Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day

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How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later.

According to Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, it is essential that your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range,” lest you lose your friends. Exceeding that range in either direction — too much success or too much unhappiness — will alienate some people. Or so the authors say, tongue in cheek, in this funny old book.

Although I don’t know of research evidence to support this notion, I suspect there is something to it. It is easy enough to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his attainments and reminds you regularly of all his achievements.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one must be careful about being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Similarly, many people fear that others will tire of their tales of unhappiness and woe. They anticipate causing their acquaintances to experience compassion fatigue and shun them. This expectation leads some of the afflicted to avoid discussion of deeply personal injuries, or to speak about them only infrequently. Indeed, our society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on” perhaps more quickly than we can easily manage.

Faced with unhappiness or life crisis, it is interesting to observe how a person handles it. Some find relief in talking about it and appreciate patient and supportive listeners. Others do not want to speak or think about it, turning to distraction or to a very small group of confidants. Taking your cue from the person in distress is best.

If you can handle difficult and painful conversations, you are a very good friend indeed. And, if there is a practical and specific kind of assistance that you can offer (running errands, preparing meals, driving to a doctor’s office), you will provide more help than if you simply say “let me know if there is anything I can do.”

As a society, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship to disaster. When it happens to someone else, it can be fascinating. No wonder that TV stations use a motto to describe how to determine the first story on the news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the calamity is in Uzbekistan, it is one thing. It is then easy to keep our distance: it is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us daily with so many tragedies, each individual one loses its impact.

So-called “reality” no longer seems quite real.

Unless it happens to your brother-in-law and it becomes quite something else.

In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an old TV program called “Queen For a Day.” A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, it featured “real people” (only women) telling the MC the profoundly unfortunate circumstances of their lives and usually breaking down while doing so. Ultimately, each contestant was asked what she would like if she won; this usually took the form of medical equipment or household appliances.

An applause meter registered the studio audience’s approval so as to choose the winner. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the virtually all-female spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.”  The program was some form of “see if you can top this,” with each contestant effectively hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, often describing diseased children and extraordinarily bad luck.

Once the “Queen” was crowned and perched on a makeshift throne (to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, which you know as the processional music to which you graduated high school), she received not only the requested item, but a carload of other things, perhaps including a vacation.

One can only imagine what the losers felt like, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they thought, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Almost certainly, failing to win added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

Of course, there was nothing demeaning about the misfortune itself. But, the fact that these women had to parade it in front of a national audience — a group of strangers — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary), was lamentable. Indeed, the discomfort of the contestants was not disguised.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in the history of civilization.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can watch various episodes on youtube.

The image above is John Collier’s Queen Guinevre’s Maying (1900) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Off to College and Saying Goodbye

Paintings Reproductions David, Jacques -Louis The Farewell of  Telemachus and Eucharis

It is that time of year. Some kids are going to college for the first time. A difficult moment for all concerned.

If you are a parent, your child may have been spending much of the last year or two pushing you away; being disagreeable; wanting to spend more time alone; confiding in you less.

It could be adolescent rebellion in a fairly moderate form, but, more likely, it is his striving for independence; and his anticipation of the real break — the one that finds him living in a different state; both a state of mind and a State of the Union.

As most of us know, it usually feels better to be the one who ends a relationship first or enacts a change in it — separates, creates a distance — than to be on the receiving end of that action. But, whatever it is, it is tough for sure.

The farewells can be tearful and terrifying, mostly for parents. The kids have their anxieties too, but don’t want to betray them as openly as the elders do. The students’ brave front is as much to persuade themselves that everything will be fine outside the nest as to keep their ambivalence in check, lest they encourage mom and dad to show even more emotion and make the parting harder.

I remember spending a good portion of our drive back home from an off-to-college goodbye with tears in my eyes, having taken our eldest to the Champaign/Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. Within a few days we heard from her though. Sure enough, homesickness.

Letting go of your children is hard, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog. You have to have faith that your offspring have learned something by age 18 and that they will survive, bruised but unbowed. Not much you can do anyway, unless you are prepared to keep them hostage in your basement forever.

They will return of course, but they won’t be the same. That too is a good, if  ambivalent thing, a sword that cuts both ways. As a parent, you’ll remember the cuddly and loving stage, the moment when you were everything to them and they couldn’t get enough of you. In trade, you get to see your children flourish (one hopes) as adults, a wondrous thing when you remember back to how little and helpless they once were.

But, be patient. The “full bloom” just might take some time and some struggle. Keep the faith.

Regardless, you do get more peace, quiet, and privacy as a bonus.

A new relationship, then — something different rather than better or worse.

The “saying goodbye” comes by degrees. At first, they return for summer vacation and holidays. Later, they will live away and see you less often. Such is life.

My wife and I kept a very old car for our daughters to use when they were home, even after both had graduated college and gone on to grad school. Finally, a minor accident rendered it beyond repair and we donated it to charity.

For a few days after the auto had been taken away, my wife and I both felt a little bit low. We talked about it. Of course, it wasn’t hard to figure out. The car was a symbol, something tied to the time they lived with us, and something that said they would be coming back. Now, with the car gone, we both had to face  that there was no coming back with the regularity of the past.

Their lives were elsewhere.

When I gave the toast at my eldest’s wedding, I told the following story:

I remember the day that we took Jorie to Champaign/Urbana to the Illini Towers dorm, to begin her college education at the University of Illinois. We thought we would be clever about it, so we woke up very early that Saturday morning and drove fast so that we would be among the first to get into the building and unloaded. But we were out foxed by several hundred people, who had gotten up earlier and driven faster and were already way ahead of us in line to use the couple of elevators and the small number of carts to get their child moved in.

