The Voice of a Therapist: An Interview with Dr. Gerald Stein

When you get old enough, survival becomes a kind of distinction. I was therefore not surprised when my interview by Masters in Counseling was called, Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein. For those who would like to know how I sound, here is a chance to find out what this 70-plus-personage knows about that and several other topics; from — pardon me — the horse’s mouth.

If you listen, you will hear my kind interviewer Megan Hawksworth, herself a therapist, tell you why she claims I’m worth attention. My response to her request for “words of wisdom” was, “I have lots of words, but I’m not sure how many of them are wise.” Later however — my brain stirring — I asked myself, “How have I come to know whatever it is I know (or think I know) beyond what I learned in school?”

Well, maybe the most important way was being open to new ideas. A conversation shouldn’t always be about defending yourself or trying to win, but listening and evaluating what the other says. Not to apologize, not to defer, but to enter regions beyond one’s imagination and experience; to be enlarged by such gifted souls as still walk the earth. I can say I prefer the company of people who possess ideas I’ve not considered to those who think as I do or live as I do.

Getting “banged-up” also contributed to my enlightenment. Not just physical dings, and dents, and divots; surgeries and sedation and stitches.

I’ve strived and failed. I’ve tried and triumphed. Once I won a battle and lost some friends who opposed me. I’ve been cheated of lots of money. I gave away plenty, too. I helped a philanthropy I started with friends raise funds. My heart has been broken by a few lovely women and I’ve broken a few hearts.

What might be worse? Breaking your love’s heart and your own simultaneously. It happens.

Are those words of wisdom? If you think so, here are 10 more:

  • Over time I learned to give sentiments a prominent place beside clarity of thought: laughter and tears, both, but love above all.
  • Disappointment and loss are the forge of character, but only if you pass beneath and beyond the blacksmith’s hammer without losing your faith in the promise of life.
  • There are things I cannot possibly convey to you unless you’ve lived some version of the same event. Only music might come close to communicating them.
  • Much as I am a hard guy sometimes, kindness is essential and in shorter supply than macho competition; and therefore, more precious.
  • I know I will never know everything, though I try.
  • Life moves too fast to keep up with all that is important. How do we know what is important? Pay attention, at least, to the words of William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

  • While the probable is most likely to occur, many improbable things will happen in any life. Be grateful for the ones that give you joy. And perhaps, if you realize your luck could have been otherwise, disperse your good fortune to others by paying it forward.
  • Whatever wisdom I own today applies more to the present version of myself than the 30 or 50-year-old models. I did not know then all I am relating to you now.
  • Smile at the checkout clerks and call them by name.
  • No one can “have it all.” If anyone ever accomplished this miracle, we never met. Life is rich without “everything.”

Enough. If you listen to the interview you will hear the voice my patients heard; hear me tell a joke, a story, and have a good time. I am indebted to Megan and Scott Hawksworth for giving me the chance. I think you’ll be able to tell that, too.

Do remember, you won’t be listening to an immortal personage. I subscribe to Woody Allen’s words on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Here again is the link: Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein.

The photo just above is the author during his days as a cowboy. Unfortunately, it does not include the horse’s mouth mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Most Remarkable Person I Ever Met

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You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street.

It’s not that she isn’t attractive, but it is an attractive middle-age — no competition for her younger, “knock-out” self.

But if you did happen to look closely, the thing that you’d see would be the kindness in her face: a most uncommon capacity for affection, forgiveness, and grace.

She is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met; someone with terrible luck, especially early on, but an emotional generosity that would cause even a sceptic to believe that humanity just might come out on the side of the angels, after all.

Her mother was, of all things, a social worker. But whatever mom knew about social work, she forgot as soon as she came home. Her youngest — my patient (let’s call her Maggie) — was an active, pretty little girl.

Could mom have been jealous?

Mother favored Maggie’s older brother, (let’s call him Tom) a beefy, muscular giant of a young man who was his high school’s resident athlete and hero early, turned bully and trouble maker late. By 14 he was a drug addict, which only fueled an already unbridled, violent streak. That quality initially made him a boxing and wrestling powerhouse, before it made him an ungovernable monster.

