Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Part III: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

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In the last two posts I offered a set of questions — hypothetical choices — designed to help you think about your values. The first piece of writing was devoted to the complete list of 13. The second one offered you my personal answers to the initial seven of these, with no suggestion that my responses were better than yours might be. So, if you are familiar with the previous publications I suggest you scroll down to #8 on this one, where I will give you my thoughts on those I didn’t get to a few days ago. Those who haven’t read first seven answers, however, might wish to start with #1 here:

1. Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross. I can imagine circumstances in which I would take the offer. If I needed money to save the life of someone I loved, for example. Otherwise, probably not. But then, I am financially comfortable. Were I not, perhaps I’d be more inclined to accept. I’d not care to get a bigger house, win status, or travel the world. Nor would I give the year for any charity short of enough dollars to change thousands of lives. There are limits to my altruism.

2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange? Everything else being equal (which is never the case) this is attractive. Pain can be instructive if you are young enough and the suffering is defeated. Living longer, at least into an old age suffused with agony, has no appeal for me. Leon Kass, physician and philosopher, however, argues that discomfort and gradual loss of our abilities combine to make us less resistant and more grateful for the release provided by death. Note that my answers to all of these questions are personal. You might well offer ideas at least as worthy and persuasive, perhaps more faith-based.

3. What would you die for? My post What Would You Kill For? includes many thoughtful responses I received from friends and acquaintances.

4. What would you kill for? The same essay deals with answers to this query as well.

5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it. Were I a deformed young man, enhanced beauty would be difficult to resist. The importance of what meets the eye, of course, depends on the individual’s self-image and how much else recommends him to others in the mating game. The hand of time steals pulchritude from us all, a dime’s worth here, a nickel’s worth there, until at last those who once possessed surpassing beauty often sustain the most damaging psychological losses. We witness what some will buy from surgeons to fight the clock. The world pressures women more than men with regard to appearance, another consideration. At this point in my life, however, I’d take 25% more intelligence, being without an outsized vanity regarding how my externals are judged. Yet I wonder if the added cognitive burst might then separate me from friends and loved ones, literally change my thinking, our mutuality, and increase their discomfort in my presence. The value of relationships means more to me than becoming Einstein. Had I been given the offer of a bigger brain in my school years, however, I’d likely have accepted. We tend to think of ourselves as a kind of unitary everlasting whole, despite the changes we go through outside and inside. For a number of the questions in this essay, consider whether you would answer the same way when youthful, in middle-age, and in old age.

6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination. My first thoughts here were focused on my youth, when confidence and self-assertion were wanting. On the other hand, life worked out before long. Moreover, any edge won with increased bravado would have been temporary, or (as Rosaliene Bacchus commented in response to the original post) might have altered the course of events in ways I didn’t predict. For example, had I been more masterly with some young woman in my single days, perhaps I wouldn’t have met and married my wonderful wife, produced our two great daughters, etc. No, I’d let the opportunity for a “do-over” for the chance of self-advancement pass by, but take advantage of it with respect to someone I hurt. My answer to question #10, based on regret, offers the details.

7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain. My post What Memory Would You Take To Eternity? describes a heavenly reward consisting of living forever in a single, precious, blissful moment. I chose the instant I treasured most and treasure still, described therein. However, if I had 24-hours to live over again, I’d probably conjure up my father when I was a small boy, maybe three. He created a pretend radio show for me using the nozzle of our vacuum cleaner (hose attached) as a mock microphone. We played different parts, at least as the story was related to me much later. Though I lived it, I own no memory of the event. I’d like to visit him again in the fizzing sparkle of his relative youth, when his heart fairly burst with love and pride in his first born. The pictures of my dad with me show how overwhelmingly happy he was, beside himself with joy. I remember my own experience of this dad role with my children and watch it duplicated today whenever I go over to the home of my youngest daughter and son-in-law Keith with their wonderful boy — my grandson, of course.

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8. The gift of immortality on earth is yours — to live forever, never aging beyond your current age. Do you want it? Check out this post: the downside of immortality as seen by a werewolf. Put simply, eternal existence changes everything you think you know about your values and the way you are inclined to live. Much that is precious is given worth because it is either in short supply or temporary. Never-ending life makes choices less important since there is always more time try another path. I’ll take this life, thanks. I want a life where my decisions have meaning.

