Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

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The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.

Ghosts.

Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.

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Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”

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We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.

 

How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

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In my therapy practice I encountered many people who didn’t quite fit into the world. Sometimes it was because the world valued beauty and they were not beautiful, sometimes because they had no interest in sports where others cheered for a team, and sometimes because their skin color and religion were out of place. More often they believed their internal life didn’t match up with those around them: too sensitive or unlikeable or too serious; peculiar, different, odd. Quiet in a loud world, thoughtful in an impulsive world, gun shy in a world where many shoot first and don’t even ask questions later. Most importantly, they lacked a niche, a social group, a family or family substitute in which they felt safe and cared for — a place of solidarity and belonging — or an institution (like a small community church) offering something bigger than the commonplace mission of “getting and spending” and personal success at any cost.

To provide therapy for such people one must acknowledge that, indeed, some of us fit better into a different time and place. I’d like to look at the therapeutic model from which the counseling field grew and ask the question: does it still offer the best possible assistance to a person who is isolated, perhaps by his nature and temperament, perhaps by a society prone to discounting his human qualities, perhaps by a world transformed from being too closed to too open; perhaps by all of these.

Psychoanalysis, Freud’s method, developed in a Victorian Era, tailored to the values, customs, and morals of the time: a repressive society in which a woman who showed her ankle in public could cause a small scandal. Polite social gatherings didn’t permit discussions of sex. Revelation of personal problems betrayed weakness and breached decorum. One suffered silently. Not surprisingly, Freud offered a treatment designed to open those topics not disclosed elsewhere, fashioning the counseling apparatus to lift the gurney of a disapproving society off patients who had been crushed by it. In other words, psychoanalysis was a therapeutic approach tailored to a different social world than we live in today, at least for those of us in the West.

There was, however, a positive side to the era. Values identified in bold letters were supported by strong institutions. The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules. You  weren’t on your own, adrift, and uncertain about how to lead your life. The restricted set of permitted choices made the day less complicated and overwhelming. The life map presented by family and social institutions, government and military, offered easy-to-follow steps.

If Freud were alive today would he have used a different model for treatment after his world vanished?

I suspect so. He could not fail to notice how the closed, restrictive, prescriptive social order has been replaced by one more permissive and open. A society requiring unquestioning acceptance of your parents’ religion, vocational advice, and veto power over a potential spouse has been set aside.

Now, for example, you are considered free to determine not just your faith, but whether you want a religion at all. Yes, parental direction and disapproval are still present, but they have lost a good part of their grip. A federal government that once ordered you to perform military service, today leaves the defense of the country to volunteers. Sex is everywhere (as are exposed ankles and more). There is no place to hide. Loud voices predominate. Extroversion trumps introversion. Freedom to make personal choices comes with the expectation you will make good ones instead of being overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. Few behavioral menu options are forbidden and most are public.

We live in a garden of delights or a world of confusion that would have seemed dreamlike, disorienting, and scandalous in the time of Freud’s early work. We cannot escape a Kardashianized existence of energetic, fast-talking, self-promoting performers who are role models no introvert recognizes in himself. Meanwhile, he has the vague sense of missing someone he has never met.

What components should therefore be added to the traditional “talking cure” in the second decade of the 21st century?

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I’d begin with recognition that the social world of today is tipped to the advantage of extroverts. At least one-third of us, however, are not so classified. Methods of self-enhancement and personal validation for introverted clients must go beyond an effort to make them into fake extroverts. Temperament is more or less fixed by biological inheritance and very early experience. An introverted and insecure patient can become more self-confident with the help of therapy, but his preferences for privacy, quiet time alone to recharge his energy, and one-to-one contact over an affinity for large groups are likely to persist.

The introvert is not true to himself if he tries to become a chattering machine: the “Bigger Than Life” of the party. Treatment must value his qualities as an introvert and support him in his effort to find a useful niche within the work and social worlds that makes the best of his unique skills. His temperamental strengths include an ability to listen, reflective thought as opposed to impulsive action, seriousness of purpose, persistence, and a good eye for risks. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking offers a place to start.

