Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

Kinds of Love: A Primer

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With the arrival of a grandbaby, loving feelings lead to loving thoughts. Clearly, romance is not the only kind of ardent affection. Some might even argue it is not the best kind. Consider a few others, little buddy:

  • “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” Hearing this is the emotional equivalent of finishing fourth in a three-person race.
  • Love of a newbie, like you. Complete, selfless, consuming — as airborne and obsessed as romantic love, but without the lust.
  • Love of your parents. Not interchangeable with the immediately preceding type. For a while they will be everything. Later? Be sure to remember them!
  • Love of a friend. One of life’s greatest satisfactions according to Aristotle and psychological research.
  • Unrequited love. So heartsick a condition you will not believe you will recover. You will, Will.
  • Love of a pet. Don’t forget you must clean up the poop!
  • Love of money. The “root of all evil.” Not the money itself, but the love of it. Read about King Midas so you recognize him by other names when you enter the world of work.
  • Chocolate! It doesn’t measure up to romance, but chocolate is more reliable!
  • Music or art, as in “I love this song.”
  • Materialistic love, as in “I love my toy.” Later it will be, ”my car.” No difference.
  • Love of learning. You are already learning lots, kiddo.
  • Love of self. A necessary thing. At its extreme, however, known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
  • God.

Now consider how these differ, little man. Some involve feelings for an abstraction (a deity) while others focus on the concrete: a person or a material object. A beloved can be literally “to die for.” You might give your life to save someone you adore, but probably not a piece of chocolate, a Taylor Swift song, or a Bruckner symphony. Especially a Bruckner symphony. People have died for their faith and their homeland. You will learn about Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War hero, who said, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Love comes with worry about the beloved’s well-being. Affection also involves the fear your fondness won’t be returned. Or will be returned like a package unopened. To love is to unshield yourself. No wonder we “fall” in love. Be sure to wear bubble wrap to cushion the impact, kid. Even that won’t work, I’m afraid.

Your parents will let you down, Will. Not that they intend to, but mistakes happen. Forgiveness is a big part of intimacy. Even inanimate objects wear out, discolor, and break. Affection survives because of the repairman in each of us.

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Love that is perpetually awestruck is not love. You might one day get on your knees to ask for a woman’s hand, but her permanent place (and your own) isn’t on a pedestal. Nor should it be underneath one, as Woody Allen admitted in describing why his first marriage failed.

Love can motivate art or music. Loss, too, can drive creation, as in songs of heartbreak. Joseph Suk wrote his Asrael Symphony after the death of his father-in-law Antonin Dvorak, and his wife Ottilie, Dvorak’s daughter. In Jewish mysticism, Islam, and Sikhism, the word Azrael is associated with the angel of death.

The opposite of love is indifference, not hate. Hate is closer to love than we think, as revealed by jealousy and rage over rejection. Love tends to generate possessiveness — the attempt to control — a kind of suffocation. Thus, the cry, “I can’t breathe.” Don’t suffocate anyone, my boy.

The absence of love is deforming — emotionally deforming — especially for children. Not your problem, you much-loved young man. Do, however, learn about Harry Harlow’s research on the differences between monkeys who were suckled by inanimate, surrogate “mothers” made of wire vs. those covered in fabric. Without the softness provided by the manikin’s cloth exterior, the babies developed behavioral problems.

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There is pain in distance from the thing you care for. Most of us long for sensuality, which you can find even in the aroma and taste of the chocolate I mentioned. Sensuality, however, won’t come from your goldfish: nobody dives into the bowl in the hope of a hug. Gods too, like goldfish, are out of reach. Can an abstraction alone fully satisfy a human made of bone, flesh, and a beating heart? Let me know when you have an answer.

Love of a human or a pet, sometimes even a country or a deity, brings obligation. Such demands will restrict you. You can’t fly to a Parisian holiday if your child is sick, should you be so lucky to have one of your own. As Francis Bacon wrote, “A man who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” His freedom of action is encumbered by the “hostages.” Yours might be, too.

One present you give people you love is your presence: your time and focus. Much is said about “quality time,” but quantity is desperately important. Frank Bruni hit the target in The Myth of Quality Time:

“Couples move in together not just because it’s economically prudent. They understand, consciously or instinctively, that sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the ‘I love you’ that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purist.”

Your parents can’t schedule your first word, Will. Or your first step or first heartbreak. Life plays out unpredictably. I hope we are all lucky enough to see a good part of yours.

