Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Buying a Car

buying-a-carYou probably don’t enjoy buying a car, assuming you’ve experienced this convoluted trauma. Yet running the auto dealership gauntlet is informative: about yourself, whether you understand how relationships work, and your mastery of tough stuff like negotiation.

The schooling offered in the auto showroom begins with “curb appeal:” how the vehicle looks. All material goods offer the same criterion by which to judge them. We value houses, watches, and phones this way. First impressions don’t stop there, but continue with the physical appearance of everyone you meet, the sound of a new voice, the scent as you stand close.

You then peer under the hood of the car. Applying this to people, you get to know them, check for substance beneath the surface; evaluate the individual’s humanity, strength, and kindness or self-interest. At least I hope you do and thereby move beyond the dazzle of a stunning exterior. A pity if instead your head is stupefied by a gorgeous facade and you ignore a person of common appearance bearing treasures within.

The vehicle sales rep hopes you will be captured by his kindness and prone to an impulsive decision. He highlights the techno whistles and bells. Will you be lured by his siren song and dance? We all need resistance to a sales pitch, whether the seller is trying to unload a TV or promote himself.

Given an auto’s cost one can benefit from homework. Do you have the patience to perform the needed research or will you do what “feels” right? We face the war between emotions and intellect daily: between due diligence and slipshod judgment.

How dependent are you? Do you rely on others to make decisions? Friends and relatives have lots of opinions about cars and, if they are experienced and smart, such knowledge is worth considering. Best, however, to learn what can be discovered on your own as well as from expert advice: “own” the process by which you come to own the product.

The act of car buying shakes up some of us. We plead for a spouse or friend by our side. A successful transaction demands the ability to say “no” and stick to it — a test for many.

Decades ago my wife and I lived in New Jersey. Soon after our arrival our car was destroyed in an accident. We hoped to purchase a new 1972 Dodge Duster, expecting that we’d get a better price than on the just released 1973 model.

The first salesman we met counted on our being callow customers, novices in the veiled combat of car buying. The man told us he had the only remaining new 1972 Duster in New Jersey. Aleta and I understood there would be many more ’73 models than the 1972 Dodge we wanted, but we didn’t trust his report. He offered us a price, but we said no and began to walk out. The sales rep trailed us. As our closeness to the door increased the price of the vehicle decreased. We soon discovered dozens of available 1972 Dusters, the cars he said were as rare as a dodo, the extinct flightless bird.

There is power in letting people see your back. Wanting a thing less than the next guy usually gives you the upper hand in a transaction with him. So, too, in romance. Rhett Butler’s last words in Gone with the Wind offer an example of the attitude I’m writing about. Such a stance often elicits concessions by the counterparty in his effort to get what he wants from you. Generally, the longer you remain silent the more favorable the terms offered become. In effect, you can set most of the conditions.

When desiring a thing desperately we risk giving away the best of ourselves in the act of acquisition. Money is the least of it. Honor and basic human decency may be forfeited, as well. Among ancient philosophers, the Stoics gave particular emphasis to the dangers of becoming too “attached,” whether to objects, honors, power, or people. Buddhists make the same argument.

Self-possession, they would argue, is far more valuable than anything you can buy.

Some things in life are not worth the price you pay for them. As many young people have discovered, cars can be among those things. Sadly, the list of overvalued commodities, jobs, titles, high income lifestyles, and relationships is beyond reckoning. Beware defining your hoped-for future by a list of “must haves.”

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would remind us, “choose wisely.”

Shopping for Confidence

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I found myself in a sketchy part of town, although the people were handsomely dressed. No idea how I arrived. The unsavory, but well-groomed types walking the streets triggered my instinct for self-protection. I stepped into a store of a strange kind. Indeed, all the other businesses were full of commodities and people, but felt empty. This one was empty, yet the atmosphere was different.

“Ah, you found us!” said the middle-aged manager, looking pleased. “You seem troubled, but you needn’t be.”

“I was only trying to escape the — uh — neighborhood, if you get what I mean,” I responded hesitantly.

“Oh, they never come in here. We don’t sell what they want. They all want stuff. Everybody wants stuff. Fools.”

“What do you offer?” I replied. I’d not even looked at the sign in the window before I entered, and there was nothing inside to give away the nature of the store’s wares. No shelves, no showcases; plain powder blue walls, unadorned; furniture consisting of a chair, a table, and a sofa. Oh, yes, there was a large book on the table: The Discourses, by Epictetus.

“I sell confidence and I can tell you need some, young man.” Indeed, I was a naïve 20-year old. How did I become twenty again?