9. In your travels you come upon a fountain of youth enabling eternal earthly life at whatever chronological age you choose, with only the knowledge and experience you possessed at that time. To what moment would you return? Might you decide not to drink from the fountain? Tell me more. If you believe in “necessity” — that events happen and actions are taken in a predictable and unalterable way — then you’d be returning to a life identical to the one you had, like a TV rerun. Moreover, as an immortal you’d also have to deal with the problems of a never-ending life mentioned in the downside of immortality. Perhaps a more interesting question is whether you’d like to start over from an early age with the only guarantee being that your life course would be different, not a repetition of what you lived. I find this intriguing. I can imagine other careers, reconsidered decisions, a changed set of relationships and chance meetings — perhaps dozens of alternative ways to reach a life worth living. This isn’t meant to suggest dissatisfaction with my history — rather, curiosity. But you know what they say about curiosity and cats!

10. Who is the one person living to whom you most owe an apology? Why haven’t you expressed your regret? An old girlfriend with the initials MC is the person. Really, a sweet young woman when I knew her. I dated MC for several weeks in graduate school (she was not a schoolmate) and I left the relationship angry, not because of any betrayal by her, but due to my own immaturity and selfishness. Curiously, I didn’t think I needed to apologize until years later and recognized my fault. I suppose this is a commentary on how one’s view of events alters with time, circumstance, and self-evaluation. By then there was little chance of finding her short of hiring a detective. We often don’t know whether our impact on someone else is lasting unless we are told. The rear view mirror fails to inform you of how a lover’s future turned out. Sometimes he or she doesn’t remember the event at all. I hope MC was either less hurt than I believed or healed quickly and completely; and that her memory of me vanished with the wound.

11. Imagine you can live the fantasy of succeeding in everything you try and being continuously satisfied by the progress of your life. It will be experienced as absolutely real, even though you will be in a chair connected to a machine keeping you healthy, supplying you with food, and fooling you into believing you are elsewhere. Alternatively, you can try to make your way in the real world as you do today. Which would you opt for? This hypothetical machine and the “pleasure-button” I will describe in question #12 are “thought experiments” derived from the three sources: 1. The “Experience Machine” imagined by philosopher Robert Nozick. 2. The examples present in the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and 3. The Matrix. The real question here is what choice you will make when given the opportunity, not after being plugged into the machine or starting to press the seductive “pleasure button” in item #12. Once you choose either of these experiences you are hooked. In the first example, you immediately believe it is real and therefore don’t even think of returning to real life. In response to question #12, you become addicted to the ecstasy within your reach (pun intended), better than any drug. Underlying these queries are others: How much do you value genuine achievement (as opposed to the false belief of successful accomplishment, like getting an A on a test because you cheated)? Are you responsible to make the real world better, even if only in small ways? Would you rather strive for actual (imperfect) relationships or interact with fantasy friends and partners? Do you believe life allows us to achieve a sustained stratospheric level of happiness or that pleasure and satisfaction only come in inconsistent bits? Those of you familiar with my writing can guess my answers.

12. You are offered a risk-free, brief surgery permitting you to give yourself ecstatic pleasure by pressing a button whenever you want: the most powerful mood-changer ever invented. The marvelous joy beyond joy lasts only 10 minutes, so if you want more you have to press repeatedly. Do you accept this “gift?” See my answer to #11.

13. You are given a trip on a time machine, enabling you to go back to the moment in history in which you’d prefer to live, in whatever place you’d like, though you’d remain your current age. The journey is one-way — no coming back. Moreover, you can bring only one other person with you. Would you do so and with whom? To what historical place and time? Elaborate your deliberation process. My first concern is whether I’d be open to losing all the relationships I have, but one. The answer is no. If I were willing, however, the question then becomes which moment in time would be superior in fascination to the current one? A different way to view this is to see the choice as a kind of test, where the qualities needed to have a satisfying life might be more necessary in one historical epoch than another. Finally, consider this comment made by Al to the previous blog:

I think my soul belongs to the depression era. My soul feels comfort in hardship. My mind wants a simpler life with less advancement and technology. I need people and to connect. So, even though life would be hard, I believe my tortured soul would feel comfortable. I enjoy working hard and reaping the benefits. This would force me to not sit tight and work. People were the entertainment. I would like that. I’d be forced to live in reality. No work, no pay.

