Jerry, Raya, and the Shadow

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Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?

My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.

Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.

Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.

His parents were Holocaust survivors.

He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.

Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.

Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.

I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.

My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).

When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.

I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.

It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.

Maybe I did.

Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.

At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!

In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.

It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.

It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.

Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.

But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.

Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.

It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.

These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.

It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and  place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.

Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.

The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.

When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”

And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.

I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.

I wonder who they are now.

It would be nice to know.

The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.

Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.

How to Grieve, How to Live

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You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.

We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.

What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.

Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.

Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.

How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.

To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”

But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”

But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.

And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.

To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.

And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.

You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.

The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.

What To Expect From Your Partner When Your Baby Arrives

Sometimes the idea of a baby is a little different from the reality of a baby. Ask a parent. But the reality doesn’t comprise only the feeding and care of the little one. It also involves changes in the relationship to the spouse–the person who contributed half of the genes that make up your tiny new person.

Mostly I’m talking about a first child here, since the newness of the event and a number of other parts of it are things for which one cannot  prepare.

Let’s start with the sheer exhaustion you will feel. Babies are demanding creatures and will disrupt your sleep and test your stamina. Whatever schedule you had now must be altered to fit your child’s needs. How will you and your partner divide the new responsibilities?

Everything must now be planned out, so if you were a spontaneous, in-the-moment sort of person before, you will be thrown off your game. Do you want to go to the movies? Who will watch the baby? Are you breast-feeding? Will you leave some milk behind while you are out? Do you feel good about the person who is watching the infant? Is he/she conscientious and responsible?

The job of going out with the baby is not less demanding. Packing all his/her stuff, bundling him up, carrying or pushing him around, and trying to concentrate on driving or shopping or friends or your spouse at the same time.

Then there is the question of your parents and your in-laws. Do they want to be very involved with your new-born? How will you and your spouse feel if they are around more often? Will they be supportive or critical of you as new parents?

Of course, in order to go out, you must have a few dollars in your pocket. Most new parents have only a few–the mother (yes, its still usually the mother) has, at least temporarily taken time off from work. And now there is baby furniture and clothing and food to buy and baby sitters to pay for. Fewer dollars tends to mean more tension in the marriage and more decisions to be made about how to use those dollars.

New parents also face an increased sense of responsibility. After all, you have a little one who is entirely dependent upon you for everything–his life, safety, financial well-being, his clothes, food, and not least, his emotional health. Are you doing it right? Are you harming him/her? These concerns are enough to make nearly anyone insecure.

And, with the demands and responsibilities of this new life, you will necessarily have less time for each other and less time for yourself and your friends. Not surprisingly, especially among insecure men, jealousy can come into play. In an unexpected turn of events, the adoring sex-bomb he married just might have eyes for someone else–his own child! And, the needs of that kiddie will tend to come first. Moreover, if you have parents staying with you, your sexual spontaneity can be further diminished by their proximity. Later, you might also hear the phrase, “Not now–wait until the baby is asleep,” or later still “Not now, the kids might hear.” And one or both of you might occasionally find yourself thinking, to your surprise, that a nap sounds a lot better than sex.

In the time following the birth, the wife often feels less attractive, especially if her weight doesn’t come down to her pre-pregnancy number and the bags under her eyes reflect the sleeplessness of her new duties. Will the husband be understanding about this?

Heard enough? I haven’t even mentioned the differences in child-rearing styles that you will likely discover when your baby gets older.

Now that I’ve made the case against springing for a new off-spring, I will say something else: it can be one of the most wonderful times of your life. A time when you and your spouse pull together, find out new things about each other and about life, and glow with the love that only a child can evoke from you. If you are not dazzled by this new life, a life that you and your partner created out of nothing, a life that is different from any other one that exists now or ever existed, then you are missing one of the most wonderful experiences possible; it is a kind of falling in love, just as overwhelming as the romantic kind, but different.

Sure its a challenge, but what worthwhile tasks are not? It can be intense, delightful, joyous, worrying, demanding, and frustrating all at once.

But if you do it close to right and have a little luck, you will look back on your time on the planet knowing that it was the most important and rewarding thing you ever experienced.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

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What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over: How to Learn From Childhood

There are few perfect childhoods out there. Indeed, it’s the nature of childhood to have some tough times. You are small, you don’t know anything, everything has to be learned for the first time. No wonder its a challenge! The adults tower over you and the big kids can belittle you, push you around, and trip you up. Literally.

So what do we do to survive childhood? Well, we figure out some strategies to deal with the problems that we face. For example, if you have an angry parent, you might learn to be sensitive to signs of upset in someone else, know when to keep your head down, try not to ruffle feathers. On the other hand, if you had a parent who only gave you attention when you were helpful and solicitous, doing things like looking after your younger siblings, you could have learned how to take care of others and seen that quality as, perhaps, one of your only virtues.

Often, the solutions that were necessary early in your life don’t work very well in the “older” (which is to say “current”) version of you. Being sensitive to possible anger in friends, lovers, and coworkers could well find you cowering unnecessarily, accepting half-a-loaf because your are afraid that if you speak up, you will get none. Being a care-taker as an adult might get you some initial approval, but it can prove unsatisfying when the person you are with expects that you will do all the caring and give all the help in the relationship, but doesn’t think to give much back to you.

It’s a little bit like this: Imagine that you were born in Alaska, learned to wear heavy clothes and multiple layers. It was a solution that was necessary and one that worked. If you continue to live in Alaska, you will find success if you use the same solution forever. But, should you move to South Florida and operate by the same set of internalized rules, now you will have quite a problem!

Childhood solutions only are useful to adults if you continue to live in circumstances similar to your childhood. But, by definition, most of us live in different circumstances. We are not any longer so small and defenseless, so unworldly and innocent. We now have much more capability to change the world around us. Unfortunately, some of us don’t know it.

Are you doing the same things that you did as a kid, using solutions that haven’t solved anything for a while? Are you suppressing emotions because that  was a good strategy in an uncaring childhood home? Are you still afraid of situations that resemble your early life challenges? Do you still avoid difficulties, never having figured out how to face them?

It’s worth taking an inventory of your early life and, even more importantly, your current life.  Look frankly at what did or didn’t work as a kid (and what does or doesn’t work now), asking yourself whether youthful difficulties produced a way of being that isn’t helpful. If you keep using failed solutions, you will likely continue to experience failure. Most of our problems are patient. They wait for us to recognize them and then to solve them. They can wait a lifetime.

Is that how you want to spend the rest of your life, making the same mistakes, accepting less than what might be possible and good for you? If you are willing to wait in that way, don’t call a therapist; you are too patient and not sufficiently motivated to change. But if you are beginning to be aware of how unsatisfying your way of living is and have the courage to face that fact, do call. That’s what therapists are there for.