Children — your own — will need more than your presence, of course. A conscientious and stable parent tries not to burden his offspring with his own problems. By the way, your mom and dad are raising you so that you become independent enough to flee them. Hard to believe, isn’t it, when they hold you so close you feel you are in heaven? They do, too.

Many things are done for someone you love, as you will recognize by keeping an eye on your folks. I’m talking about generosity, care, and protection, not to mention self-sacrifice. Selfishness and infidelity are among those actions you don’t perform if your attachment is genuine.

Be careful what you say, my boy. That is, once your learn to talk. We reveal personal things to someone we love unsaid to others. A hard truth is another kind of utterance limited to only a few. At least, if you do it for their sake and not your own. Aristotle expected a real friend to try to keep his buddy from going off the rails. Then again, some statements are also held back for fear of injuring the person to whom you are close.

Even in love, however, not everything is disclosed. If your future partner hears your every thought, she will run screaming into the night.

Love means defending a confidant even in his absence. You do not conspire against him or sit by in silence while others do. The only exception to this rule I can think of is Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” who slayed Julius Caesar.

What you do for someone you love is often unseen. What you do when you betray someone is usually unseen, as well. Camouflage identifies dishonorable intentions. Unless, that is, the secrecy leads to a birthday surprise.

You know none of this, buddy. You will not take a course in “Love” at college. A young person can only scrutinize, listen, stumble and try again. So, little guy, in matters of the human heart, you have much to learn. Love is a subject more difficult than calculus and more important.

Your mom and dad will be there to teach you, to touch you, to watch over you and listen to you. They will pick you up when you trip and encourage you to try again. Perhaps there is sort of instruction to be found in them and their actions, a model. Pay attention to their example and you will receive a tuition by intuition and observation.

The university, after all, can only teach so much. Matters of the heart are learned face-to-face.

I’ve seen you checking out the faces nearest you. Those faces are crazy about you, William. In that domain, kiddo, you are already a lucky boy.

The first image is called De Kuss by Bernardien Sternheim. It was made available by Marcel Oosterwijk, Amsterdam, via Wikimedia Commons. The other two photos are a bit closer to home.

What We Wish for Our Children: On the Pursuit of Happiness

It is perhaps inevitable that we hand the family flag to our children, sometimes even before they are born, hoping that the little ones will wave it for all to see and admire. We want them to be something special. We want them to cure cancer, make money, be gorgeous, become famous, produce equally singular grandchildren — all of that and more. Somehow — in there somewhere — we think happiness is to be found and will be theirs. That notion is implied, not stated. It assumes that all those achievements and acquisitions will automatically lead to that blessed state of well-being, or at least not diminish their chances of getting there.

As we, the parents, get older though, I think that our hopes and dreams for our kids sometimes change. Perhaps it is, in part, because we have now had many chances to see our offspring hurt — to see them really unhappy. Broken hearts, dashed prospects, defeats on the field of play that we call life. Perhaps we begin to wonder if ACHIEVEMENT is worth the cost, if luck is just possibly more important than talent, if physical beauty is as crucial as we used to think it was. Perhaps we come to realize that no one can “have it all” and that choices have to be made in any life about which baskets will hold our eggs, those fragile parts of us that can be so easily cracked.

Philip Larkin’s poem Born Yesterday gets to the heart of this matter. Written in 1954, it was dedicated to little Sally Amis, the new child of his friends Hilary and Kingsley Amis. He first talks about those things that others are likely to wish for her: things like perfect love and beauty, worthy enough for certain, but not especially likely. And, indeed, he hopes that she can have those things. But then he changes course, knowing that she probably won’t be that lucky.

Larkin suggests that she could do worse than be ordinary. He implies that the qualities that make one different from others — he calls these qualities “uncustomary” — can complicate your life, even if they are remarkable or special, including great talent or beauty. His birthday wish for her is therefore a bit shocking: “In fact, may you be dull –/If that is what a skilled,/Vigilant, flexible,/Unemphasised, enthralled/Catching of happiness is called.”

To me, what he is getting at here is that the ultimate gift for any of us is to have a kind of openness to life, the capacity to experience each day with the wonderment of a child who was, as the title suggests, Born Yesterday. The idea is to discover (or rediscover) that wide-eyed watchfulness that just about all newborns have, that makes the world enthralling. Happiness, in this context, is something to be “caught” almost randomly, not achieved or the result of hard work, but a matter of attitude toward the world and the ability to see it afresh and let the passing moments dazzle you.

If he is right, then most of us and most of our children don’t have to be great heroes or heroines, athletes or leaders, Nobel Prize winners or creative geniuses or supermodels. Happiness might just be in reach, if only one can stretch out one’s arm to catch it.


Here is the poem:

Tightly-folded bud,
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love –
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.

The photos are of my children when they were small: Jorie and Carly Stein, respectively.

Too Many Balls in the Air: The Frustrated and Frustrating Life of ADHD

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He was dynamic, outgoing, and enormously entertaining.

He was creative, full of ideas, and energetic.

And he was one of the most frustrating people you would ever care to be around.

About whom do I speak? A bright, charming man with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD is more complicated than you might think. Although there is much written about it, I want to cover a few of the things that can be missed about the condition. But first, let me explain the name and define it.

There are three types of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder):

  • 1. ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type. This used to be called ADD, but technically speaking, sufficient inattentiveness is considered a category of ADHD, even though little hyperactivity may be present. These are the folks who seem to be listening, but are lost in space; easily taken away by a tune, a sound, or an idea; the people who miss the details and forget the assignments.
  • 2. ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-impulsive Type. This is what most people think of when they hear or read the four letter acronym ADHD. People with this diagnosis are characteristically talkative, active, intrusive; a bundle of unmanaged, impulsive activity.
  • 3. ADHD, Combined Type (meaning it includes the symptoms typical of the first two categories); too many balls in the air, for sure.

What about the man I mentioned at the top; a person who had the “combined type” of ADHD?

He had lots of energy and ideas, so people found him engaging. But it wasn’t a very productive sort of energy. He would begin things, but not complete them. He was disorganized — losing keys and papers, and forgetting appointments. He promised to do things, but couldn’t be relied upon to do them as quickly or as well as expected, if at all.

This man (let’s call him A.T.) went nowhere fast; very fast. A.T. looked liked the “Energizer Bunny,” but mostly traveled in circles.

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He tended to over commit himself, taking on more tasks than he could handle effectively, chronically underestimating what he could accomplish in the time available. A.T. was routinely late for appointments, and made decisions quickly, without fully considering the longer term consequences of his actions. Bored easily, distracted more easily, and prone to procrastination, he knew that he wasn’t what others hoped for and expected. Although he was full of promise, his reputation was that of someone who was a thoughtless, irresponsible underachiever — an individual who needed minding.

Employers were disappointed, co-workers were frustrated by A.T., and his spouse was driven just a little crazy, feeling that she couldn’t depend on her partner. She’d married someone who was exciting, only to find that the excitement he produced was more of the “Oh, no!” kind that made her sweat when she discovered he was late to pay a bill or pick up the kids. Not surprisingly, she started to see him as just another one of the kids, as their partnership turned into more of a “disapproving mother/resentful child” relationship than either of them wanted.

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Before I tell you about A.T.’s treatment, let me say a few things that might not automatically come to mind about the condition and its consequences:

1. Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD individuals can sometimes look like they are world beaters, but mostly beat themselves; indeed, they are often chronic underachievers. If you are planning on forming a working group or partnership with such a person, don’t be fooled by a positive first impression of excitement and energy. You will almost certainly be disappointed down the road.

2. ADHD, even today, is sometimes not detected in schools. There are several reasons:

  • The inattentive form of this condition may well produce school failure, but not misbehavior. Inattentive children are often quiet and relatively well-behaved, unlike their hyperactive-impulsive counterparts.
  • School personnel may incorrectly attribute ADHD-like behavior to laziness or oppositionality. Moreover, school systems, even when they do formal evaluations, are frequently reluctant to identify problems that require additional resources and personnel, which they are hard-pressed to provide given their limited funds.
  • An ADHD child who is bright can compensate (to some extent) for his attentional problems by relying on his excellent intellectual abilities, at least for a while. Eventually, however, many of these children (as they age and school begins to demand more of them) find out that advanced intelligence is no longer sufficient to permit success.
  • There is no single standard measure that reliably identifies ADHD. Evaluators commonly use some combination of paper and pencil tests, clinical judgment, and attentional measurements. Intelligence (IQ) and neuropsychological tests can easily miss some of the most clinically obvious cases of this condition.

3. The fact that ADHD children are able to become “hyperfocused” on things like computer games or other tasks that they find especially interesting, does not invalidate the diagnosis of ADHD. Indeed, this sort of selective attention is seen fairly often.

Some researchers believe that those games provide rewarding stimulation in the form of frequently changing images, sounds, and challenges; as well as the success of achieving points or increasing levels of success, thus “capturing” the attention and imagination of the ADHD youngster. By comparison, the real world school room seems boring. Recommendation? Limit your child’s screen time, even in front of regular TV shows.

