What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

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Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

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  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

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  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

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  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.

He Who Hesitates is NOT Always Lost

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I learned a valuable lesson from a bunch of inner-city kids as their 20-year-old summer camp counselor: when to take action and when to do nothing and wait.

Like lots of things in life, the instruction came by accident.

My unintending tutors were all kids who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, enrolled in the MIT Science Camp during the summer of 1967. My friend Rich Adelstein, an MIT undergrad, had helped to create the enterprise and got me the job to oversee six of them.

Despite the name, academics had no part in the daily doings. The kids came from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were aged 12 to 15-years. Some were shy, a few petty criminals, and one or two learning disabled. We had an angry handful and several who seemed rather dazed by the demands of living. Still, the adults hoped all of youngsters might benefit from the experience.

Each counselor, almost all MIT students, had charge of a few of the boys. No girls allowed back then. Many of the activities of my group of six happened in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff, a swell fellow, was smart and easy to get along with. We worked well together.

Geoff and I took our charges on day-trips to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City. We played some baseball and put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. We had just enough bodies to recreate “Twelve Angry Men.” The seven weeks made for a fun and productive summer.

One day Geoff had a dentist appointment, so I led both of our groups: perhaps a total of 10 kids on the morning he was away.

We walked through MIT’s Building Seven when one of the older boys signaled the others to run in different directions. The group had come to a four-way intersection, offering multiple flight paths for escape. In a flash they disappeared. I stood at the crossroads and looked down each hallway. Nothing. Nobody.

The safety of these boys was on my mind, but what was I to do? I froze. Any path I chose would, at best, avail me only a few of them. I did nothing, not because I reasoned out a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of a good solution.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I stumbled upon the right course: waiting. Had I started down any one of the corridors I’d probably still be running. Since I didn’t, the “chase” didn’t materialize and they got bored. In 10-minutes time all returned on their own. We proceeded to our appointed destination without comment.

Sometimes problems work themselves out if you don’t interfere. If you stop chasing someone, he stops running from you. You can drive people away in pursuing them, whether by your ardor or anger.

Slow down. Be patient. Try to live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Master your temper and anxiety. Wait, wait, and take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can worsen an already bad situation. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Patience might be better — much better — than misguided energy.

People can be similar to boomerangs. Like these kids, with enough time and a bit of luck they come back to you.

The top photo is Peter P. Gudo, the Great Thinker by Mr. Thinker. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revised version of one I wrote five years ago.

Hot Pursuit: When You Scare Away Potential Lovers

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“I can’t wait.” Three words that get us into a lot of trouble. Especially in the hot pursuit of love.

Waiting is difficult. Think of the doctor’s waiting room or waiting for a traffic light to change; waiting to be interviewed or waiting in line at the grocery store. Zen practitioners tell us that these situations should not be seen as annoyances, but rather opportunities to learn patience. Indeed, there is something in that point of view, especially if you are trying to win a potential lover.

Timing counts (pun intended). Lots of questions to answer: how often to call or text, how quickly to display affection, and when to say that you have feelings for him or her.

I’m not talking about how soon to kiss or make love. As difficult as these decisions can be, many people are not troubled by outward physical acts. Rather, the issues I’m raising have to do with showing that you care, saying that the other person means something to you, not just as a sexual partner or to pass the time enjoyably.

Extremes of behavior tend to be dangerous. The anxious young lover either holds back to prevent self-disclosure or rushes in to show that he thinks the beloved is everything; that before her arrival the sun didn’t shine, the birds didn’t sing, and life was not worth living. Sometimes it causes the desired-one to run screaming into the night, as far from you as possible.

She is right to be scared if you believe that she is the center of your life after spending just two evenings with her! Pedestals are expensive and your love may have a fear of heights! The faster you run after her, the faster she will run, without the possibility of getting to know anything good about you and developing affection on her own time schedule.

