Tell Me What You “Want” and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.

What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.

Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.

Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.

Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.

Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.

I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.

Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.

Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.

You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.

Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.

When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.

My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.

Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.

Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.

How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.

Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.

You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.

If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.

I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.

Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.

Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.

You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.

Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.

Do You Know Who You Are? A Meditation on Identity, Mid-life Crisis, and Change

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Who are you?

In times of war, men define themselves by three pieces of information only: name, rank, and serial number. I suppose that the peace-time equivalent is name, profession, and age; not social security number, which you are wise to keep to yourself for fear of identity theft. Stolen identities aside, the question of who you are is still an important one.

But let me formulate it differently.

How would you describe yourself? What human characteristics or traits or values are essential to you? What makes you different from any other person on earth?

Let’s start at the beginning of life. You are given a name. How does the name define you and influence the rest of your life? If you are A Boy Named Sue, as in the old song, you can be sure that your identity and life have been changed by your parents’ decision about appellation. Indeed, there is now research evidence that some names, those thought to be used predominantly by blacks, cause potential employers to discriminate against a job applicant’s resume when compared to individuals with the same qualifications who have names that are less racially-linked.

Name-changing has long been a way for white Americans to avoid discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Others had their names compromised when reaching this country from Europe and were processed for entry to the USA on Ellis Island. Thus, a Paderewski became a Patterson and a Rifkin became a Riff, due to the simplifications created by the randomly assigned immigration official. And, from the start, the new arrival had to deal simultaneously with a change of name, a new nationality, a loss of homeland, and the now restricted opportunity to use his native language, all playing on the question of his identity. Meanwhile, his young offspring encountered the attitude of teachers (and, much later) potential employers or lovers to someone named Patterson rather than Paderewski, just as he saw himself as the former and not the latter.

For the immigrant, the “dislocation of place” both parallels and creates the dislocation of his sense of who he now is. The person has gone from being (perhaps) an unremarkable resident of his home country to someone “different,” who speaks (at best) with an accent, and who has a history that is at odds with the shared past of his new neighbors. The man has become, truly, a stranger, but he is not just strange to others—he is strange to himself.

Just as some people voluntarily attempt to hide their ethnicity, so too do some few work to hide their race. You might want to watch the 1959 movie, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and John Gavin, for a cinematic take on this subject, the attempt to pass for white. More recently, Philip Roth’s year 2000 novel The Human Stain (and the movie of the same name) deals with a black University professor passing as a white man; and Bliss Broyard’s 2007 memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets describes her father Anatole Broyard’s self-transformation from black to white within the literary world.

And one must give at least brief mention of a condition called Gender Identity Disorder, in which children may be born anatomically of one sex, but of the opposite sex in terms of identity.

Religion also helps create one’s sense of self. As the European generation who survived World War II began to approach death, a number of adult Polish Catholics discovered, through these aging parents or other relatives, that they were born Jewish. The children had been rescued from the Holocaust by Polish gentiles. It was therefore often easier and safer to treat them as Catholic during the Nazi occupation than to try to persuade them to keep a secret of their religion. Once this identity alteration was performed, however, it proved to be hard or uncomfortable to undo, particularly in a nation with an antisemitic history. The revelation of the religion into which they were born surely transformed the identity of a number of these religiously recast people.

Revelations of another kind occurred in post-World War II Germany. The children of Nazi authorities and SS members did their best to keep their identities secret for fear of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, their children sometimes discovered (to their dismay)  the answer to the question “What did you do during the war, daddy?” This type of revelation can lead the child to wonder who he really is, and whether he has inherited some of the unfortunate qualities of his father.

The 1989 movie Music Box starring Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl deals with a similar circumstance, but one transported to the Chicago area. It involves the question of a father’s activities in Hungary during the war and his daughter’s legal defense of him against the US government’s attempt to deport him.

If you have seen or read the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, you know still a different take on the same theme, this time without war crimes entering picture, at least as they are usually defined. The play takes place in post World War II America. Joe Keller ran a wartime factory with his former neighbor, Steve Deever. The men knowingly shipped defective airplane cylinder heads causing the death of 21 U.S. Air Force pilots. Steve goes to jail for this, although somehow Joe is exonerated of the crime. But when Joe’s pilot son Larry finds out what his father has done, his shame translates into suicide, so devastated is he by the identity-altering knowledge of who his father is and what his father has done.