A second component consists of helping clients find or create socially supportive, cohesive institutions and groups where they can attach to something less isolative, more fulfilling, and bigger than hollow self-interest. As noted by Sebastian Junger in his short, but powerful new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, our ancestors in prehistory lived in small groups (50 or fewer) whose survival depended upon pulling together. The tiny society was largely “classless and egalitarian.” Sharing was essential and little personal property existed. Loyalty was prized. Status, to the extent it was present, came from providing for the group and defending it in war. It was a place where quietly doing your part was enough for acceptance and approval, membership and the availability of a mate. Everyone fit.

Contrast such a living situation to the endless, senseless, heart-deadening contemporary competition to be as good or better than your peers and survive on your own or, if you are lucky, in a family including only a spouse and children. Our ancestors were bound together by a mutual necessity and support now replaced simply by sharing an address: living in apartment buildings and neighborhoods of nameless strangers. Isolation is the inevitable result of having little intimacy, as well as sham closeness dependent only upon the accident of sharing a cubicle or the ties of occasional after-hours good times that do not bind.

The therapeutic project of the urban, anonymous 21st century must recognize the present historical moment as especially challenging for the introvert. More than most others, he wants relationships of depth. The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.

Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?

The first image is called Alone by PiConsti. Look closely for the tiny creature in the picture. The photo beneath it is Isolation Lake (5) in Chelan County, WA by Bala. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Lonely”

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Loneliness is such a common experience we discuss it little. Are you lonely only without a significant other? Can you be lonely even with many good friends? And what if there is no one — absolutely no one — in your life, like Robinson Crusoe before he met Friday? What if you are the last person on earth?

The depth and slow, mind-twisting anguish of loneliness is captured in a 1959 episode of Rod Serling’s old Twilight Zone series, appropriately titled The Lonely. Serling, who also wrote and narrated this particular half-hour drama, transports us to a stage of the future:

Witness if you will, a dungeon, made out of mountains, salt flats, and sand that stretch to infinity. The dungeon has an inmate: James A. Corry. And this is his residence: a metal shack. An old touring car that squats in the sun and goes nowhere – for there is nowhere to go. For the record, let it be known that James A. Corry is a convicted criminal placed in solitary confinement. Confinement in this case stretches as far as the eye can see, because this particular dungeon is on an asteroid nine-million miles from the Earth. Now witness, if you will, a man’s mind and body shriveling in the sun, a man dying of loneliness.

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In Serling’s conception, isolation affords no capacity to communicate with anyone on Earth or elsewhere. The protagonist’s punishment is a seclusion as total as society can create. There is no internet to divert him, no newspaper to read, no TV, not even a prison guard. Though a convicted murderer, he claims self-defense. Corry’s only human contact comes every three months when a supply-carrying space ship might stay for a few hours or a few minutes to unload the prisoner’s necessities.

James does his best to pass the endless time. The prisoner reads, journals, repairs the broken-down car mentioned by the narrator, and builds a chess board. Corry also owns a deck of cards, with which he can presumably play solitaire. An old-style record player creates background music. Beyond this there is only the heat. Not even vegetation colors the vista. He yells in order to hear a living human voice. Would your echo be a life partner worth living for? James is finding it hard to come up with reasons to say yes.

This intelligent but pitiable creature believes he is slowly losing his mind. One possibility keeps him alive: there is a political movement back on Earth protesting the inhumanity of punishments such as his. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a pardon.

The quarterly supply ship returns with something extra for him. What might it be? (Spoiler alert). He opens the large, vacuum-sealed container to discover a machine that activates itself by exposure to the air.

A robot. A woman, if you can call a robot by a human signifier. “Alicia” claims she can feel things. Not just the pain of things physical, but emotional pain — loneliness. Does the title, The Lonely, speak of the man alone or both of them? Surely, Rod Serling wished us to ask whether a robot might be so constituted as to become “human.”