But he was clever, only beating on his sister when his folks were at work or away, usually careful not to leave marks that couldn’t be passed off as his sister’s clumsiness. When Maggie complained to mom, mom sided with her male child. And when teachers saw this young girl looking distracted and downcast, unable to concentrate and lost in daydreams, they just thought about how unruly her older brother was, and assumed that his sister practiced a less overt form of disobedience and disrespect.

What about dad? He was a decent, but weak man. While he sympathized with his daughter and believed her stories about Tom (in part because he once — just barely — prevented Maggie’s death by strangulation), dad’s own alcoholism made him an inadequate advocate and defender. Moreover, his job took him out-of-town for days at a time. And when he wasn’t there, Maggie was an easier target for her mother’s verbal abuse, mom’s claims that she lied about Tom, and brother’s use of Maggie as a punching bag.

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The family was divided into opposing camps. Mother held the metaphorical whip-hand, angry at her husband for his weakness and addiction, angry at her daughter for her beauty and closeness to dad. Tom became almost a substitute marital partner for Maggie’s mom, without the sex. He was the one she admired and did things for. He was the one she protected. He was the one she believed, no matter how preposterous his stories were.

Maggie lived in fear of her own death at the hands of a drug-crazed brother, terrified of standing up to people and voicing opinions that might be criticized, and desperate for affection and safety. She learned to follow orders.

Not surprisingly, as she got older she drifted into her own alcohol abuse and escape from reality; and into relationships with men who initially looked to be protective, but inevitably turned out to be unkind at best, abusive and selfish at worst.

Her therapy process was a long one. She needed to grieve the events of her childhood: the weakness and death of her father, rage and weep over the abuse she suffered, grapple with a mother who was no mother, and a brother who was a criminal and her tormentor. Maggie had to learn how to value herself more highly and stand-up for herself more routinely.

Meanwhile, Tom’s life of antisocial behavior eventually became impossible for even Maggie’s mother to deny. He spent time in prison when he wasn’t ripping-off friends and associates, selling drugs, and abusing his own wife and children. The children came to hate him. And in middle-age, the combination of 40 years of drug abuse and diabetes began to show. Increasingly isolated and alone, he reached out to the sister who had finally gotten him out of her life.

By now Maggie and her mother were closer, the same mother who all but trained her son to go after Maggie like an attack dog. To some extent mom apologized. And when the mother became infirm, Maggie cared for her.

Now Maggie confronted Tom. No longer the bully, he had become a man in a more dependent position. Tom had almost no friends, lived alone in poverty, and received subsidies from the state to pay for his medical needs, groceries, and rent.

His diet ignored the encroaching diabetes and its increasing claim of his lower extremities, to the point of becoming wheel chair-bound. Much of his money still went to drugs. Every day meant another chance — a requirement, a necessity — to score. His government check came at the beginning of the month so that by month’s end, having purchased drugs to remain high for as much time as possible as soon as possible, he had little to pay for food.

Maggie confronted her brother with his physical abuse. He told her that he had no recollection of it, but didn’t say that he disbelieved her. Indeed, Tom said that he knew she wasn’t lying, but blamed the drugs for his lack of memory. Was he lying? Was Tom in denial himself? Or had the drug-induced haze of his teens given way to a drug-generated brain damage that genuinely robbed him of his ability to recall those events that she remembered so painfully?

With the mother’s death, Maggie’s brother was the only surviving close family member. And, in his distress, the most extraordinary thing happened. Maggie was kind to him, affectionate, and tried her best to help him make his life less miserable, a life that represented the just deserts for his misanthropy and criminality.

For the most part, Maggie no longer put-up with her brother’s crap. She challenged his lies, sometimes going as much as a year without talking to him because of his persistent abuse of his own body and reluctance to put himself in treatment for his addiction.

But, when they did have contact, she was able to laugh with him and worry about him and feel sorry for him. Not because he had earned any of this, but simply because her basic human decency and loving nature could not do otherwise. When he had surgeries, she always came to his bedside, even though she lived in another state.

