The Psychological Lessons of Literature

When is a story more than a story? I’m not suggesting a common page-turner, a thriller sweeping you away. Instead, I refer to a fine short story or novel, and its ability to reveal something more about human inner-workings than even a mass market psychology text or a self-help manual.

Take Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Not a title to make you think the writer knew much about the unsettling emotional complications of two psyches within a law office. He did though.

A scrivener is a copiest, a scribe, such as lawyers employed in the days before off-set printing and Xerox machines took their jobs away. Legal documents had to be duplicated by hand: back-breaking, carpel tunneling, mind-numbing work. Long hours bent over an unsuitable desk made it worse. Your profession was known by the permanent ink stains on your hands and clothing.

The unnamed attorney who narrates the story tells of a quiet, strange employee. He gives us his first impression of the man: “I can see the figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectful, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby!

Mr. B. was a good worker, too — for a while. Before long, the boss makes a routine request to which the scrivener’s only reply is “I would prefer not to.”

More and more such responses challenge both the lawyer and Bartleby’s three co-workers. The stand taken is never explained. Eventually the employer even discovers the fellow living in the firm’s offices after hours: not to do anything amiss, but to pass his solitary time. And he “prefers not to” do otherwise.

Our narrator tries many means to impress Bartleby with the necessity of compliance. The lawyer, however, is a Christian man in the best sense, and feels a human connection to the odd creature, thus stopping him from calling the police for his removal from the building.

What have we here? Is this a tale about mental illness, social isolation, or a passive-aggressive soul’s ability to control a situation by saying no? Is it an indictment of the oppressive conditions of long days spent in work that requires attention to detail achieved through concentration on a mindless, repetitive task? Is Melville making an indirect social comment on entitlement, such as Mr. B’s presumption in turning a job into a work-free, free-ride to salary and a residence? Does he mean us to recognize the title character’s employer as a charitable man or one with too weak a will, thus becoming hostage to an employee who does nothing?

Could the novel be trying to point out the absence of a satisfying place for many of the residents of a capitalist-dominated world that is too concerned, as Wordsworth told us, with “getting and spending?” One more possibility: might the author wish us to consider why two men very differently situated in the pecking order of professional life would continue to behave as they have rather than change, no matter the consequences?

The reader is put into the role of psychologist, trying to understand Mr. B. and the attorney. Both are extremes and we learn from extremes perhaps more than those examples of life in the middle of things. The underling is stubborn without limit, the individual “on top” displays limitless charity.

Does Bartleby offer us an everyday example of a person so mistreated in the past that he can no longer differentiate a man offering a helping hand from one whose hand is prepared to strike him? If so, those of us who engage in creating our own slow motion, step-by-step tragedy should take note.

The reader is left wondering whether Bartleby might even be heroic, displaying passive resistance to an increasingly demanding, corrosive, and alienating work life that is unfitting to him and us. Is he a precursor of the kind of people Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard?”

I could as easily call Mr. B. a depressed and self-destructive man, acting in such a way as can only end in his misfortune.

Melville’s 36 paperback-pages can be read many ways to be sure. It is laugh-old-loud funny, on occasion, as well. And if you find yourself siding with Bartleby or his employer, you might ask yourself why one and not the other?

Regardless, try not to judge these two men harshly. Like the remaining three wage slaves in this law office and a few we meet along the way, they are just trying to make the best of the hand dealt them by nature, their upbringing, and the world of other men and women.

As the old saying goes, “but for the grace of God there go (you or) I.”

The African Dip: Thoughts on Passive-Aggressiveness, Powerlessness, and Acceptance

The  Flying Turns

My dad occasionally took me to a legendary Chicago amusement park called Riverview when I was a little boy. I was dazzled by the roller coasters, the “Waterbug” ride, and something called the “Rotor.” The latter required you to enter a circular room which spun on a central axis until the velocity and centrifugal force were sufficient to pin you against the wall, just as the floor dropped away.