Unfortunately, when you do feel this kind of urgency, the full-throttle pressure to chase your freshly-anointed favorite is almost unbearable. It is hard not to say what you are feeling or betray your emotions in some other way: by multiple purchases of candy or flowers, writing poetry, and over-doing the compliments — all with a perpetually melting gaze, the kind that puppy dogs give to their mistresses. You become so enamored of the other that your soul just aches upon hearing her voice and her smile at you makes you want to cheer.

Get a grip if you can — a big if there, my friend. Some restraint is usually necessary to give the relationship and mutual feelings time to develop. How will you know whether it is appropriate to disclose your feelings? There are usually signs that indicate when the person you fancy shares your sentiments, at least a little, and wants you to proceed. Some people probably will offer you lists of those signs. I will not.

Why? First, because if you are inclined to say the premature “I love you,” it is almost impossible not to. It just might be in your nature to walk out on to that particular plank. Secondly, I don’t have a list for you because the signs can be indecipherable without a lot of experience (and sometimes even with it).

Even more, because one needs the practice of figuring another person out. Making a fool of yourself and having your heart broken are a part of growing up and growing older. What is more, even if you know the signals, when you are in love your heart makes you do things that your brain thinks unwise.

If you keep making the first move and it always falls flat, time to get some therapy. The same would be true if you never take the risk. We all need to allow experience to instruct us.

Still — hearts were made to be broken. Romance can be a train wreck, but that dangerous ride is the only transport to a destination we long for. As Bart Giamatti said, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Interestingly, he was talking about baseball, but he might as well have been speaking of falling in love or anything else about which we care about deeply; and where the dream of winning is not yet fulfilled.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Shakespeare said.

Dreams of love are like flowers — they need to be planted and watered; some good weather and some time to grow. Do not try to pick the just-opened bud too soon.

Do your best, but don’t expect to get this right. We humans are actually pretty bad at seeing into someone else’s soul. As terrible as it is, everyone needs some heartbreak — it helps you grow in maturity, understanding, and compassion.

Remember, almost everyone recovers.

Try again. Somewhere, somehow — someone may be waiting.

The top image is called Blindfolded Boy Chasing Another courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do You Understand Me? On the Dangers of the IM

In the course of conversation, serious or casual, we often ask, “Do you understand?” The conventional wisdom tells us that if the question is followed by a “yes” answer, then real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you an example.

I remember treating  a family that included a son and a daughter. I don’t recall the precise ages of the children, but the boy was probably between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing the family for some time when the parents came to their appointment in a state of more than usual alarm. The father first wanted to talk with me alone. He said that his son had threatened to “rape his sister.” I asked for the details, including whether the father had questioned his son as to his understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him whether he understood what that meant,” the father told me, “and he said that he did.” I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. Then I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what rape meant. And what came out was some version of “beating-up” his sister because she had been teasing him. Where had he heard the word “rape?” “On TV.”

Not that wanting to beat-up his little sister was a thing to be encouraged, but still, it wasn’t rape that he wanted to do, and everyone was pretty relieved once I explained the details to the parents. The point of this is that it isn’t as easy as we think to achieve “understanding” of what we are saying; indeed, if you think it is easy, you are probably creating a certain number of misunderstandings.

Consider how many serious attempts at communication are done in the form of email. Too many people routinely hit the “send” button before they have carefully reflected on how their message will be understood, and how they will feel about having sent that message in an hour or a day or a week.

What is the best way to be understood on any subject, and especially on a subject of importance? Be in the same room as the person with whom you would like to communicate, having first gathered your thoughts; and with the time to explain them and the opportunity to see if the other person can accurately paraphrase what you’ve said back to you. In this situation you will have several sources of information that can be helpful in making yourself understood, and are also available to inform you if your message has been received in the way that you were hoping. You will have words, of course, but also body-language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, inflections, the volume (loudness) of your speech, the speed with which you utter the words–all of these things, which you can vary as needed.

If you choose not to use face-to-face communication or simply can’t, due to circumstances of time or distance, perhaps a phone call will do. But understand that what you and your partner in conversation might be able to see has now been lost to you. Without the eye contact, body-language, and facial expressions to help you interpret the words you are hearing, the chance of misunderstanding grows.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you have time and are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you might have added time to craft your written message that isn’t available when simply speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message or text-message communication occurs, one usually loses the time for careful consideration that one had in the days of letter-writing. And you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what you can see of the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things that a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Now your chance of being misunderstood has increased even more.