James feels mocked by the likeness of a female who is actually a machine. He rejects her. Does Alicia experience hurt, as would a woman made of blood and flesh? The relationship develops nonetheless. How much of what James comes to see in Alicia is what he wishes to see in her and how much by what she is? How much do any of us try to sustain relationships, imperfect as they are, because of the need to love and be loved? Corry — still nine-million miles from humanity — is no longer lonely.

Twilight Zone was famous for surprise endings, unforeseeable twists. I am not so cruel as to spoil the tale for you, but I will say the conclusion further informs our understanding of loneliness. Consider this story of exquisite pain and artificial redemption a small masterpiece on the human condition. I imagine you will identify moments of your life in James A. Corry’s predicament, as he is portrayed by Jack Warden. You may even see yourself in Jane Marsh as Alicia.

After all, we have all been The Lonely. Click on the link and watch.

Jack Warden and Jean Marsh are pictured above in a still photo from The Lonely. The second image is James Corry’s “dungeon,” as seen from a distance.

Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

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We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

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What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

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How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

On being Insecure and Alone

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We are small creatures trying to be large. Or perhaps we are incomplete beings trying to be whole. Do those words sum up the human condition? How do we deal with our essential loneliness and insecurity? I’ll get to that.

Man begins incomplete, both in the womb and out. Your newborn is unable to tell the difference between himself and you. The trouble starts when he figures out that he can’t live without you. No wonder he cries.

Insecurity is in the nature of life. Indeed, if I met an entirely secure person I’d ponder how he managed to miss so much about the “simple difficulty” of living. A contradiction in terms, I know.

From the infant’s first tear begins a lifetime journey to complete himself, to escape solitary confinement. Most of us don’t want to be alone — a vulnerable and separate existence. The punishments in the Bible begin with being “cast out.” First, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. Then Cain was exiled for the murder of his brother. “You are on your own” is not a friendly statement. In truth, we are all on our own, in our own skin, unique in the vista we observe from the elevated wrapper we call the head.

What to do? Let’s start with what some of us do most of the time and all of us do some of the time. We attempt to incorporate other people into our lives. Intercourse achieves this physically. No wonder sex is bliss.

Next best is to embrace — get physically close, but still outside. Neither an embrace nor copulation last long. The problem of separateness resists a resolution.

Social — not physical — affiliation is a pleasing substitute. Where intimate friendships are absent, group connections take their place. Team membership has its satisfactions and avoids the “left out” experience of children’s games. The “we’re number one” sports fans gravitate to a similar, but vicarious category of connection and solace.

We put up with a lot to be with our fellow humans, part of a group. We try to “play nice,” even when not treated well. It’s better to be in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, as the crude saying goes.

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In the absence of human contact, some ingest food. Sustenance substitutes for love, lacking only the touch of another. Too much nourishment and the grub “joins” with you — becomes a larger and larger part of your body. The meal is now a permanent addition inside.

Humans make an effort at self-display, all the better to draw others to them. We want to be like magnets so that passers-by will “stick.” Clothes, hair style, makeup, and hair pieces are “attractive,” designed to “pull” the stranger close and prevent a solitary state. Sometimes external charm leads to the physical joining discussed earlier.

The “selfie-stick” generation takes this tack a step further. Not only do their public picture portraits cry out for crowds of onlookers, they offer the photographer, like Narcissus, a fascination and merger with his own creation: the glorified image of himself. Who needs intimacy when you can fall in love with yourself?

The computerized world provides an incomplete union with others, lacking the satisfaction of flesh. The fusion we seek is not electronic. You cannot crawl into the iPhone or laptop. A community of Facebook “friends” or a large blog following has its pleasures. Recognize, though, what social media alone can never be.