But, as small as I was, it is a sideshow called The Dip that I remember most vividly. Today I’d like to use this politically incorrect carnival attraction as a spring-board to a few thoughts on the expression of indirect anger that sometimes is called “passive-aggressive,” as well as a therapeutic approach to setting aside the temporary upsets that are a part of any life.

Black men in cages. That is what “The Dip” involved.

Unbelievable, perhaps, as we think about it in 2010. Each man sat on a stool inside the cage. In front of the cage, off to the side a bit,  stood a small circular metal target that was attached in some fashion to the stool, perhaps electronically, but more likely mechanically.

For less than a dollar, you could purchase three balls to throw at the target, one at a time. If you struck the target solidly, the stool on which the man sat collapsed, and he dropped into a pool of water underneath the cage. You might have seen similar “dunk tanks” at various fund-raising events, often giving students the chance to dunk their teachers.

Harmless fun? Not so in the case of a black man doing the sitting and a white man trying to knock him off his seat.

This sideshow was once reportedly called, “Dunk the N****r,” later “The African Dip,” and finally “The Dip.” It was eventually shut down by a combination of Negro outrage and the increasing disgust of white people to the offensiveness of its implicit racism.

The black men were in a relatively powerless situation — almost literally, “sitting ducks.” But, they did what the situation allowed to them to do so as to unsettle, tease, and otherwise disrupt the white pitcher’s aim. The Negroes were careful not to say anything too frankly insulting, lest they stir up the racism (and potential for less veiled violence) that was at the heart of the event.

But they would and could get away with belittling their adversaries athletic skill or throwing ability in a way that was amusing. If their comments distracted the opposition at all — got them to laugh (or the crowd to laugh at them) — or caused a break in the hurler’s concentration, the chance of staying on the seat improved a bit.

According to Chuck Wlodarczyk in his book Riverview: Gone But Not Forgotten, the caged men’s banter could include comments about one’s appearance: “If you were heavy, they’d call you ‘meatball.’ If you were thin, they might have called you ‘toothpick.’ If you were with a girl, they might have said ‘Hey fella, that ain’t the same girl you were with yesterday!'”

You don’t have to be a black man in a cage to have some experience at expressing anger indirectly. We’ve all done it. It takes many forms: talking behind someone’s back and mocking that person, being sarcastic, complaining to a co-worker’s superior rather than to the offender’s face, neglecting tasks you have been assigned unfairly, and procrastinating. These passive-aggressive words or acts are rarely very satisfying. The anger doesn’t dissipate; the grudging discontent usually continues; nothing positive happens.

The sense of powerlessness and lack of control that the passive-aggressive individual experiences can come to dominate that person’s emotional life, rather than allowing him to put effort into changing the power dynamic or to remove himself from a position of weakness.

Unfortunately, for some of those who feel powerless and injured, even a passive-aggressive action seems impossible. Consequently, they take a more uniformly passive role. They defer to others, try to avoid giving offense, act meekly, and position themselves under the radar. All that does, however, is give them second class status, just as it informs bullies that they are easy targets.

Someone in this situation, who repeatedly feels mistreated but isn’t able to take on those who inflict the injuries directly, needs to ask himself a few questions. Why do I put up with it? What am I afraid of? Am I really as powerless as I feel? Am I perhaps over reacting? What would happen if I were more direct? Is there any way to get out of the situation I am in?

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which aims to quell and counter irrational thoughts, is often helpful in dealing with a lack of self-assertion and the fear that is usually associated with it. Equally, it gives you practice (sometimes using role-playing within the therapy session) in a gradually ascending hierarchy of challenging situations that require an assertive response.

Some CBT therapists, much like ancient Stoic philosophers, employ an “acceptance-based” psychotherapy and integrate this Zen-like element into their treatment. Why, they might ask you, do you so value the minor indignities of daily life and of opinions and behavior of boorish persons? Is it really a good idea to spend the limited time of your life being upset over gossip about, a tardy repairman, or a fender-bender accident you didn’t cause — things that will be of no significance in a week, a month, a year?

Put differently, there will always be injustice, and some of it must simply be accepted as the nature of life and of living. Not every fight is worth fighting about, not every slight is intended. If your skin is so thin that you are regularly being upset by people, perhaps you are valuing the approval and opinions of others too much.