As I hope these examples make clear, the question of your identity also involves awareness of who your parents were or are. Adopted children often seek out their biological parents, as do those who have been abandoned and left with only one parent to raise them. They also lack the medical history that informs the lives of those of us who know our parents well. The difference can mean life or death. Am I at risk for heart disease or not? It depends, in part, on who your parents are or were, and that information can change your life.

Children who have lost a parent to disease or death-by-accident or in war-time have a similar problem, even if they don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a parent or parents gave them up, and the attendant implication that they were worthless to those parents. And, their identity is influenced by the fact that they are “different:” the ones who lack a parent, have no partner at the daddy-daughter dance, have no father to teach them to play ball and no male parent to root for them at the Little League game.

Shifting gears, our identities are surely influenced by physical and intellectual characteristics: short/tall, young/old, handsome/homely, smart/stupid and so forth. But not all such qualities are fixed. Witness the change in identity that happens as people age, especially if they were once beautiful or handsome, or once athletic and now infirm. For those who trade on superficial characteristics exclusively, the change that comes with the passage of time is more than troubling.

Gorgeous women, in particular, find that they no longer turn the heads of men so much, if at all. Instead, the male of the species looks to other, younger women. Germaine Greer talked about this in terms of becoming “invisible,” though she found freedom in it to be more herself, less concerned with how she looked. One way or the other, it is an identity changer. Similarly, those who are injured, scared, or lose a limb or a breast must redefine themselves, reconfigure who they are in their own minds just as they have been quite literally reconfigured physically.

On the other hand, if you receive an organ transplant, you face an unusual assault to your sense of self. You are no longer the physical entity of earlier days, but now have a part of another person inside of you.

Yet, sometimes external changes do not alter identity very much. I have counseled more than one naturally beautiful adult woman who was the fat kid or the ugly kid while growing up, or the child who was criticized and belittled by parents. Too often the early labels seem to adhere to the person’s self concept as if they were tattooed on their flesh. Thus, it is not a surprise that cosmetic surgery does not always achieve the sense of self-worth that the patient is looking for.

Other life events can also transform one’s self-image. Men are notoriously vulnerable to a loss of identity when they retire or lose a job and are no longer the CEO, breadwinner, “doctor/lawyer/Indian chief” of their working days. I recall hearing it said that for a time after his retirement from baseball, the great New York Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle had a recurring dream about trying to reenter Yankee Stadium by crawling under the fence that surrounded the ball field and getting stuck there! This is a stereotypical example of a man who was suffering from his loss of identity as an athlete.

So too, women who defined themselves exclusively in terms of their job as mothers frequently seem bereft and without a sense of self when the children leave the nest. In addition, women historically are more likely than men to define themselves by their partner, and achieve a sense of who they are by who their partner is. Being, for example, “the doctor’s wife” might have some value until the day that you are the doctor’s ex-wife. But, it must be said that men do this, too, and take some measure of self-definition and pride in having a talented or beautiful or charming wife.

Before closing, one must certainly comment on the notorious mid-life crisis of identity usually associated with men. Some men begin to get the sense of time passing them by and of not having accomplished all that they wished for in life. Jean Améry has said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, his self concept is informed by the expectations he has for his future. For most men in middle age, however, “who he will be” is not all that promising.

As the (usually unconscious) sense of mortality and “doors closing” begins to encroach, males have been known to act foolishly in order to hold on to or recapture their youth. A fast, new model car will suffice on occasion, but the stereotyped search for a new model “trophy” love is certainly something I’ve encountered in my clinical practice. It has been known to take the form of a rekindled high school or college romance, as well, for those men less concerned about external appearances and more about “the road not taken.”

However the crisis manifests itself, the crisis-driven actions inevitably fail to find the “Fountain of Youth” that is their real goal. Grudgingly or not, one must accept one’s mortality and the accompanying aging process or make some big and painful mistakes, costly to yourself and to others around you, as the price of trying to hold onto an identity whose time has passed. Dylan Thomas wrote, “do not go gentle into that good night,” but, gentle or not, go we will.

A few years beyond the mid-life crisis stage, most men and women find themselves thinking about different things than they were in their youth. Thoughts related to sex diminish and thoughts about aches and pains increase. In both cases, the mind is reminded by the body of one and not the other. The only difference is that the body steals upon you with sexual thoughts and feelings while young and, as these diminish, perversely tries to make up for it with sensations that hurt more! If you are like me, the first change you notice is that you actually have knees. Now, for the first time, you are aware of the work they do, and the knowledge is not consoling. These thoughts and sensations make their own contribution to who you are.