Some people acquire external objects, creating a kind of imagined fusion with a thing instead of a person. In effect, the buyer takes the material creation from the outside of himself to change his emotions inside. Goods define some people and become a point of pride, something “incorporated” within the identity.

Status and wealth, similarly, can be internalized to diminish a sense of naked, solo vulnerability. Those of a more academic bent might choose to pour knowledge into the brain, hoping for the same result.

Religion also reduces life’s insecurity — its essential isolation. Here the goal is to lose oneself in a complete identification and contemplation of God, at least in a hoped-for, heavenly afterlife.

In this world, however, none of the solutions I’ve discussed does the job fully. Sex acts are temporary, embraces are momentary, and the emotional benefits of eating and drinking are short-lived. Clothes and other objects make you feel complete for 10 minutes or 10 days. Knowledge acquisition is a treadmill marathon you can never finish. High status only lasts as long as the next TV season or term of office. To frustrate us even more, there are all those celebrities — owners of dazzle and accomplishment — we compare ourselves to. Their presence on earth is a kill-joy. We cannot merge with them. Instead we fantasize about them, creating an amalgamation in our dreams.

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All this points to some common, but flawed notions of how to complete ourselves and have a more satisfying life:

  • The pursuit of stardom is a fool’s errand. No, not because you are unlikely to reach the heavens.  Rather, aiming for glory for its own sake ignores the work it will take. “Look at me!” is the selfie-stick generation’s solution to an existential crisis: like a drowning man who ignores a lifeboat, he instead reaches for a plastic comb floating on the water.
  • All the material “stuff” ballyhooed constantly by advertising will only make you whole temporarily. We are leaky vessels. Commodities plug the holes too briefly.
  • Looking for the true, perfect love — your soul mate — can be sensational if you find her, but still leaves you in your own skin, dealing with your own demons. Relationships are wonderful, but don’t cure you of the human condition. Love is not medication. Not so sure? Go to the pharmacist and request “One soul mate, please. A 30-day supply.”
  • Moving to California is the “I need a change” solution. Yes, we do need to change, but traveling across the country “looking for yourself” reveals only one thing: you are the same guy who began the trip.
  • The more time you spend in front of an electronically lit screen (computer, phone, TV, or movie) the less time you have for satisfying intimacy with someone nearby. Yes, I’m aware of looking at such a screen right now. Introverts do need more time alone!

So, what is the answer? Well, if I had a perfect one, I’d be famous. That said, I do have ideas:

  • Recognize that real people are better (even if more dangerous) than virtual friends. Even so, they are not enough. You still need a life of purposeful action.
  • Try to get outside of yourself. Things can’t be incorporated inside you and humans tend to resist ties that bind too much.
  • You can’t bring the world within, so meet the globe halfway. Break out of the prison — the solitary confinement — of a repetitive, obsessive look in the mirror.
  • Avoidance is a dead end. No satisfied or satisfying people live there. A life of adventure won’t invade your home and drag you out.
  • Find captivating employment, generous and interesting people, and stimulating things to learn. Not to build your image and draw others to you, but because they are worthwhile in themselves.
  • Recognize that you can’t have everything in life, but life can be delightful if you are lucky and wise. Stop multi-tasking and focus on the small number of things you believe have real value. Get off the treadmill of routine.
  • Don’t run yourself ragged. Don’t be a human doing, always in a frenzy. You are a human being.
  • The path to a portion of happiness might include meditation, intensely noticing the everyday world around you, and being sufficiently active to lose yourself in it. Think less and live more in the joyful instant. A baseball player trying to catch a long drive is not wondering about his acne.
  • Accept the planet for what it is, which is a pretty messy place, but the only one we’ve got. Change the world if you have the energy and talent. If you don’t, accept what can’t be altered, at least by you.
  • Know yourself. Everyone thinks he knows himself, but few approximate full self-knowledge. Figure out what you can do: those activities you might excel at with some practice, guidance, and effort. And recognize the tasks you should never even try. If you are a 5′ 4” male, don’t pin your hopes on playing professional basketball. If you are introverted, don’t become a political candidate. Value yourself for the best in you and make better what is amenable to alteration.
  • Learning, however essential, will not always be fun and will often be painful. Sorry, I didn’t make the rule.
  • Think for yourself. Received wisdom is frequently a worthless commodity. Live by a moral code you take a hand in fashioning, not something handed to you. This will require you to think and study. Most people will not or cannot make the effort, they just assume they are good.
  • We create history, but mustn’t ignore the history we’ve already lived. Some amount of knowing where you’ve been is required, lest you revisit pitfalls and repeat mistakes.
  • Having a personal mantra of “life is unfair to me” will not get you far. Better to adopt this paraphrase of the motto of the fine blogger, What It Takes To Be Me: life wasn’t meant to be easy; it was meant to be worth it. It will only be thus if you make it so despite the obstacles.
  • Even if you accomplish all this, your life still won’t be perfect. You will continue to be in your own skin. Insecurity won’t have completely vanished. Yeah, a bummer. Get over it.
  • Once you figure out who you are, wipe the blackboard clean. As my friend, Phil, likes to say, “I try to reinvent myself every day.”

