him find one, because, he said, “They’d have to report me, too.” Assuming, of course, that he went further with his thinking and actually did come up with a plan and a specific target.

When he terminated therapy I was worried. I continued to try to keep phone contact, calling him every few weeks. And, before long, there was a change. The X-Man landed a job. He sounded buoyant, no longer angry, and free of the obsessive preoccupation with going out of this world in a glorious bloodbath, along with the evil soul or souls whose existence he wanted to erase. This frustrated man was frustrated no more, throwing himself into a job that felt fulfilling and interesting. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

As I look back on that man and that time, I sometimes think about what it takes to go over the line. Would this X-Man, lacking X-Men-like super powers that might have made him feel better about himself, have killed if he hadn’t found work just then? I think he might have. Would he have killed only because his religion saw his targets as sinning? No. With a different religion or no religion, he still could have justified his action. Righteous anger is always self-justifying.

Most, if not all religious documents are like a Rorschach Inkblot: one person looks at the picture and sees a butterfly, while another looks at the same picture and sees a vampire bat. The Bible recommends stoning as the punishment for adultery, but we haven’t heard of too many Jews or Christians taking that point seriously lately. In religion, interpretation is everything. No, this man could have been almost any isolated soul who had a sorry history of disappointment, heartbreak, and failed attempts to make his life better; and a bunch of anger ready to blossom into a mushroom cloud.

Nagasaki, 20 Minutes After the Atomic Bomb Explosion in 1945

Nagasaki, 20 Minutes After the Atomic Bomb Explosion in 1945

We humans look for justification for our actions, sometimes before we act, but always after. And we tend to find it. “They’ve got weapons of mass destruction,” said the government, “so let’s invade Iraq before they kill us.” “Slavery is in the Bible (and is not there rebuked) so God intended for us to keep slaves,” as the slave-holding Southern States used to argue. Even the god described in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, is the intelligent designer of the first-ever genocide, which we conveniently think of as the benign story of Noah and the Ark. God’s reasons?

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6.5 and 6.6).

As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

The top image comes from the movie Brave. Some details of this story have been changed to protect the identity of the patient.

The Limits of Reason: How to Think about Your Date, Your Boss, Your Mom, etc.

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As a therapist, I hear a lot of concerns from my patients about parents, bosses, romantic partners, and so forth. The thoughts often take the form of “Why did he do that?” or “What was he thinking?”

Some of this is worth questioning. In life it is useful to take the role of the other person, to look at things from his or her perspective, to try to “understand” that individual’s motivations and reasoning process.

But, there are limits. Here are just a few that make understanding difficult:

1. People don’t always carefully weigh their decisions before making them. We humans frequently think and act impulsively or emotionally. It can be a bit harder to fathom an ill-considered act than one that is carefully reasoned.

2. The person whose mind you wish to enter may not know himself well at all. When you recall what he says are the reasons for his actions, you need to be aware that he may be fooling himself. Alternatively, he might be dishonest with you, giving you less than a full set of data, trying to prevent himself from looking bad in your eyes, or attempting to protect you from being hurt by the truth.

3. We all act in self-serving ways much of the time. The same person who says that he hates it when someone ends a relationship without explaining why — not even making contact or returning phone calls — might well avoid the discomfort of a final farewell or confrontation himself when he decides that a relationship should end, thereby doing the very thing that has been done to him.

4. Most people, in or out of therapy, are often indirect in expressing their unhappiness with you or their disappointments about your behavior. (Marital conflicts and parents talking to children can be noteworthy exceptions to this general rule). But, in the absence of direct communication, it is difficult to be a good mind reader. Indeed, crystal balls are in short supply whenever I go shopping.

5. When trying to understand others, we look for some form of logic. To seek something that is often missing within the person is a pretty big misunderstanding of how people think and act.

6. You may not have enough history and background information to make an accurate analysis of what drives this individual to do what he does.

7. Do you really know the person well “under the skin?” There is often a mismatch between what is happening on the inside and what is occurring on the outside. Put differently, the contradiction between surface appearances and internal truth often affirms the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Too much time trying to figure out another person is unproductive. For this reason and those cited above, I encourage my patients to set some limits on the amount of time they spend attempting to get into someone else’s head. At bottom, I think, what most of us are looking for is the understanding that will allow us to return to the relationship and put it right, now that we have found the “answer” to what transpired. Or, something that will console us or produce the closure that we are hoping for at the relationship’s end. By attempting to “understand,” we are frequently seeking a sense of intellectual control, partially to acquire information that will prevent future disappointments, but also to compensate us for our loss and to silence the nagging internal voice that asks “What happened?” and “Did I do something wrong?”

It is better, beyond a certain point, to consider several things about oneself:

a. Why did I choose that person to be with? (Obviously this doesn’t apply to your parents; nor does it always apply to bosses or co-workers).

b. How did it happen that I missed the early warning signs of trouble? Oh, I know that you might think that such signs didn’t exist, but it could be that you ignored them, minimized them, or had a blind-spot for them.

c. Why didn’t I set some limits on the relationship in order to prevent the other person from injuring me? And, if I tried, why did my efforts fail?

d. Why didn’t I leave the relationship earlier?

e. What, if anything, did I contribute to the problems that occurred between my friend/partner/lover/boss and myself?

f. Have I grieved the loss or disappointment fully (including attention to both my sadness and my anger)?

g. What do I have to do differently in order to minimize or avoid problems like this in the future?

Instead of addressing the situation in these ways, with these questions, most of us spend no small amount of time ruminating, and then looking for something we can say to the other person to get them to behave as we wish. With some individuals that is possible, but not with everyone.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color-line is instructive in this regard. As you might know, Robinson and his boss, Branch Rickey, agreed that he would not respond to the abuse from fans, players, and coaches that both expected he would receive when he became the first black man in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. But, despite two years of taking every racially demeaning insult known to mid-century white males, he succeeded in playing well. Moreover, by this time there were other blacks in the Major Leagues and a great experiment in civil rights had succeeded.

If the story I’ve heard is true, Robinson and Branch Rickey had a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training at the start of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They agreed that Robinson could now be himself, and fight back with words or fists, if necessary. Soon after, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, who did not know that Robinson was no longer on a leash. The middle-aged man from the deep south who coached third base therefore once again began the verbal onslaught that he had performed with impunity for the two previous seasons. Robinson called time and walked over to the third base coaching box.

Remember that Robinson had lettered in four sports at UCLA, including football (as a running back). More than most, he radiated intensity, strength, courage, and intelligence. So it was that Robinson moved within inches of the bigot, looked straight into his eyes, and said: “If you ever say anything to me like that again, I’ll kill you.”

Now, I bring this up not to recommend death threats, but rather to point out that Robinson knew exactly who he was dealing with. He knew this man was not going to be persuaded to behave himself by high-flown verbal eloquence; he knew that spending much time thinking about this man’s character was a waste. What Robinson knew for certain was that there was only one thing he needed to understand about his nemesis (his intolerance) and only one approach that would work:

  • I’m bigger and stronger than you are, so if you don’t stop, I will beat the crap out of you.

Everything changed that day as others quickly realized that Jackie Robinson was not a man who could be insulted any more.

Of course, we all need to spend some time thinking about others and why they do what they do. But, endless rumination on the subject rarely is enlightening or successful in making us feel better.

Some people are like boulders. They are big, hard, insensate, obdurate, and potentially damaging objects. It is essential to see their potential to injure and realize that when you are downhill from such a human bolder, you are in danger.

If you understand how gravity works and get out-of-the-way, that is all you need to know and do — all you can do.

A shame, but true.

The image above is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.