Inexplicably, whatever lingering anger Maggie had for her sibling vanished. She had come to see him as someone who was in the grip of an addiction that was costing him his life, but no longer capable of doing anything to free himself.

At the end, when Tom’s organs started to fail, he called her and let her know that the doctors said he would be dead in a matter of days. She traveled again to the in-hospital death vigil. Even Tom’s children wanted no part of him by this time. And, for two weeks, Maggie (nearly bankrupt herself) lived in a motel near the medical facility and spent each day and evening at Tom’s bedside, ministering to the brother who had tormented her and crushed her; holding his hand and soothing him in whatever way she could.

Near the time of his death, nurses and staff came up to Maggie individually and made a simple request: “May I hug you?” Maggie embraced each of them as they told her that they had never before seen the kind of devotion and cheerful tenderness that they’d witnessed in those two weeks of Maggie’s shining presence at Tom’s mattress-grave.

“We see so many families that can’t seem to be bothered, that call and ask whether the relative is still alive, that just can’t bear it or don’t take the time.”

The hospital staff saw Maggie as extraordinary. And they didn’t even know her history of abuse or that the man who lay dying was Maggie’s abuser.

And when her brother died, Maggie wept for him.

You may be asking, how can all this be explained?

I know that I would not have behaved as admirably as Maggie did.

In trying to understand it for myself, here is the best I’ve been able to do.

First, I must eliminate two explanations. Maggie’s behavior was not a function of some deep-seated and thoroughly-considered study of moral philosophy. She was not an abstract thinker, steeped in the world of ancient wisdom and people like Socrates, Epictetus, and Kant; but lived instead in the real world of practicality and daily challenges.

Nor was this woman very religious. Thus, her actions didn’t spring from reliance on holy text, a profoundly held belief in God, or even something as simple as church attendance, which she had long since given up.

No, the best I can do is to say that some few people like Maggie are just “good.” Not the kind of good that is relatively convenient. Not the kind that gives money to charity or volunteers at the soup kitchen, as “good” as those actions are. They are good at a level that confounds understanding — so good “by nature” and by choice that they don’t seem bound by man-made rules, expectations, or necessities.

They are the kind of people who put their lives at risk to save strangers and then think nothing of it and never say a word about it. It is as if their brains and their hearts don’t work as they do for all the rest of us.

In a funny way, they are alien — as if from another world.

Certainly a better world, if such a place exists.

When I tell you that being a therapist is privilege, in part, it is because it has allowed me to know just a few people like this.

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The top photo, Caring Hands, is described as follows: “An Iraqi girl from the Janabi Village waits in line with her dad to be examined by an Iraqi doctor, Yusufiyah, Iraq, March 02, 2008. The Medical Operation was conducted by U.S. Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and the Sons of Iraq (Abna al-Iraq).” The U.S. Army photo was taken by Spc. Luke Thornberry.

The next photo, also from 2008, is called A Caring Mom, taken by  A Frank Wouters.

The final image is Helping the Homeless by Ed Yourdan. The author writes:

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street (in New York City). It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance…

With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right.

I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thought about for some time…

What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man; they gave him the food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him…

All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Teachers, Tests, and the Luck of the Draw(ing)

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As the old saying goes, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

But sometimes, being good helps a little in determining whether you get lucky.

Now, you wouldn’t think that luck would be an important variable at M.I.T. But the human equation is almost always in play, even in that citadel of rationality and even on a physics test.

The year was 1965. The class was Physics 8.02, the second semester of freshman physics, a course required of all 900 new students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barely 40 of these young people were women.

As the only National Merit Scholar from Stephen Tyng Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side, you’d have thought that a first year college physics test wouldn’t have presented a problem for Rich Adelstein. But then, you probably haven’t been to M.I.T. As Rich remembers it, the school was a brutal place for those who were not succeeding.

He was succeeding, but barely. He hoped to be on the Dean’s List for the term, but needed at least a C as a final grade in physics to get there. Unfortunately, he’d also begun to get the feeling that he wasn’t quite the scientist that some of his classmates were, but maybe more interested in things like history.

Yet science was what mattered at M.I.T; anything else and people didn’t give you the time of day — didn’t really respect you. These were the sort of kids who, just by a look, let you know that “I can do something really hard and you can’t.”