It was a long, hot, late summer day. And as we stood in line  waiting, I had a feeling of familiarity, as if I had done this before. Of course, I had never moved Jorie into any new place, so I couldn’t easily figure it out.

As the morning changed to afternoon (and we were still in line), I thought back to the day that Jorie was born. At 1:00 AM, that is to say, in the dead of night, Jorie gave the signal and we were off to the hospital. And that too was a long day as we waited for the labor to progress. Finally, at 9:34 PM, over 20 hours later, Jorie arrived in this new world. And I realized that the long day of waiting for her to be born was what the long day of waiting at Illini Towers reminded me of.

The only difference was that on that day at the hospital we were waiting to say hello to her, and on the day at Illini Towers we were waiting to say goodbye.

Shakespeare was right.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

But, life does go on.

The image above is The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis by Jacques-Louis David.

Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness

Cats in bed 1970    - copyright Lisl Steiner

For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.

As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?

We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.

Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.

During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering done by a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late-30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.

I remember one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as the quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.

As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.

My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.

One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain to be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.

Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.

“Is Professor X there?” she asked.

“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”

It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:

She was black.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.

I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how the awful word was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.

And then something amazing happened.

This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.

She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming she had one, to break my legs.

I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.

Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.

It is also true that at the moment I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or worse.

And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.

But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!

And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.

No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.

My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.

As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”

I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.

As Blanche Dubois says in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I haven’t always depended on it.

But I am enormously grateful to have received such kindness more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.

The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com


Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Denial, BP, and You

Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It apparently is, however, related to a river of oil in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico

But there is more to denial than British Petroleum’s failure to consider the possibility that a disaster might happen.

No. Denial is something we all do, at least some of the time.

Still, let us start with BP. Major environmental accidents involving oil have not caused this company and others like it to spend significant money on safety considerations and the prevention of ecological calamity. Clean-up technology remains much the same as it was 40 years ago.

What were the oil executives thinking? Perhaps, that such things wouldn’t happen to them or on their watch. And if it wasn’t going to happen, why reduce profits to take “unnecessary” safety measures. This, despite repeated oil spills over the years.

An example, might illustrate how “denial” such as this is possible, starting at a tender age.

Back when I was a very little boy, I did something similar. I remember walking to Jamieson School on a very foggy day. Indeed, the fog was so thick that one couldn’t see more than perhaps a half-block ahead. Somehow I got it into my head that if I couldn’t see my school, perhaps it no longer existed!

Jamieson School, an enormous building, occupied most of a square city block on Chicago’s North Side.

But maybe, just maybe, it had disappeared!

I didn’t think about the details of how such a thing might have happened overnight. I didn’t imagine what effort it would have taken to disassemble the structure brick-by-brick or consider that I would have heard any explosion that razed it. No, for me, the disappearance of the building would have been a result of magic. Here one minute, gone the next.

Unfortunately, or so I thought, it finally came into view. And with it, another day of school; not the day of fun I had fantasized about on my journey from home. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time.

The point being, that if grown men act like seven-year-olds, we have a problem. And problem is called denial — a failure to reckon with reality — at least at the extreme.

I’m sure you can think of lots of examples. The cigarette-smoker who never thinks about heart disease, emphysema, or lung cancer happening to him; the person texting and driving, who can’t imagine the possibility of an auto accident; the 350 pound man who has two-quarter pounders with cheese, fries, and a diet-cola, and somehow persuades himself that he is being careful about what he is eating because his meal includes a low-calorie soft drink.

More examples: the man who fancies a partner with a history of infidelity, but doesn’t grasp that he could be victim to the same fate as his predecessors in dating her; the morally upright and self-righteous citizen who cheats on his taxes; the parent who persuades himself that his lack of time for his children will be no problem for them; or the family that normalizes and minimizes the drinking of the household’s head, rather than facing his alcoholism.

Not to mention the biggest denial of all — that we are all mortal, all going to die, and that it could happen at any time — not just to the other guy, but to me! Instead, we treat it as unusual and remarkable when someone expires before, say, 70, when it is actually a fairly commonplace event (however, sad it might be). Indeed, I’ve known more than one therapist who avoided thinking about the topic. See Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death for more on this subject.

In fact, it is our mortality, the very jeopardy of living and the tenuousness of life, that makes denial necessary and healthy for us to do some of the time, even if a number of folks use it altogether too often. Without some amount of denial (coupled with a little courage) it would be hard to get up in the morning and walk out of the house, fearful as we would be of accident or injury on the streets or highways. How could my parents have permitted me to walk to Jamieson School as a little boy unless they put aside the possibility that I might be abducted or harmed? Would you be able to fly to New York City unless you “strapped-on” intellectual blinders to the danger of your plane crashing or another terrorist attack?

At another level, denial simplifies our lives, removing potentially uncomfortable inconsistencies between who we are and who we think we are. It allows us to engage in life and take action without the burden of too much troublesome data that might interfere with pursuing often necessary self-interest.

As I hope you can see, we need some amount of denial just to get through the day. So, while you rage against BP (and they certainly have earned your enmity), do realize that they were simply doing something we all do frequently, but they were using that psychological defense on a much more grand and dangerous scale than most anyone else.

The truth is, no one can look life squarely in the face all the time, lest he be perpetually distressed by his vulnerability to misfortune on the one hand, and an overbearing conscience on the other. Denial is almost as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Of course, if we deny the dangers of pollution as did BP, we just might foul up that needed air and water, quite literally.

Life is complicated, isn’t it?

The image above is of the author, at a time before he had any thoughts about disappearing schools.

War Requiem

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War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.

World War I,  “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:

“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.”

The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.

When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.

The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.

In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:

…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell

“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.

Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.

But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.

Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.

The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.

Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.

Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.

Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.

He was 29 at the time of his death.