The manager had enough self-assurance for a small army. He stood as straight as a military officer at attention, with a bit of gray in his wavy hair, and the square jaw of a GQ model.

“Confidence? How can you tell I need such a thing?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? The doors don’t open unless you require our help. We had special sensors installed. Cost us a fortune.”

I decided not to ask about the technicalities. He was right of course. I did need fistfuls of bravado. I was doubtful about my future, had no clear idea what being a psychologist might entail, and was uncertain with the ladies. My mother was always reminding me I lacked the good-natured qualities of my younger brothers and my buddies. I offered no rejoinder to her comments about Ed and Jack, but when she brought up my friends I’d reply, “Yeah, easy for them: they don’t live with you.”

“OK,” said the manager. “What kind of confidence would you like?”

“You offer different kinds?”

“Yes. For example, you might enjoy some slightly used self-assurance, only utilized by a little old widow at church on Sundays. We can let you have it for a song. Can you sing?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We market a babe magnet variety which we call BMBM makes you appear taller and better looking. This is our best seller. Or perhaps you’d like political confidence. You know, the kind statesmen use to send young men into ill-conceived wars. Actually, we’re not supposed to sell the product any more because it got a bad name during the first George W. Bush administration. For you, though, I’ll make an exception.”

“How about some general confidence. Something all-purpose, to help me say no, stand up for myself, worry less, make phone calls, give speeches, not care about what people think of me. What do you say?

“Oh, that’s very expensive. Too pricey for you, for sure.”

“How much?”

“Well, first off, you must understand what we are selling. We offer only the appearance of things. So, you’ll still be troubled by uncertainty and anxiety, but nobody will recognize what you are feeling. We call the package fake it to make it confidence.

“What would the real thing cost?”

“Years of your time. You’d have to fail a lot. A lot. Over and over, until you succeed. Courage, too, which we can’t give you. The law doesn’t permit us to sell strength of character. Taking on new things would be required of you. Truth telling is necessary — not trying to fool people. Repressing fake smiles is one of the hardest tasks, along with looking into the eyes of those you talk to. So is recognizing that others are much more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with yours. Maybe the most awful thing of all is realizing you don’t matter in the big picture. People don’t want to think someday they’ll die, leaving ‘not a rack behind,’ as Bill Shakespeare used to remind me. Like I said, though, we don’t sell what you’re looking for.”

“I understand. But are you suggesting if I did all the things you enumerated, took risks, got shot down, perhaps found a cognitive-behavior therapist, fell and picked myself up, looked hard into the mirror, and recognized the shortness of life — if I did all those things, I’d eventually find real confidence — perfect confidence?”

Now, for the first time, the manager frowned. Indeed, he no longer resembled the man I thought he was, a stud-meister of complete self-possession. After another moment’s silence, he spoke.

“Oh, no. Gee. Perfect confidence, what a novel idea. I never considered the possibility. But, no, even after all the labor I mentioned, you can’t attain such a lofty state.”

“Why?”

“Simple. Nothing in life is perfect.”

The top photo is a shopping bag made from recycled materials by Trashy Bags, in Accra, Ghana and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. And, a tip of the hat to Rosaliene Bacchus, a much devoted protector of the environment: https://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com/

 

 

Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok

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The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same glass differently.

Let’s think of the glass as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now look at the goblet again and ask not if it is half-empty or half-full in terms of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question.

What will you do with it? What will you do with whatever is inside the glass?

Here is an example of how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64 in 1945, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be further enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death-bed that he had hoped to leave the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” still occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

He could have said that he wanted to leave an empty glass rather than an empty trunk. The point is that he wanted to expend everything he had inside himself on the job of life. Spill it all out. Use it all up.

Bartok  believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself; his responsibility to his fellow-man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give; to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him and those that he had developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not only because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They create or recreate because they cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different from the attitude of those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heroes, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate their model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It rejects the withdrawn self-protection that insures that we will miss-out on what we really want; the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced,  the life that might have been, “if only…”.

Bartok had no choice in his failure to “leave with an empty trunk.” He composed one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia that killed him. It wasn’t for lack of trying that his “trunk” was still full of creative ideas.

The rest of us don’t have the same excuse if we leave life with some part of the best of ourselves held in abeyance — at least not yet. Why? Because we still have time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our trunk with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, that goal was to empty it of the things that were internal. Many are torn between the two. A life of consumption or a life of creation. Clearly there is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have had the time to have done more, not consumed more.

I can think of worse philosophies of living.

