Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

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Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

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Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Yes or No? “What Goes Around Comes Around”

Justice and Law

Many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that life evens out in the long run. The evil go to hell, the good go to heaven. Or, if you are not religiously inclined, “What goes around comes around.” Meaning that eventually justice is done, something bad will happen to those who have done something bad, even if it looks like they are better off in the short run.

Then there are those who believe, usually in conformity to a “religion of prosperity,” that if you are injured by another you probably deserved it, since God would not authorize something that wasn’t in your best interest. Or, perhaps that the Almighty is giving you some sort of test or opportunity to learn and grow that will ultimately be of benefit to you.

Finally, there is a rather large group who don’t believe in any ultimate fairness in this life or the next — a darker view, for sure. They say that bad things do happen, sometimes randomly, and sometimes due to people who are malicious, unscrupulous, self-interested, and so forth. For those with that view, evil deeds will usually go unpunished and there isn’t much you can do about it. They ask the first two groups to defend the view that the world is ultimately just when they read the morning newspaper’s screaming headlines about chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the like. They quote the great attorney Clarence Darrow’s comment that, “There is no justice — in or out of court.”

My own view is different from these. I am not counting on heaven to put things right, although I’d be very happy to be surprised on this point. Nor do I believe in the kind of God who would authorize injury to us on earth. If he exists, and if he is all-good and all-powerful, he can cleverly produce the results he wants without mayhem and heartbreak to we fragile souls.

On the other hand, I do agree with those who believe that many people escape external punishments: prison time, loss of money, that sort of thing. But, in my experience as a therapist and observer of life, I have seen very few people who behave badly on a regular basis and are happier for it. Let me elaborate.

Some of the most destructive people I’ve known are quite unhappy. Their self-interested actions discourage others from being close to them, so they have recurring relationship issues. Those who gossip too much (we all do it some) cause others to mistrust them. Then there are the promise-breakers, who also cause friendships to end. All these imperfect humans are usually clueless to what they do that injures others — perhaps even surprised that they obtain the reputation of being dangerous. If they are powerful or wealthy or beautiful, some people will stick around them hoping for a payoff. But that is not love or the kind of companionship that most of us want.

Would you really want to be the Mafia boss who must live in fear of arrest, imprisonment, or murder by someone close to him; who must have a body-guard or two around his palatial estate? Would you trade places with a person without a conscience because he has figured out how to lie, cheat, and steal his way to prominence? Do you imagine him capable of any real intimacy? Is money or property that important to you that you’d emulate his life if you could? Or perhaps you’d love the life of a gossip who works hard to believe that everyone loves her, but knows, deep down, that her relationships are shallow? Yet she is blind to the destructiveness that causes others to shy away from anything that is more than casual.

I don’t think you’d choose any of those ways of living. Nor do I imagine that it sounds appealing to become someone so self-interested that you trade the joys of friendship and sometimes even the good feeling that comes from self-sacrifice for the temporary personal satisfaction of selfishness.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned guilt. There is a lot less guilt out there than most people think. Most of us are pretty well able to rationalize the injuries we cause to others. It often goes like this: “He did X to me, so that means I can do Y to him.” Well, no, actually, unless you want to lose your own honor and decency, which usually comes in the process of trying to right the scales of justice or get revenge.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

Here is an extreme example of losing your soul in an effort to extract revenge for a horrible betrayal. The speaker is Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, in conversation with Bill Moyers:*

I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ (play) Hecuba, a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power in the Trojan War. She’s been made a slave, but she remains absolutely morally firm, and she even says she believes that good character is stable in adversity and can’t be shaken.

But then her one deepest hope is pulled away from her. She had left her youngest child with her best friend (Polymestor), who was supposed to watch over him and his money and then bring him back when the war was over. When Hecuba gets to the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach… She looks at it more closely, and then sees it’s the body of her child, and that the friend has murdered the child for his money and just flung the body heedlessly into the waves. All of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and says, “Everything that I see is untrustworthy.” If this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy, then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted, and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge. We see her end the play by putting out the eyes of her former best friend (and murdering his two young sons), and it is predicted that she will turn into a dog. The story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes…

One part of the message here, clearly, is what can happen to you if you become like the thing you hate, as Hecuba does when she murders Polymestor’s innocent children and puts out his eyes.

I’m guessing, though, that an outcome without punishment for the murder of Hecuba’s son might not be satisfying for some of you. Surely something should happen to Polymestor. And, just as surely, we need to have some sympathy for Hecuba, even if killing the kids does go over the line. She did, after all, first go to the local authorities to seek justice and was spurned. Perhaps you imagine the sweetness and closure that would come from revenge. Or perhaps it is simply that it is not right that Polymestor get away with this.

Two possible remedies. The first one comes from my wife, who wishes that the bad guys could have just one minute of self-awareness. She thinks that to see themselves as they really are for just 60 seconds would be a fit punishment in most instances. As I see it, though, the insight that would come in that short time might be worth the pain it cost and actually increase their chances of leading a more satisfying life. Still, my wife has no superpowers that I know of (I may get in trouble for saying that) and so her ability to create the justice she’d like isn’t going to happen.

Ah, but I have a remedy, too! It’s pretty simple. The punishment for most of the folks who specialize in the garden variety hurts of everyday life — the lying, the cheating, the broken promises, and the betrayals that don’t have a criminal penalty — doesn’t require either a super hero or any equipment. It is simply to let these malefactors continue to live the messed up and unsatisfying lives they seem intent on living.

*The interview excerpt of Martha Nussbaum comes from Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, published in 1989 by Doubleday, pages 447 and 448.

The top image by ElmA is called Justice and Law. The photo of Martha Nussbaum is the work of Robin Holland. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.