The culture of excellence, in other words, could be crushing as well as inspiring. The accomplishments of faculty members intimidated you into jaw-dropping awe. And Rich had already heard of suicides occurring at the school. Had the pressure to achieve at the highest level gotten to these students?

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An important test was coming up on Friday morning at 9 AM toward the end of the first year. Rich had done his best to study for it, but had the distinct impression that most everyone else was better prepared than he was. And, as he entered the large exam room, where 300 of his classmates would be tested, he felt a little like a man hanging on to a slippery ledge — just beginning to lose his grip.

Rich’s group was in a brightly lit armory, while the remaining 600 examinees were divided between two other locations, all enduring the same event at just the same moment. Sitting there nervously, he waited for the proctor to pass him the blue book on which he would write his answers, and then the test itself.

The first question had to do with “Coriolis forces,” named after the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis. But it might as well have been in French, a language Rich didn’t know. He read it, he thought about it, and he knew that he had no idea how to get to the correct answer. “Oh, crap,” he thought to himself, while the anxiety thermometer inside of him started to climb from its already elevated state.

Second question. Again, no idea — just a feeling of being hopeless and helpless. Everyone else seemed to be working industriously, writing away. But Rich’s blue book was still blank and a state of panic-induced “brain-lock” was descending upon him. Rich had never — never ever — failed an exam. Would this be the first?

“I’ve got to get a grip on myself,” Rich thought. “I’m starting to come apart. I’ve got to calm down in order to have any chance of passing this.”

And then, an inspiration. “I’ll draw for a bit. That will calm me down.”

And so it was that our hero began to sketch a three-masted sailing ship, like the one at the top of the page.

Little by little, drawing was doing the job. Rich was “in the zone,” captured by the task he had set for himself, something he could do well and that began to soothe the whirlpool of feelings inside that made it hard to think.

Unfortunately, however, he had not accounted for everything.

“Times up! Hand in your blue books!” announced the proctor in charge. Rich had lost track of the clock. And all he had to show for an hour-long physics test was a picture of a ship.

Rich signed his name to the book and passed it on to the proctor. He didn’t want anyone to think that he’d simply blown-off the test and not even come to the exam room.

There was only one possible way to deal with this. In a state of disoriented numbness, like the survivor of a train wreck, he walked out of the armory in a fog of surreal devastation and went directly to his professor’s office, the man who taught his section of the course as his “recitation instructor.” One Nathaniel H. Frank.

Dr. Frank was then a man of about 60, until recently the head of the physics department, a person particularly respected for his leadership in revising high school physics curricula throughout the country. During World War II, he had worked at the M.I.T Radiation Laboratory. Indeed, it was in that place that radar was developed.

Frank was not just a well-known scientist, but someone who cared deeply about education. Himself a graduate of M.I.T, he was short and stocky; had a full head of wavy, graying hair; and wore glasses.

The academician had been teaching just about 40 years when he first encountered Richard P. Adelstein.

Rich did the only thing he could think of doing. He told Dr. Frank that he had just come from the armory ordeal. Rich related his panic, his attempt to calm himself, and the fact that time had gotten away from him.

He did not want the scientist to think that he was trying to be disrespectful by drawing a boat; nor did he ask for or expect a second chance at the test. Rich simply hoped to make Dr. Frank understand that he took the course seriously, but, somehow what was left at the end of the hour was only a sketch.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” the teacher said in reply. “Let’s just see what happens when we grade the exams.”

Then Frank gave the young man a grandfatherly smile. The kind of smile that an old man gives to a young man when he has seen many such students — earnest and terrified — all feeling as if the world is coming to an end; and, when he can tell which of them are sincere and which of them are just jerks.

“Let’s see what happens?” Rich thought to himself. “I know what is going to happen. I’m going to get a zero! This isn’t good. I took a physics test and I turned in a picture of a boat!”

But Rich kept all this to himself. Soon he was walking back to his Baker House dorm, and a room that now seemed like a cell on death row.