For those who ask “Why me?” those same therapists might say, “Why not you — you are alive, aren’t you, so you are subject to all the same things that can affect any other person.” And, as the Stoic philosophers and Zen practitioners would tell us, if we can accept this vulnerability as part and parcel of living, thereby assigning it less meaning and taking it less personally, our lives will be more satisfying — less fraught with anguish, anger, and hurt.

This is not to say that society should have tolerated the indignity and racism of “The Dip.” There are times when the indirect, but pointed wit of the caged men is the best course of action; and, many occasions when the force of your personality must be brought to bear by confronting injustice. But some combination of directness in taking on unfairness and forbearance in accepting things — in allowing oneself not to sweat the small stuff — tends to produce as good a result as life will allow.

Of course, you have to figure out what the small stuff is and what other things really do matter to you.

Meditation is usually a part of the treatment that enables you to stay in the moment, and let go of your attachment to passing feelings and thoughts, worries and regrets, and anticipations and fears. To be preoccupied with just such temporary upsets causes you not to be able to fully experience what is going on in the present and determine what is really of importance in your life.

By encouraging and training you in meditation, the counselor  is attempting to give you a method that will help you to achieve a state of psychological enlightenment that (without using words) helps you to distinguish the transitory aggravations, disappointments, worries and anxieties of life from whatever matters the most to you, so that you can put your effort into the things that have the greatest value in your life.

Some final questions:

  1. Do you often find yourself fighting over things others consider to be small?
  2. Do you frequently feel put-upon but are capable only of a passive-aggressive response?
  3. Do you (too easily and too often) assume a fetal position with others (metaphorically speaking), who come to think of you as an easy target and treat you badly (in part) because they know you will not stand up for yourself?

If you have answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you might benefit from asking a couple of other questions:

  1. What does this mode of living cost me?
  2. Am I willing to do the work necessary to change?

If the cost is substantial and you are eager to change, then a therapist can be of assistance. Only then will you be ready to get out of the cage, real or not, in which you find yourself.

The image above is the Flying Turns, a toboggan-style ride that was one of the many attractions that made Riverview Park famous.

Forgiveness: If and When?

Much is made, especially by the religious, about the importance of forgiveness. But the topic is worthy of some discussion before one gives a blanket endorsement to forgiveness of everyone and everything. Should all acts be open to forgiveness? Is apology essential before there is any forgiveness? Are some offenses unforgivable? Are some people permitted more leeway to act inappropriately and exempt from the expectation of apology?

First off, who has the right to forgive? Only those who have been injured. I have no right to forgive your mistakes unless you have done me harm in some fashion. Certainly, this right might include an injury done to someone I love, if I too will have suffered pain due to the harm done to the other person. The idea that I can’t forgive you for an injury you did to someone I don’t know, for example, is allied to the notion of legal standing. I can’t bring a law suit against you unless the court agrees that I have a stake in the matter. As the old saying goes, “I don’t have a dog in this race.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happened; rather, it means that in matters of injury, compensation, or apology, I’m not directly involved.

Another consideration is whether the injury is ongoing. If someone is in the process of playing practical jokes on you day after day, to take an example that is relatively small, would you forgive his poor taste or judgment? He’d probably laugh at you if you did, because that individual sees nothing wrong with what he has done. Better to get him to stop or get out of his way, than to consider any generosity of spirit on your part that is likely to go unappreciated.

Then there is the question of apology. Let’s assume the joker just mentioned has a moment of self-awareness, or perhaps has been persuaded that his actions are rude. What must he do to apologize? According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, he should acknowledge what he did to hurt you, say that he is sorry, and attempt to compensate you in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by the practical jokes, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for the prankster to make a public admission of his foolishness in front of the same people who were present when he embarrassed you. Moreover, he must do his very best to make sure that his boorish behavior isn’t repeated. Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, leaving no ifs, ands or buts, and making no excuses. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without excusing it away, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

With respect to the question of some offenses being unforgivable, that is for the injured party to decide. Murder, rape, torture–all terrible–still permit the possibility of forgiveness if it is in the capacity of the afflicted to give it. The same answer would apply to the question of having a different standard for the behavior of one person than for another. We all do this in practice, accepting the failures and misbehavior of those we love when we aren’t so generous with a stranger who does exactly the same thing; and we often let things go without apology.