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4. Although many people are hesitant to take medication, ADHD is a diagnostic category that is especially responsive to psychotropic medication. Hundreds of studies support the effectiveness of such treatment for about 85% of children with this condition according to Russell Barkley’s authoritative 2006 book Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In a 2007 paper by Elliot and Kelly — “ADHD medications: an overview” published in the journal Attention — the authors state that “No medicine available to psychiatrists produces a more rapid and dramatic effect more safely than the proper dose of a stimulant to a patient with ADHD.”

5. If medication does work, it will likely be needed on a continuing basis, not as a temporary fix. The irony is that stimulant medication, which will cause internal agitation in those who are not suffering from ADHD, actually permits the person with the condition to focus more and become less prone to the hyperactivity/impulsivity that had been a problem.

6. ADHD is correlated with a greater risk of developing a Conduct Disorder, typically characterized by antisocial misbehavior and defiance of authority. Not surprisingly, such individuals often abuse alcohol or drugs (not only as an act of rebellion, but also as a self-medication designed to calm their hyperactive state). Adolescents and adults who have ADHD are thought to make up at least 25% of the population of prisons according to Barkley.

In all these examples, the impulsive, ill-considered behavior that is typical of ADHD takes a fearful toll. Such individuals are easily bored, requiring intense and novel reinforcement (rewards) to motivate them, and are prone to “sensation-seeking” — looking for extreme excitement that their condition seems to make them crave. Indeed, one patient of mine reported driving at speeds approaching 100 MPH on city streets simply for the feeling it produced in him. Nor did he think he was at much risk (or putting others at much risk) in doing so, thus demonstrating the poor judgment characteristic of those with the hyperactive-impulsive form of ADHD, as well as their tendency to disregard rules and authority figures.

7. While many general medical practitioners (GPs) can prescribe medication for ADHD quite well, some are hesitant to do so, sometimes due to lack of training or inexperience with this particular diagnosis. Cautious GPs will prescribe psychotropic medication, but are prone to giving doses that are too small. It is generally best to see a psychiatrist in such cases; that is, someone who specializes in the prescription of medication for psychiatric disorders.

8. The frustration that ADHD produces in school children can make them give up (and eventually drop out), believing that nothing they can do will make any difference in their performance. Some of them will become avoidant of academic or other work tasks because they believe that they will fail, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many will get angry at the teachers, bosses, and parents who so often are reminding them of their inadequacies. Thus, ADHD fuels other behaviors that make a good life difficult.

What happened to our friend A.T?

You’d think it was simply a matter of telling him of the benefits of medication, wouldn’t you?

Not so fast.

He was one of those folks who was uncomfortable with the “idea” of having to be reliant on medicine. He told me that he didn’t “believe” in medication, as if it was a matter of religious faith.

A.T. was also quite narcissistic; in denial concerning his own responsibility for the things that went wrong in his life. Similarly, he had no trouble blaming others including bosses and wives. Not to mention that he drank too much and didn’t acknowledge that it was a problem. Indeed, he had only come into treatment at his spouse’s insistence.

One of the challenges of psychotherapy is the fact that few people fit “pure” diagnostic types. Instead, one must be aware of all the complicating factors that can make effective therapy difficult. This man’s narcissism, denial, and alcohol abuse certainly created just such complications.

Had A.T. been more motivated and self-aware, less prone to denying the misery he was creating around him, a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) approach to his ADHD could well have helped, even if he chose not to take medication.

CBT programs include formal guidance in planning and organizational skills, assistance in problem solving and decision-making, help in reducing the number of distractions in the environment, practice in new thinking skills, training in ways to reduce procrastination, and advice to help you cope with failure. Homework is required between sessions.

The program described by Steven Safren and his associates in the work book Mastering Your Adult ADHD, developed by psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, was able to produce significant improvement in about 50% of those patients who continued to have clear problems even after being treated with medication.

So, if you have ADHD, medication and CBT provide reasons for optimism that things can get better.

Just don’t drop the ball!

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The top image is the Carbon Cycle created by the U.S. Government Department of the Interior. The one that follows is the Tux Crystal Linus Award by Nevit Dilmen. The next photo was created by Thomas Pusch and is called Scolded By Mama. The fourth picture is of Two Men Playing a Computer Game by Love Krittaya. Finally, a picture of a Geode  by Whitsoft Development. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

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Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.