This post is a reworking of one I published about four years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

The Kardashians Meet Jerry Springer: On Watching “The Queen of Versailles”

Would a yearly outlay of a million dollars on clothing be enough for you? The documentary film The Queen of Versailles shows what is possible when you strike the word “enough” from your vocabulary. It introduces you to a couple who give new meaning to the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” They are easy to laugh at, as many audience members at the showing I attended did, but the hilarity is based on an inability to see oneself in David and Jackie Siegel, the Florida husband and wife who set out to build the biggest house in the USA. If that doesn’t sound much like you or me — well — just keep reading.

The story begins before the economic meltdown of 2008 that hammered David Siegel’s time-share real estate empire, Westgate Resorts. It ends in 2011 with him still trying to rescue both that business and the completion of a 90,000 square-foot estate fashioned after the Palace at Versailles. He intended to build it, as he says in the movie, “because I could.” The Siegels envisioned 30 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, stadium-level sports facilities, grand staircases, and a wing — a wing — for the children, who number eight living with them; not to mention the 19 member staff who were already present in the 26,000 square-foot Florida mansion that had become “too small.”

Where did David and Jacqueline come from? Mr. Siegel’s midwestern parents were addicted to gambling and lost everything on their visits to Las Vegas. He recalls that his mother, on a return trip from a gaming disaster, asked her husband if she could have a candy bar. He responded that there was no money left even for that. As a result, every Christmas Day, the 74-year-old Mr. Siegel buys himself a large Hershey bar and eats it in memory of his mom. Perhaps his parents’ failure at the gambling tables of Nevada also was behind the 52-story “vacation ownership resort” he built for his business there, a kind of posthumous triumph at the scene of his parents’ defeat. At least, before David’s empire started to disintegrate.

Mrs. Siegel, his 43-year-old surgically enhanced former beauty queen wife, also came from a humble background. Her college degree allowed her to work in engineering, but she seems uninterested in anything associated with what might be called an intellectual life. Indeed, the Siegel’s eight children (one is actually Jackie’s niece) had apparently not been encouraged to prepare for college until David’s financial distress created doubts about his ability to support them.

Nor do we observe any discussion of religion or values, although one might surmise that “The Golden Calf” is the only object of serious worship. Still, viewers should remember that the family was filmed over a period of three years. We only get to see those few moments that fit the narrative the producer/director, Ms. Greenfield, wants to show us — the story she wants to tell.

That said, Mr. Siegel is pretty much a self-proclaimed workaholic, portrayed as having little intimacy with his children. Indeed, he sees his wife as just another child, but one who compulsively buys things, including a large tin of caviar for herself even as the banks are threatening foreclosure. Yet the film maker Lauren Greenfield is careful to capture Jackie’s generous, warm, and outgoing nature. Indeed, she appears to be fonder of her husband than he is of her, despite the fact that even one of their children recognizes that Jackie was something of a trophy for dad.

Mr. and Mrs. Siegel sitting on what appears to be a throne.

A couple of the most telling moments in this very entertaining but sad story come when Jackie and the kids, unable to fly the private jet that they are accustomed to, have to travel like the rest of us. This prompts mom to ask them “How is it, flying commercial?” When she attempts to rent a car, the young man behind the rental desk is stunned to hear her ask, “What’s the name of my driver?” There is none, of course. Back home, Jackie does have a driver and a limousine, to boot. But the disarray caused by having to lay off 15 of the 19 servants and nannies is something to behold, resulting in a level of filth and dog poop that belies the luxuries that the Siegels still find a way to afford.

It appears that Mr. Siegel was not pleased with the movie and sued Lauren Greenfield for “defamation.” I can only imagine that the story he envisioned when he was on top of the world was very different from the film you will see at the theater. Joe Nocera’s article in the The New York Times reports his claim that his business has bounced back and that his palatial home is being completed after all. For anyone who, like Mr. Siegel, gloried in his success and hoped for another feather in his cap, his big screen setback would have been a bitter pill.

So what does all this have to do with you and me? Most of us have been captured (at least a little) by the empty quest for “stuff” that is “The American Dream.” Are we more modest in our aspirations than the Siegels partially because we don’t have the opportunity that they had to indulge those desires? As a result, we either settle for the big screen TV or two or three that we really don’t need or wish we could buy at least one. What I’m talking about is the worm in the rotten core of the consumption-driven apple that most of us want a bite of.

I write this about a day after having seen the movie. My emotional reaction is interesting, at least to myself. The film produced two feelings in succession that still linger. The first was the sense of emptiness at the heart of the Siegel’s lifestyle. As Wordsworth said, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”

The second reaction, however, was to think of my wife and children, my family and friends, my good health, and realize just how lucky I am. The Siegels can have their private jet and dazzling luxury. More — more is the pity.