Phil, by the way, is a smart guy. Listen to him.

The top photo is called Meall Ghaordaidh Behind Bars, sourced from Richard Webb’s transfer to Wikimedia Commons. The University of Chicago t-shirt comes from http://www.zazzle.com/

Healing the Exquisite Pain of Being on the Outside

I expect most of you have felt bypassed and invisible. We all want attention, at least some of the time. Respect. Notice. Recognition. It is like water to a flower, necessary for life.

The recently ended AMC TV series, Mad Men, illustrated this in a brief scene with an unknown actor. Evan Arnold played Leonard, a no longer youthful man who has accepted his invisibility — accepted that he is unloved and unlovable. The creator of the series, Matthew Weiner, called this perhaps the most important scene in the entire run of a TV show that began on July 19, 2007.

Rather than say more, I will let the actor embody something with which you can identify. Leonard’s understated lament is, at bottom, what brings many people into psychotherapy. Even if you haven’t experienced his pain yourself, I bet someone close to you has. Evan Arnold’s delivery of a group therapy monologue lasts less than three minutes. His “refrigerator” metaphor is unforgettable. In the space of these few moments, Leonard is every man, every woman, every child — and we are he.

Social Anxiety Disorder: The Next Therapeutic Step

There is a popular stereotype of the socially anxious man finding companionship with a “blow-up” woman. You know, an inflatable balloon-shaped likeness of the real thing. But science fiction, at least as far back as “The Twilight Zone,” has suggested something different: a robot. We are certainly closer to this possibility than ever. And I think it has some interesting ramifications for those among us, both male and female, who are socially anxious.

Imagine a time when you will be able to purchase such a being over the Internet. And let’s further assume that this creature will be capable of doing everything — everything — that a real-life companion can do. These entities would be customized: hair color, complexion, body type, height, sense of humor, level of intelligence, range of interests — you name it, literally, and your imitation mate would be so designed to your specifications.

Now imagine yourself as a socially anxious person staring at your computer screen, preparing to order such a “device.” And let’s further assume that the creature will not immediately seem like a robot to passers-by. That is, there will be little reason to expect that strangers will see you with your new friend and conclude that he or she is a fraud, not the real thing. What will your future be like? And how will society’s future be changed?

First, I suspect that this will be pretty delightful for the lonely and the anxious among us. Moreover, by virtue of having the possibility of regular interaction with the robot, the socially anxious may well discover that they improve their social skills and reduce their anxiety: the repeated “human” contact that they have previously avoided would prove therapeutic. Indeed, there will doubtless be programs for these devices to take the owner through gradually increasing social challenges with built-in therapeutic tips coming from the machine. It will be like having a lover and a doctor all in the same package, one that is available 24/7.