The weekend was miserable. Waiting is a terrible thing when you can see the ax that is soon to fall on your neck. Sleep was difficult, each daytime second gruesome. Monday and the end to the calamity, whatever it might be, couldn’t come soon enough.

Monday did arrive, finally. Perfect scores on tests were exceedingly uncommon at M.I.T. Indeed, exams were graded on a curve. As Rich sat in the classroom, he looked at the grade equivalents that the professor was putting on the black board. The highest scores fell short of perfect, but there were actually lots of poor scores that were still good enough to pass, with 30 being the lowest grade that permitted a D.

Below 30 and you failed.

In due time the blue books were handed out. Rich was beginning to be resigned to his fate. He would certainly fail with a zero, he thought to himself. But, at least, he’d be 30 points from a passing grade on the exam, not nearly as far from a D as he feared. If only he could have obtained a 30, however, the chance of getting a C as a final grade in the course might still have been within reach and allowed him to get on the Dean’s List.

He forced himself to look at his blue book.

Twenty-nine.

He rubbed his eyes.

It still said 29.

“There must be some error here,” he said to himself. And then, once again, the same recurring idea: “I just took a physics test and turned in a sail boat picture! This can’t possibly be right.”

When the class ended Rich made another death march to the office of Dr. Frank.

“Professor, I think there was some mistake on the grade I got. The blue book was marked with a 29.”

“Oh, no, young man, there was no mistake,” said Professor Frank while looking at Rich warmly.

“How can that be?” asked Rich.

“Well,” said the good doctor, “that was by far the best picture of a sail boat on any of the exams.”

And, in that moment, Rich felt the small breeze — the puff of air — that one feels when one of life’s little bullets whizzes past harmlessly, narrowly missing its mark.

One has “dodged a bullet,” as the saying goes.

Richard Adelstein, Faculty Mentor

Of course, it was not really “the best picture of a sail boat,” but the only such drawing that anyone turned in. This was simply the professor’s funny way of saying that there was no mistake here — of letting young Rich know that the world hadn’t ended, that the sun would rise tomorrow giving him another day to prove himself; that he understood that “things happen” even to the best of us.

He was a man, after all, who knew first hand what it was like to be a freshman at M.I.T.

And Rich did get a C for the course and did make the Dean’s List.

You should also know that this is a story that Rich, now himself a college professor at Wesleyan University, retells from time to time, when he sees a similarly lost student, terrified but earnest, worried that his whole future is about to go under water for the last time, and makes the same judgment that Dr. Frank did in 1965.

And in so doing, throws the young person a life buoy from the imaginary ship that almost sunk him, but ended up saving him 46 years ago; the ship commanded by Nathaniel H. Frank.

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If you’d like to read a rather different story about Rich Adelstein, please see: The Long Road to Becoming Rich.

The top photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil Taken by the Brazilian Navy, followed by an Image of the Dome at the M.I.T. Campus by Fcb981 (edited by Thermos); both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Dr. Nathaniel Frank comes from http://www.webmuseum.mit.edu/ The picture of Dr. Richard Adelstein that follows it is sourced from http://www.wesleyan.edu/ The final image is a Life Buoy, by Shirley, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness

Cats in bed 1970    - copyright Lisl Steiner

For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.

As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?

We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.

Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.

During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering done by a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late-30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.

I remember one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as the quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.

As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.

My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.

One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain to be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.

Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.

“Is Professor X there?” she asked.

“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”

It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:

She was black.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.

I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how the awful word was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.

And then something amazing happened.

This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.

She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming she had one, to break my legs.

I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.

Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.

It is also true that at the moment I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or worse.

And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.

But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!

And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.

No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.

My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.

As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”

I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.

As Blanche Dubois says in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I haven’t always depended on it.

But I am enormously grateful to have received such kindness more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.

The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com


Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Forgiveness: If and When?

Much is made, especially by the religious, about the importance of forgiveness. But the topic is worthy of some discussion before one gives a blanket endorsement to forgiveness of everyone and everything. Should all acts be open to forgiveness? Is apology essential before there is any forgiveness? Are some offenses unforgivable? Are some people permitted more leeway to act inappropriately and exempt from the expectation of apology?

First off, who has the right to forgive? Only those who have been injured. I have no right to forgive your mistakes unless you have done me harm in some fashion. Certainly, this right might include an injury done to someone I love, if I too will have suffered pain due to the harm done to the other person. The idea that I can’t forgive you for an injury you did to someone I don’t know, for example, is allied to the notion of legal standing. I can’t bring a law suit against you unless the court agrees that I have a stake in the matter. As the old saying goes, “I don’t have a dog in this race.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happened; rather, it means that in matters of injury, compensation, or apology, I’m not directly involved.

Another consideration is whether the injury is ongoing. If someone is in the process of playing practical jokes on you day after day, to take an example that is relatively small, would you forgive his poor taste or judgment? He’d probably laugh at you if you did, because that individual sees nothing wrong with what he has done. Better to get him to stop or get out of his way, than to consider any generosity of spirit on your part that is likely to go unappreciated.

Then there is the question of apology. Let’s assume the joker just mentioned has a moment of self-awareness, or perhaps has been persuaded that his actions are rude. What must he do to apologize? According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, he should acknowledge what he did to hurt you, say that he is sorry, and attempt to compensate you in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by the practical jokes, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for the prankster to make a public admission of his foolishness in front of the same people who were present when he embarrassed you. Moreover, he must do his very best to make sure that his boorish behavior isn’t repeated. Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, leaving no ifs, ands or buts, and making no excuses. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without excusing it away, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

With respect to the question of some offenses being unforgivable, that is for the injured party to decide. Murder, rape, torture–all terrible–still permit the possibility of forgiveness if it is in the capacity of the afflicted to give it. The same answer would apply to the question of having a different standard for the behavior of one person than for another. We all do this in practice, accepting the failures and misbehavior of those we love when we aren’t so generous with a stranger who does exactly the same thing; and we often let things go without apology.

Forgiveness, however, is not the same as forgetting. If you have been injured, it is most often worth remembering who did what to you, lest you put yourself at risk of being hurt once again. Nor does forgiveness require that you continue your relationship with the person who harmed you; it is sometimes good judgment to forgive the person at the same time that you end the relationship with him.

Relationships are messy and we all can do better and be kinder. Many people have trouble telling others when their actions have caused an injury. The victim can suffer silently or in grumbling discontent, and passive-aggressively try to pay-back the injurer in some indirect fashion. Often, the hurt that the injurer caused is inadvertent and might be easily remedied if the one who has done the harm is told gently but firmly that he caused unhappiness.

Of course, some relationships, if they regularly cause injury, can be quickly dispensed with at little cost. But for those closest to us, we usually will suffer more and longer before limiting contact or severing the bond with that individual. And contact with parents or siblings, for example, cannot be replaced. So, for most of us, we will usually put up with some measure of unhappiness in order to keep a place in our lives for even the unrepentant relative. And, in part, it depends on how much one is willing to put up with.

There is at least one additional very important and useful reason to forgive. It follows from the old Italian expression, “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves (one for yourself and one for the object of your revenge).” The point here is that carrying anger is costly and letting go of that anger might allow you to be happier and more at ease in the rest of your life.

But, be careful not to let go automatically and too soon. Anger is often a necessary part of getting over an injury. While it doesn’t always have to be expressed at someone else, neither is turning the other cheek invariably the best policy for your psychological well-being. Writing about your feelings will oft-times help, and talking to a friend or counselor can be useful. But once you are through the stage of anger, forgiveness is at least a possibility.

Still another reason for accepting an apology and forgiving is that the relationship can be continued and sometimes improved by the act of mutual understanding that is involved. Life is full of disagreements and differences, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those parties who can survive conflicts, communicate about them, and come to a point of acceptance, understanding, and appreciation often are bonded together more strongly by the experience.

It takes maturity to know when to ignore something and when, instead, to confront the person who has injured you. Most things probably aren’t worth the trouble of a conflict, lest one always be fighting and accusing others. Best to wait for a cool and calm moment to decide whether confrontation is worth it, than to act in the over-heated instant. That is nothing more than common sense.

But, as a wise man once said, common sense is rather uncommon.