Forgiveness, however, is not the same as forgetting. If you have been injured, it is most often worth remembering who did what to you, lest you put yourself at risk of being hurt once again. Nor does forgiveness require that you continue your relationship with the person who harmed you; it is sometimes good judgment to forgive the person at the same time that you end the relationship with him.

Relationships are messy and we all can do better and be kinder. Many people have trouble telling others when their actions have caused an injury. The victim can suffer silently or in grumbling discontent, and passive-aggressively try to pay-back the injurer in some indirect fashion. Often, the hurt that the injurer caused is inadvertent and might be easily remedied if the one who has done the harm is told gently but firmly that he caused unhappiness.

Of course, some relationships, if they regularly cause injury, can be quickly dispensed with at little cost. But for those closest to us, we usually will suffer more and longer before limiting contact or severing the bond with that individual. And contact with parents or siblings, for example, cannot be replaced. So, for most of us, we will usually put up with some measure of unhappiness in order to keep a place in our lives for even the unrepentant relative. And, in part, it depends on how much one is willing to put up with.

There is at least one additional very important and useful reason to forgive. It follows from the old Italian expression, “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves (one for yourself and one for the object of your revenge).” The point here is that carrying anger is costly and letting go of that anger might allow you to be happier and more at ease in the rest of your life.

But, be careful not to let go automatically and too soon. Anger is often a necessary part of getting over an injury. While it doesn’t always have to be expressed at someone else, neither is turning the other cheek invariably the best policy for your psychological well-being. Writing about your feelings will oft-times help, and talking to a friend or counselor can be useful. But once you are through the stage of anger, forgiveness is at least a possibility.

Still another reason for accepting an apology and forgiving is that the relationship can be continued and sometimes improved by the act of mutual understanding that is involved. Life is full of disagreements and differences, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those parties who can survive conflicts, communicate about them, and come to a point of acceptance, understanding, and appreciation often are bonded together more strongly by the experience.

It takes maturity to know when to ignore something and when, instead, to confront the person who has injured you. Most things probably aren’t worth the trouble of a conflict, lest one always be fighting and accusing others. Best to wait for a cool and calm moment to decide whether confrontation is worth it, than to act in the over-heated instant. That is nothing more than common sense.

But, as a wise man once said, common sense is rather uncommon.

Anger Anyone?

Some of the very logical or morally upright folks out there believe that you should never get angry. Never ever.

I’m not one of those folks. First of all, we are all human, and to be human means to have emotions. Second, it is hard to imagine a humanity capable of defending itself, the spouse, and the kids, who can’t get in touch with some needed anger when we or our loved one’s are imperiled.

When danger appears, we are built to fight or flee. The sympathetic nervous system readies you for action. Adrenaline starts to pump, the big muscles of our body receive more blood as the heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, the pupils widen (the better to see danger, my dear!), and sweat gland activity heightens to keep you cool in the event of a major exertion of energy (as well as to make you slippery, so that an aggressor can’t get a firm grip on you).

All of this has been “selected for” in the Darwinian sense: if our ancestors hadn’t successfully fled the tiger or defeated the enemy with the help of these physiological changes, we’d not be here and their genetic line would have stopped.

The same logic suggests that the female of the species historically tended to choose males who were capable of defending her and the kiddies, especially when pregnancy and child-rearing made them particularly vulnerable. But, since the female couldn’t always depend upon the male when he was out hunting and gathering, she needed some anger too.

So, if you get angry, as you almost certainly do, you have come by at least some of it honestly and through no particular effort of your own.