A very clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, puts it very well in Exercise #4 from a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:” “Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.” Greenberg wrote the book well before the days of IMs and text-messages, so one can only imagine what an update might look like given the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: when you want to talk about something important or emotionally charged, take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out–don’t send it), talk to friends or a counselor, but take time before you address the issue to the person himself. And, when you do, if at all possible, do it face-to-face with lots of time to sort out the details. Beware of the IM and the text-message.

And if you are old enough, remember back to the Cold War days when the initials often heard in daily conversation were not IM, but ICBM–meaning Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM can be a little bit like that, but might just blow up in your face.

To Wait, or Not to Wait: That is the Question

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I was taught a valuable lesson by a bunch of inner-city kids when I was their 20-year-old summer camp counselor. The lesson was about when and whether to take action; and when and whether to do nothing and wait. But let me tell you the story…

The job was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard and MIT. Although I was attending the U of Illinois, my friend Rich Adelstein was then involved in something called the “MIT Science Camp.” I never really found out what science had to do with it, because it wasn’t much different from any other summer camp, but for a few things having nothing to do with science. First, of course, it was at MIT, one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning; a place where only the elite young minds already proficient in science were allowed to matriculate. And because of that, it was not an “outdoor” oriented summer camp, although we did do the usual things like playing baseball. But perhaps the most important distinction between this summer camp and most of those you might have heard about or attended, was the fact that it was for underprivileged kids from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were in the 12 to 15-year-old range. Some were shy, some were petty criminals, some were learning disabled, some were angry, and some were lost. But, it was thought that all of them might still benefit from the camp experience.

The counselors were all about my age, and all of them were MIT undergraduates with two exceptions: myself and a Harvard student. The kids were recommended by their schools. The project was funded by money then available as part of the “Great Society” vision of LBJ, otherwise known as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The camp itself was supervised by a psychiatrist, Dr. Warren Brody. The year was 1967.

Many of the activities of my group of six kids were done in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff was a swell fellow, smart and easy to get along with, and we worked well together. We had money for some outings with the boys (all the kids in the camp were male) and even took them on a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard and another excursion to New York City, where we watched the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center. As I said, we played some baseball and also put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. It was “Twelve Angry Men.” We had just enough players, and these kids were thereby exposed to performance. A fun summer was had by all.

On the day in question Geoff had a morning dentist appointment, so I was in charge of both of our groups. Depending on the day, not all the kids would necessarily be there. I imagine on this particular day, there were probably 10 of them present.

I was walking with the kids through Building 7 when one of the older ones quickly instructed the others to run in different directions. We had come to a four-way intersection, so there were four possible flight paths down which each kid could escape. In a flash they were gone. As I stood at the intersection and looked in each direction not one was to be seen.

Remember, I was 20 years old and in charge of these lives. Their safety was my responsibility. But what was I to do? Even though I was rattled, I was still smart enough to know that any direction I chose would, at best, avail me the possibility of finding only two or three or four kids. For the life of me, I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. Not because I thought that was a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of any good solution.

Perhaps you’ve guessed that I had stumbled upon precisely the right course: inaction. In fact, it was the only solution. If I had started running down any one of the corridors, I’d probably still be running. But because I didn’t, the kids found that the “chase” they’d hoped for hadn’t materialized, and they weren’t having any fun. In the space of 10 minutes they were all back where they started and we proceeded on to our appointed destination.

Sometimes life is like that. If you stop chasing a thing or a person, it stops running away from you. You can drive people away in your pursuit, be it romantic or angry.

Slow down. Be patient. See if you can live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Wait, wait, wait and see… Take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can actually make things worse. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Sometimes inaction is better — much better — than action.

A lot of things in life, like those kids, are like boomerangs — they come back to you.

At least, they sometimes have for me.

The top image is called Hesitation by Alfred Garth Jones, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.