Finally, Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge has asked an interesting question about identity. What if, Posner wonders, we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement? Are we still punishing the same man 40 years after the wrong has been done? Certainly his name is the same and his history marks him as the same man. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, faith, or any or all of the aforementioned.

I hope that it is clear that identity is not so simple a thing. It is made up of one’s history and those histories of one’s forebears. At least partially, it is a function of a name and a place and a time, whether friendly to a person or not, particularly if society is prejudiced. Physical characteristics, too, play their part, as do what we think and what we do; and, of course, whether we have much self-awareness or, instead, see ourselves as different from who we really are.

And, it is a thing that can change — that must change — as we age and take on new roles in our families and in our community; and as changes occur not just in our mind’s eye, but in the mirror.

It is worth some thought, I think, that question with which I began.

Who are you?

The image is called Pentaeagondodekaeder by Lokilech, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Infidelity and Its Treatment

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The names don’t really matter. Today they are Tiger Woods; Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina; and John Ensign, U.S. Senator from Nevada. Tomorrow they will be someone else. Every day, there are other names, little known, but causing no less pain.

How does it happen? How does it happen that people who claim to live by well established moral norms, who have taken a public oath to remain faithful to their spouse, violate that promise? There are several reasons:

1. Power and celebrity = opportunity. People in positions of power and celebrity have more opportunity than most to be unfaithful. They are surrounded, sometimes literally, with admiring and attractive younger people. As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything, except temptation!” The famous and powerful have plenty of that.

2. Contiguity. You might think that the separation of sexes in some religious fundamentalist societies is unfortunate or wrong, but it does keep opportunity at a minimum. In modern Western secular civilization, men and women work together, eat together, and travel together on business. Repeated contact with a sympathetic business associate, pulling together with that person as a team on a business project, creates not just the opportunity for sexual contact, but the chance to get to know and like one another. Perfectly moral and decent folk can find themselves stirred by the presence of a person to whom they are not married, even though they weren’t looking for anything outside of the marriage.

3. Disinhibition. Alcohol and drugs. If you are around sexually attractive people in a party atmosphere or when you are “under the influence,” your judgment and hesitation are more likely to be set aside.

4. The “Great Man” rationale. More than once, I’ve heard men justifying the concept of infidelity in the case of those who are accomplished and powerful. Often, the rationale includes reference to the role that “the great man” plays in benefiting society. According to this line of reasoning, the “heroic” figure is thought to have earned the right to live by a different set of rules than the common man, and should be given the chance to be compensated for his contribution to society by being allowed multiple sexual partners.

5. The “It won’t hurt anyone” rationale. The faithless sometimes persuade themselves that there is nothing wrong with their behavior so long as anyone who might be injured (spouse/children) never knows about it. This is akin to the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is present to hear it, does it really make a sound?” What the argument ignores is that the transgressor is changed by his act of betrayal, that he must tell a continuing set of lies in order to maintain the fiction of his character, that he risks his partner’s physical health in the event that he has become a carrier of a sexually transmitted disease, and that it is impossible to guarantee that the secret will never be revealed.

6. Mid-life crisis. Poor humanity. Poor man. We age, we lose our youthful good looks, sometimes our hair, our virility, our energy, our strength, our stamina. The antidote? A youthful or new sexual partner who, for a time, can help us shut out the dreaded and self diminishing passage of time.

7. Solace. The ups and downs of life are inevitable, even in the luckiest of lives. The best marriages are not immune to the daily stress that  takes a toll on a spouse’s ability to be compassionate, encouraging, and supportive. Financial worries, business reverses, family illness, house keeping, and child rearing soon diminish the “date night” and honeymoon atmosphere of the early days of the relationship. A fresh and sympathetic set of ears, all understanding and acceptance, often develops into something more, and something sexual.

8. “It’s not natural.” Some people, mostly men, justify infidelity with the notion that man was not meant to be a monogamous creature and the flowers of the field (i.e. the opposite sex) were meant to be enjoyed.

9. Longevity. At the turn of the last century in America, that is, about 1900, the average life expectancy was about 50 years. By that standard it was usual for marriages to be relatively short, 25 to 35 years at the most, many much shorter. No longer. Many now last 50 years and more. What happens in that time? People get older, their bodies change, and their personalities alter as well. When I do marital therapy, I usually ask couples what initially drew them together. The most frequent answer I get is something like, “He was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Thirty years on, it goes without saying, he isn’t so “hot” and they sure aren’t having fun.

In order for marriages to thrive into mid-life and beyond, the couple has to work very hard at the relationship, to keep the sexual spark alive despite physical changes and familiarity, and to see to it that personality alterations are compatible or synchronous. Too often one partner wants the marriage to be exactly as it was at the beginning and believes that both the personality and physical changes in the other person amount to a breach of contract. Meanwhile, the other might feel held to a contract that is no longer appropriate to the current state of the couple’s life together and to their age, personality, and experience. One or the other very well may see infidelity as tempting under such circumstances.

10. The scoundrel factor. Although an injured spouse sometimes believes that “evil”  is the most likely explanation for her spouse’s betrayal, in most cases it really isn’t. Most people don’t set out to behave badly and many feel guilty when they do. That said, there are certainly more than a few cads among us, and they do with impunity what others only do with hesitation, a troubled conscience, or not at all.

11. Boredom. Boredom doesn’t cause anyone to stray, but it does set the stage for the temptation. Routine can kill even the things that we love. The pattern is well-known: wake up, go to work, come home, play with the kids, do the bills, and collapse from exhaustion. Or, the stay-at-home parent’s version: wake up, make food, shop, make food, take care of the kids, do the housekeeping, make food, clean, and collapse from exhaustion. Either way, the routine is deadening and there is little room for excitement.

12. A lack of sex. Again, this doesn’t cause infidelity, but can set the stage for it. A warning here: cease sexual contact at your own risk and at the risk of your marriage. But, this is not to suggest that you should have sex only because your partner wants to.

13. Cruelty, sarcasm, and a lack of appreciation. If the marriage has turned into a battle ground, with gratitude replaced by indifference or hostility, infidelity is more likely on either side.

When the infidelity is exposed, the result is devastating to the victimized spouse. Rage, sadness, a loss of self-regard, and feelings of inadequacy are common. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why did he do that? If he felt that way, why didn’t he leave first before he took on another partner? The devastation occurs whether the infidelity is fresh, or the betrayed person discovers it years after it occurred. The emotional clock of devastation only begins to run from the point that one becomes aware of what happened.

If a couple comes to therapy in the wake of such news, several factors go into the therapist’s evaluation of the situation. First, is the infidelity over or is it still going on? If the marriage is to have any chance, the “other” relationship has to end. Moreover, it has to end because the spouse having the affair wants it to end and believes that the marriage is worth saving, not because his marital partner is threatening to leave or because of the fear of financial devastation in the course of a divorce.

The therapist will try to gauge what still binds the marital couple together, if anything. Do they still have positive memories of their courtship? Do they have children and are they concerned about the effects of a divorce on their offspring? Are they still in love? If there is no love on the part of even one partner, therapy is almost certain to fail to recreate it.

If the both parties want to save the marriage, have positive memories of the start of their relationship, and if loving feelings still exist between them, treatment often can help to repair things. One of the first items in need of attention will be allowing the injured spouse to grieve. This will require both tears and anger, but will need to be time limited. That is, however great the injury, the victimized spouse must understand that he cannot forever bring up the infidelity to be used as a weapon when he feels unhappy or aggrieved in the future. As the old farm expression goes, “Don’t burn down the barn to kill the rats.”

Of course, apology by the roving partner will be necessary and it will take time to rebuild trust. Once the immediate crisis is over, the couple needs to look at what contributed to their estrangement and what changes need to be made in their relationship. They have to reaffirm a set of values by which to live and goals for their relationship and for the family. Changes in patterns of communication will likely be necessary, as will time and attention to each other. Serious self-reflection and responsibility-taking will be particularly important for the unfaithful member of the relationship, but the partner too must be willing to look at the possibility that he contributed to his spouse’s feelings of disaffection.

Such situations aren’t easy, but they can come out well. Good will, sincere contrition on the part of the person who strayed, and emotional generosity on the part of the victim are all key. The betrayal is never forgotten, of course. But time does its work on the scar of infidelity, just as bodily scars tend to soften and fade over time, even if they never fully disappear. Happiness and love may yet flourish.

The image above is a cropped screenshot of Lana Turner from the film The Postman Always Rings Twice, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.