At the same time, however, your new friend just might reduce your incentive to work hard at the process of changing yourself. Your robot won’t require you to face your social challenges unless you want to. She or he won’t be therapeutically programmed unless you desire it. And if you are rude or clumsy in your contact with this machine, you won’t be rejected or criticized unless you want that feature built-in to the range of possible responses from your faux mate.

Even more, now that you have a friend who can be everything you want — a tennis partner, a movie reviewer, a drinking buddy at the ball game — your incentive to make new relationships will be diminished. Why worry about having other friends when your lover can be Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe one day and Einstein the next?

It is likely that we are already seeing the effects of virtual friends and lovers, only on a less dramatic scale than what I’ve described here. From one vantage point, the Internet has been a boon to those whose social anxieties present an obstacle to face-to-face contact, not to mention intimacy. From behind the keyboard, life seems more in control and less dangerous. It provides a place of safety, free from the anticipated humiliation and rejection in situations that others consider manageable.

Those with Social Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify the probability of the worst-case-scenario actually occurring, and assume it would cause a devastation from which recovery would be impossible. But virtual mates might provide a defense against that discomfort at a price: that one now needn’t take on the real-life risk of conventional human contact; and that therefore, the anxious person never would overcome his/her fear.

In this scenario, the world would be full of people who were less solitary, but not necessarily any more socially capable. Those who might go to see a therapist today could well choose to stay at home with their Internet-ordered companion in Tomorrowland. Moreover, to the extent that the World Wide Web has permitted people to be rude behind the cloak of their keyboard  — to type or text things that they might not have thought to communicate back in the pre-Internet days — it is possible that we will see a coarsening of daily human interaction and an increase in the incivility that seems to have grown malignantly in the Internet age. Indeed, the Web may be one of the causes of the impatience and frank rudeness that are manifest even waiting in line at the store on a bad day.

A very different unintended consequence of a world of computerized companions would be their impact on the dating marketplace. Real people have flaws — emotional, physical, and intellectual. Given sufficient advancement in science, the programmable companion will be virtually perfect. Even for those of us who have made a good romantic match, the new product would be tough for a real person to beat. Pity the average man or woman trying to outshine the machine-crafted competition! It would make the contestants on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” not worth a second look.

Wait! What about children? Would you want a “perfect,” albeit inhuman mate or a flawed spouse of the conventional kind who is capable of generating offspring? I suspect that the adoption marketplace would change dramatically if even a few people who chose a robotic lover were to seek a real-life child to complete their happy home.

The future I’m envisioning has at least one more feature: it is a world without loss, without grief, without the heartbreak of rejection or divorce or death. Those who choose robotic companions will worry and suffer less because of this escape hatch from the transitory nature of the human condition. The machine will always be there, never suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, never even think of infidelity, and never become infirm.

Pretty terrific, right? I’m not so sure. If you think about falling in love, part of what makes it special is the initial uncertainty — the time discovering who this new person is and what they do and say that is impossible to predict but dazzling. Would we react the same way to a device programmed to be emotionally attached to us that arrives in a box via UPS delivery? A “man” or “woman” who comes with a money-back guarantee of fidelity?

And isn’t the possibility of loss part of what makes us love more strongly? Isn’t the concern we have for the other’s vulnerability — be it our child, spouse, or parent — part of what constitutes love and causes us to feel it in the first place? Isn’t sacrifice — doing for the other — part of what gives the other value? Would we ever feel this kind of concern for an indestructible or fully replaceable machine?

For my part, I think I will take the world as it is, heartbreak and anxiety included, as miserable as those experiences are. There usually is no free lunch in life. Hurdles, be they social anxiety or fear of loss must be overcome. Goals too easily achieved rarely are highly valued. As with many things, Shakespeare put it best, knowing that the anticipation of loss is part of what is expressed in a love song, “… to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”*

For more on Social Anxiety Disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.

*The quotation is the last line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXXIII.

The source of the bottom two images is Dark Roasted Blend.