Einstein on the Subject of What is Important

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

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

The above image is Professor Albert Einstein Visits the U.S. from The Scientific American 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on page 483. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

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If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Betrayal

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While betrayal comes in many forms, certainly among the very worst is the betrayal of a child by a parent. As a therapist, one hears perhaps too many of these stories for comfort. There are generic ones, where parents steal money or credit cards from their offspring; use up the college fund that a grandparent left the child; and perpetrate (or allow) verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Then there are the very particular and peculiar ones that require some amount of invention, but still break the heart.

A few stories then, followed by an attempt to answer the question “Why?”

Take a set of parents who invested themselves in “surface” things — how they looked to others. They needed the right car, the right house in the right neighborhood, the right clothes, and the right friends. And so, when one of their children had a less than attractive nose, they required this youngster to have a “nose job.” The youth was OK with the nose that nature had delivered, but this wasn’t satisfactory to the parents.

You might say that the surgery benefited the youngster, but only on the surface. It delivered the message that the child’s opinion (the desire not to have the surgery) didn’t matter, that a frightening and unnecessary operation would be inflicted, and that the offspring was not good enough without a cosmetic overhaul. All of this negated whatever benefit accrued to looking more pleasing to the eye.

Another example. Two sisters. The younger was very bright, but not particularly attractive. The older one was gorgeous, but not so bright. What did the parents do? They referred to them in public as “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” Both compliments, it’s true, but so ingeniously fashioned and used that the real message to the younger one was “You are ugly” and to the older one “You are stupid.” Devastating.

Or the parents whose oldest child committed suicide by using a handgun that had been given him by his father. After the funeral the father gave the gun to the brother next-in-line. Next-in-line for what? What was the unspoken message here?

How about the young man, a college student, disliked by his abusive father? This was back in the days before the voluntary army, back in the time of Vietnam and the draft. The father knew that his son needed to manage a full-time course load in order to keep his student deferment.

So what did the father do?

He required that his offspring pay rent to stay in the family home knowing that his kid couldn’t afford it, even though the money wasn’t essential to the upkeep of the residence. Ultimately the young man couldn’t manage his studies because of the job. He had to quit school and was drafted, then sent to S.E. Asia. His father never wrote him letters in those days before email and, in fact, sold all the son’s possessions including his car while he was overseas.

What was the message from father to son? I don’t want you to succeed? I don’t want you home? I don’t expect you to survive? I don’t want you to survive? Or all of the above?

Why do they do it? The parents, I mean. First off, we know that if you have been abused by your parents, you are more likely to abuse your children than those people who have not had this awful experience. In effect, you are at risk of becoming the thing that you hate, perhaps even rationalizing the brutal behavior of your dad or mom. “They did the best they could” is a common theme that adult children use as they reflect back on their parents’ approach to child rearing and try to minimize and normalize the mistreatment they received. Similarly, the words spoken by the abusive parent, “I’m only doing this for your own good,” often serve as a “cover” for less than benign intentions.

Children who are being abused have little recourse but to put a good face on their parents’ behavior. To realize that one’s parents are vicious or frankly deranged leaves a child desperate and hopeless. If, on the other hand, the young one can find some reason to continue to admire the parent, he may find his home life at least slightly less terrifying.

Kids in this situation are desperate to find any signal of hope about the future. If they see their predicament for what it is, hope is dead. They are stuck and there is no place to go. It is therefore (in some sense) more comforting to believe that the reason for the mistreatment is their own fault, than to think that their elders are simply evil. If mom and dad are believed to be crazy or vicious, the child can only despair. On the other hand, if the young one believes that his behavior is somehow deserved, then by working to change himself he can at least imagine that he will win better treatment from his folks.

With no alternative family to which to compare his situation, the child has no model of parenting that is different, no clear standard that tells him that his parents are corrupt, at least until many years into the abuse at a time when he is older. If, in his effort to normalize the situation, the child does find something admirable about the parent, and perhaps even something good about that person’s behavior, he is more likely to emulate it later. Furthermore, in trying to obtain a sense of mastery over his life, kids will often experiment with the very behavior that has been perpetrated on them. That is, they may obtain satisfaction (as well as an outlet for their anger) by being brutal with others, who might be their siblings or their school mates.

One could go on about this subject for quite some time, but if you’d like a place to start exploring it, you might want to read For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller looks at case histories of abuse, including some very controversial speculation about Adolph Hitler and what childhood experiences might have contributed to his sociopathy.

It is definitely worth your time and attention.

The image comes from the MGM movie, Julius Caesar. Casca, about to stab Caesar, is played by Edmond O’Brien and Caesar by Louis Calhern. The movie features Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus.