On Human Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and a Touch of Genius

We think of ourselves and others in simple words and categories: good/bad, outgoing/bashful, assertive/passive, and so forth. Friends are offered halos until we are sad or angry enough to be done with them, and then the devil’s pitchfork becomes a part of the vision we recreate.

Not always, but often.

We are not all one thing or another. Consistency is more self-delusion than a reality. A close inspection suggests carve-outs, areas of our life where we are perhaps better or worse than our “imagined self:the way we like to think of ourselves or the way we can’t help but think of ourselves.

These are boxes and compartments of our unconscious making, to a degree. The parts we like are visible to our internal eye. More dubious sections live behind partitions.

Were the various zones fenced off by fixed lines with clear borders, we’d manage them with less trouble. The blurry, fuzzy, porous demarcations are scarier for us. We sense the leakage of our darker truths, harder to rationalize, harder to live with.

Life would be more fraught if we kept asking the question, “Who am I?Then we would be near relatives of the Wicked Queen in Snow White , who asked instead, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?I’m told her therapist suggested she stick with the first pleasing answer and put the looking glass away.

All of us are hypocrites at times, but call others by the name. When was the last time someone told you, “Yes, I am a hypocrite. I said one thing and did another” — or “I believed one idea yesterday, but acted today as if I didn’t because, well, uh ... ”

Too often the changes are opportunistic, impulsive, or driven by fear. An admirable new direction requires the never-easy task of soul-searching, not a backflip.

Want a dramatic example of human inconsistency? If you are acquainted with Holocaust literature, you know some of the children of war criminals claim the apparent contradiction of having kind parents. Take Edda Göring, who died in December, 2018. She was Hermann Göring’s daughter, the man who headed the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (air force), and a potential successor to Adolf Hitler.

Here is what Edda said about her dad:

I loved him very much, and it was obvious how much he loved me. My only memories of him are such loving ones. I cannot see him any other way.

Were this lady alone as an example of faith in a corrupt father, we might doubt the possibility. Again, people are self-contradictory. Perhaps Göring’s brutality stopped at the door of their home. He could have separated his villainous inhumanity from his private life.

Who among us, if well-treated by mom and dad, would believe he is the offspring of monsters?

Can anyone bear full self-awareness? Defenses, rationalizations, and mind-tricks must be acquired. Those drowning in self-criticism live in floundering guilt. They struggle to advance, to adapt, to be anything but transfixed by an accusatory finger before their face. The digit is theirs, at least by the time they are adults.

One of the hardest lessons in the social world is this: we must accept people whole — other than the abusers and unrepentant users — or become forever disappointed or resentful. Yes, humans can change, but it is easy to expect or demand too much.

Within our confusing and confused bipedal race, a handful of creatures display a genius of which inconsistency is an essential component. Their elements don’t appear to fit together, but the ensuing unpredictability itself produces fascination. When combined with an untroubled, occasional defiance of convention, their acquaintance causes diamantine delight.

They exist at the intersection of innocence and adventure, vulnerability and bravery. Four-way stops signs are not always observed in this spot. No wonder you wonder how they can survive at all.

Like Vincent van Gogh, you might call them intensifiers of experience and emotion, mimicking his search for a more yellow yellow, a more blue blue, a greener green. Life becomes like a canvass, filled without aid of paint or brush, textured as compared to the flatness many of us exhibit.

Such unparalleled spirits live to their fullest in moments both spontaneous and unselfconscious. Immersion in the present, however, comes at a cost. The world is encountered more through intuition and feeling than among those who lead with thought. Mindfulness of possible danger is given up in the embrace of the now.

Such precious artists of living should take care not to die for their art. Each one is the sole representative of an endangered species, missing even in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.

Few understand them. Perhaps no one can, including the specimen himself. Indeed, if one greets you, you’ll blink before letting their light in again, the better to make sure no hallucination stands at a handshake’s distance.

Don’t mention the meeting to anyone, by the way. Like a unicorn or UFO sighting, no one will believe your report. Keep quiet and consider yourself lucky for the encounter.

If you are looking for consistency in passersby, here’s some advice. Stop looking. It isn’t there. Watch the sky instead for flying things or search the ocean for the life that swims. No complexity will be found in our winged, finned, and four-legged neighbors. You can live with them unperturbed.

Back here in the peopled world, little chance exists of finding individuals who are wholly integrated, top to bottom.

But the inconsistencies make life interesting, don’t they? Here’s to our contradictions. Let’s join van Gogh’s Drinkers, just above; the baby, too.

Salute!

——-

The second and third paintings are by van Gogh: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle and The Bedroom. The next image is Picasso’s Man with a Pipe. Finally, three more from van Gogh: The Poet’s Garden, The Drinkers, and Red Vineyards at Arles. All of these come from the Art Institute of Chicago with the exception of the last, which derives from Wikiart.org.

Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

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Why do we associate with people who aren’t good for us? Why do we stick with them? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • FAMILIARITY: If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you are used to acquaintances who injure others. Their behavior is routine. To some degree you become habituated to it.
  • THE DIFFICULTY OF LEAVING: The end of relationships can be complicated and painful. Should you wish to avoid conflict or are afraid the toxic individual will lash out, all the more reason to endure the situation.
  • INSECURITY AND FEAR OF LOSS: A person with low self-esteem and few friends might accept a poor relationship despite its limitations. He does not believe he will be better off without it or capable of finding a new buddy.
  • OPPORTUNISM: Alliances can be a simple matter of taking advantage of a situation and serving your own interest. Senator Marco Rubio is being encouraged to run again for the Senate by senior Republican Party (GOP) members. Thus, he has decided to make friends with an enemy, Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for President. A former supporter of Rubio, Cecilia Durgin in the conservative National Review, states: “Rubio hadn’t just disagreed with Trump on policy but had labeled him a ‘con artist’ who threatened the GOP and was too dangerous to be entrusted with the nuclear codes. Now Rubio has gone from reluctantly upholding his pledge to support the nominee, to saying he’d attend the (Republican National) convention and would be ‘honored’ to help Trump.” Durgin finds Rubio’s shift opportunistic.
  • FEAR OF THOSE UPON WHOM YOU DEPEND: A child who perceives the potential for repetitive angry and hurtful responses from a parent can learn to bury his feelings and blame himself for generating the parental danger. He has little choice. Retaliation will only bring on more injury. Unfortunately, he may accept the parent’s verdict as just. By diminishing himself, he unconsciously attempts to make his situation more acceptable. Moreover, his life then becomes less hopeless: he comes to believe that if only he can change himself, the parent will show him love. Without eventual escape from the elder and processing his own misfortune, he is liable to accept mistreatment throughout his life.
  • RATIONALIZATION: The process of growing up is disillusioning. We discover mom and dad aren’t perfect and no one is morally pure. That includes ourselves, at least if we are honest (a contradiction in terms, I know). Many of us are not and excuse the gradual erosion and transformation of our sense of right and wrong. Thus, we might note no problem in those whose misbehavior isn’t much different from our own. People salve their conscience by thinking they will be heroic and principled when faced with a major moral crisis, no matter their small indiscretions in more routine situations. Without being tested, however, you don’t know. In my experience, morality is lost by inches. Those who are not careful gradually become something they would have rejected at an earlier time of life. When the big moral test arrives, they have long since given up whatever idealism they once had.
  • BECOMING POLLYANNA: By nature or experience, it is possible to be optimistic about individuals and look at the bright side of life. This can be a good strategy for a routine sense of happiness, despite the mistakes of judgment it leads to. If you see only the best in people then it doesn’t matter too much with whom you spend your time or, within limits, how they treat you.
  • HISTORY AND INERTIA: Relationships of long-standing are hard to give up. You share a history and a body of memories with someone special. A recent friend doesn’t replace that shared experience. A new person who appears toxic will be avoided much sooner than an old buddy or family member.
  • GUILT: Society reinforces loyalty. You risk not only admonishment if you end a relationship, but violating your own internalized sense of what is proper.
  • MISGUIDED HOPE OF GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: When your beloved or best friend reminds you of a parent who did not love you enough, you may endure his mistreatment in the hope he will change. You are still chasing the dream of getting the kind of affection you hoped for from the parent. This is a case of unconscious mistaken identity or — as therapists call it when they are taken for someone else (metaphorically speaking) — transference. One can almost never persuade a parent or parent’s doppelgänger to be who you want. We can only work through the transference, grieve our failure to obtain the desired love, and find healthier affections.
  • NECESSITY: In a down economy one stays in jobs with abusive bosses far longer than one otherwise would. Financial dependence on a spouse (or the inability to work) creates the same constraints. Escape becomes difficult; though, over time and with preparation, effort, and courage, a toxin-free situation is possible.
  • HOPELESSNESS: Some of us are so bruised by human contact as to assume we might as well stay put, since no one better is thought to exist. It is a false, but powerful belief and likely to be associated with depression. Treat the mood disorder. Hope (and a more objective view of the future) may then return.

One key to a good life is adapting, learning from experience, and knowing how to start over. There are millions of new people you might get to know who would enrich you. Unhappy relationships need not be maintained. We are often freer than we think.

The top Caltrans Sign is the work of Mliu92 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Opportunism and Its Consequences: “Sunset Boulevard”

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Being a has-been can’t be much fun. They are like ghosts of their former selves; and worst of all when they do not know that their day is already done, that the time has come when the shade will not (once again) see the sun.

Those people who are identified by the adjective “former” risk the dissatisfaction that comes with knowing you are no longer who you once were. It is easy to sympathize if someone is out of a job necessary to make a living. But what of the CEO, musician, ballplayer, or actor with tons of money but nowhere to go when the new work week comes, no crowd of fawning acolytes to sing his praises?

The world usually has a short memory for such people, as can be seen in the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, 16th on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest American Movies. It was directed (and co-written) by Billy Wilder, and stars William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. Upon meeting Desmond, Joe, a failing screenwriter says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” She answers back, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And, indeed, fifty-year-old Gloria Swanson was a very real relic of the silent screen, here portraying a rich, overdressed, out-of-date, ex-femme fatale who lives in a Beverly Hills mansion as faded as her movie career.

The world has mostly forgotten Norma, but she has not forgotten the world. She is one of those people we read about on the Internet, in features like “Whatever happened to…?” And then we see that so-and-so is now well-worn and largely out of the public eye and we say to ourselves, “Gee, I thought she was dead.”

The movie provides an answer to the question, “What would you do to get your dream.” Maybe your dream is an estate with a swimming pool, maybe it is becoming a star again, maybe it is directing a movie.

The movie gives us some answers. Joe Gillis is willing to become the sexual plaything of a sad, deranged, controlling woman (Desmond) who is 20 years his senior; and prostitute his writing skills as a ghost-writer for her irredeemable script, one that she expects to be the vehicle for her return to the movie screen. Of all things, it is based on Salome, the biblical tale of a sex-crazed girl in her early teens who becomes obsessed with John the Baptist, to the point of kissing his decapitated head. It seems never to occur to Norma that, at age 50, she is at least 30 years too old for the role; or that she has found her obsession in the writer Joe Gillis and, even more, in her comeback.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Not the exaggerated quality of her face and body, suggesting both a silent film style, but also her unhinged mental state.

Gloria Swanson in a frame from the movie. Note the exaggerated quality of her facial expression and gesture, suggesting both a silent film acting style and her unhinged mental state.

For his part, Joe Gillis is also desperate, but unlike Norma he is out of money and on the way out of Hollywood when he accidentally meets her. The movie community’s dismissal of the former star is similar to its indifference to Gillis’s own modest accomplishments. We meet other silent film greats now on the movie world’s discard pile, not coincidentally playing cards with Norma. And they are portrayed by real, but forgotten leading men (Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner) and an ex-leading lady (Anna Q. Nillson). Nor should I overlook Erich von Stroheim, once a famous director in real life, who is cast as Norma’s butler.

None of this is coincidental, as Billy Wilder apparently wished to make a movie about the cruelty of the flesh-market that is the motion picture industry, a place where the question “What have you done for me lately?” is the only one of importance regardless of what you might have accomplished in the past. Narcissism and opportunism are the watchwords for nearly every significant Hollywood character in the movie: self-involved people using people, just as Norma and Joe use each other.

There is much irony in this film, as when Joe Gillis says, “Funny how gentle people are with you when you’re dead,” by way of comparing that kindness to their treatment of you in Hollywood when you are alive. And then there is the movie’s title, Sunset Boulevard, referring to the street on which the mansion is located and the sunset of the careers of Norma and Joe.

Joe Gillis knows what he has become, but can’t free himself from his attachment to the fine things that Norma’s money will buy him, even if it requires the surrender of his independence and self-respect. He has become the consort of a ghost and her ghost-writer, both; a woman who dresses like Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, in a theatrical style as antiquated as the mansion she lives in and the overly dramatic way that she performs. As an actress she is a throw-back to something that literally went out when talking pictures came in and spoken words replaced, in part, facial expression and bodily movements that previously had been the only means of communicating. She remains stylized and “over the top,” despite the movie industry’s long-completed transition to a more natural way of acting.

This great picture is almost horror movie-like in its portrayal of Norma Desmond’s ultimate descent into madness — from trying to recapture the past to actually living in it — all in a house haunted by memories and photos of her former fame. It is also a film noir in the bleakness (however entertaining it is) of its vision of this segment of the human race. It is a morality tale too, a social commentary that extends beyond the movie industry to the mirror we might hold to our faces and ask, “What have I done to get what I’ve got; and what am I willing to do to get more and to keep it?” Dog-eat-dog behavior is not the exclusive property of a film studio.

The ultimate irony of this video production can be found in its stunning last scene, which I won’t give away here. I will only say that each of the main characters obtains some version of what he has been seeking, even though none of them can be thought of as fortunate in having obtained it.

Two famous quotes come to mind, one from the New Testament: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

The second is one of my favorite all-around quotes, by the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.” As I said, they all get something (Norma, Joe, and the butler), but not quite in the form that they expected it.

A Frame or Production Still Photo of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 Movie "Don’t Change Your Husbanda frame or production still of Gloria Swanson in the 1919 movie "Don’t Change Your Husband"

A frame or production still photo of Gloria Swanson from the 1919 movie “Don’t Change Your Husband.”

The top image is a studio publicity still from Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson and William Holden are featured in this photo, downloaded by Dr. Macro. The second picture comes from the movie itself; again Gloria Swanson is shown, as downloaded by hd-trailers.net/ All three images are 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.