That said, how do you know when your anger goes over the top? Some people will tell you when that happens, of course, and sometimes the authorities will in the form of police. If you are no longer a child and get into fist fights or find yourself yelling a lot, you’ve almost certainly got a problem, either as an aggressor or as a victim. Alcohol might add to your combustibility since it tends to disinhibit people, making big emotions more likely. For some otherwise mild mannered men and women, drinking turns them to the dark side. As the old Chinese saying goes, “first the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Substitute the word “anger” for the word “drink” and you have an equally valid way of looking at anger. Do you have the anger, or does the anger have you?

On the subject of old sayings, there is an Italian saying that also applies to this issue: “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves.” This means, of course, that revenge is likely to consume you (and perhaps even lead to your demise) just as much as it is likely to succeed in hurting the other party. Lives have been eaten-up and made perpetually miserable by the preoccupation with righting wrongs. Think of the centuries long enmity that exists in the Balkans or the long standing animosity between the Greeks and the Turks. Numerous other examples could be cited. One act of revenge causes the victim to look for his own revenge and back again in a circle without end.

Anger is often the result of a real injury, but the danger is in becoming the thing that you learn to hate because of that injury. The data on the likelihood of child abuse being perpetrated by parents who were themselves abused¬† is fairly well known. Such a parent is much more likely to abuse his children than a parent who was not himself abused as a child. When I tell people this they often find it puzzling. Surely, they say, the abused child would learn what not to do from the parent’s bad example. But think of cigarette smoking or drug/alcohol abuse. Again, the child raised by an addicted mom or dad is at greater risk of duplicating the parent’s behavior than one raised by parents who are abstinent. Not only does the child have the model of the parent as a bad example in these homes, but, in the case of abuse, the youngster has to deal with the anger and hurt inside of him, which comes from being targeted. As children these kids can rarely succeed in retaliating against their parents, but they can take their feelings out against other smaller children (including their siblings) or against their own helpless children when they have become adults. Indeed, unless the abused child is able to obtain relief from the feelings of anger and sadness that come with abuse (and this usually takes therapeutic intervention), he is likely to carry some of these emotions and their behavioral consequences into adulthood. A good book on the subject is For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. A first class movie that depicts exactly what I’ve described is Good Will Hunting.

Back to the question of how you might know whether you have an anger problem, there are a few additional indicators. Do you (or do people tell you) that you react out of proportion to events that are not seen by others as being that big? Do you find yourself feeling angry or irritable much of the time, or awakened by resentments in the middle of the night? Do you have road rage? Have you every punched a wall or thrown an object due to this sort of upset? If you are an athlete in a contact sport, do you enjoy inflicting pain on the opposition?

Even if none of the above apply, there might be other ways that you express your resentment. Do you intentionally delay or put off tasks that others (a spouse or a boss) want you to do, but you don’t believe are that important? Are you sarcastic to others, rather than direct? Do you grumble in discontent or talk behind the back of others at what they’ve done (or not done) or complain about their personal qualities, but put a friendly face on in front of them? If you’ve answered “yes” to some of these questions, you might just be “passive aggressive,” expressing your ire indirectly.

Again, I’m not saying that all anger is inappropriate. And, certainly, one shouldn’t always turn the other cheek, lest one regularly get taken advantage of. But anger can be a problem for you and for those around you. Like a big dog, it should be kept on a short leash. If you can’t manage that, think about counseling.

A recent review article in The Behavior Therapist by Kulesza and Copeland concludes that cognitive behavior therapy is the current treatment of choice for anger problems. The authors emphasize the need for both training in behavioral skills and the use of cognitive restructuring to insure the best results. Therapy for anger issues is therefore likely to include direct instruction about antagonism and its management; self-monitoring of angry feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; relaxation training; assistance in new ways of thinking about the events that trigger rage episodes; social skills/assertiveness training; direction as to how to think about and undercut anger when it does occur; and practice in being exposed to triggering events so that new skills can be employed and the patient can learn to tolerate or diffuse the emotional intensity and stop short of vehement outbursts.

Among self-help books, one of the best is Stop the Anger Now: A Workbook for the Prevention, Containment, and Resolution of Anger by Ronald Potter-Efron.