I hope this set of uncommon questions has been amusing and perhaps, personally informative. They’ve touched on the value of time, the question of whether you can create a scale to weigh time and experience in terms of dollars, what you think about money, the importance of memory, the place of regret in any life, the danger of addiction, the benefit of relationships, whether you’d prefer reality or an escape to fantasy, the role of apology, the way we change over time, the difficulty of predicting what will be important to us in the future, etc.

As I said in the first part of this three-part series, no grading, no right or wrong answers. You alone are the judge of your own responses. It is your life.

The top painting is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve. The second is called Cain Fleeing From the Wrath of God. Both are by William Blake and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Part II: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

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In my last post I promised to give you my thoughts on the questions I posed about knowing yourself and examining your life. There were 13 in total, (superstitious anyone?). Here are the responses they prompted in me.

  1. Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross. I can imagine circumstances in which I would take the offer. If I needed money to save the life of someone I loved, for example. Otherwise, probably not. But then, I am financially comfortable. Were I not, perhaps I’d be more inclined to accept. I’d not care to get a bigger house, win status, or travel the world. Nor would I give the year for any charity short of enough dollars to change thousands of lives. There are limits to my altruism.
  2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange? Everything else being equal (which is never the case) this is attractive. Pain can be instructive if you are young enough and the suffering is defeated. Living longer, at least into an old age suffused with agony has no appeal for me. Leon Kass, physician and philosopher, however, argues that discomfort and gradual loss of our abilities combine to make us less resistant and more grateful for the release provided by death. Note that my answers to all of these questions are personal. You might well offer ideas at least as worthy and persuasive, perhaps more faith-based.
  3. What would you die for? My post What Would You Kill For? includes many thoughtful responses I received from friends and acquaintances.
  4. What would you kill for? The same essay deals with answers to this query as well.
  5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it. Were I a deformed young man, enhanced beauty would be difficult to resist. The importance of what meets the eye, of course, depends on the individual’s self-image and how much else recommends him to others in the mating game. The hand of time steals pulchritude from us all, a dime’s worth here, a nickel’s worth there, until at last those who once possessed surpassing beauty often sustain the most damaging psychological losses. We witness what some pursue from surgeons to fight the clock. The world pressures women more than men with regard to appearance, another consideration. At this point in my life, however, I’d take 25% more intelligence, being without an outsized vanity regarding how my externals are judged. Yet I wonder if the added cognitive burst might then separate me from friends and loved ones, literally change my thinking, our mutuality, and increase their discomfort in my presence. The value of relationships means more to me than becoming Einstein. Had I been given the offer of a bigger brain in my school years, however, I’d likely have accepted. We tend to think of ourselves as a kind of unitary whole, despite the changes we go through outside and inside. For a number of the questions in this essay, consider whether you would answer the same way when youthful, in middle-age, and in old age.
  6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination. My first thoughts here were focused on my youth, when confidence and self-assertion were wanting. On the other hand, life worked out before long. Moreover, any edge won with increased bravado would have been temporary, or (as Rosaliene Bacchus commented in response to the original post) might have altered the course of events in ways I didn’t predict. For example, had I been more masterly with some young woman in my single days, perhaps I wouldn’t have met and married my wonderful wife, produced our two great daughters, etc. No, I’d let the opportunity for a “do-over” pass by for the chance of self-advancement, but take advantage of it with respect to someone I hurt. My answer to question #10, based on regret, offers the details.
  7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain. My post What Memory Would You Take To Eternity? describes a heavenly reward consisting of living forever in a single, precious, blissful moment. I chose the instant I treasured most and treasure still, described therein. However, if I had 24-hours to live over again, I’d probably conjure up my father when I was a small boy, maybe three. He created a pretend radio show for me using the nozzle of our vacuum cleaner (hose attached) as a mock microphone. We played different parts, at least as the story was related to me much later. Though I lived it, I own no memory of the event. I’d like to visit him again in the fizzing sparkle of his relative youth, when his heart fairly burst with love and pride in his first born. The pictures of my dad with me show how overwhelmingly happy he was, beside himself with joy. I remember my own experience of this dad role with my children and watch it duplicated today whenever I go over to the home of my youngest daughter and son-in-law Keith with their wonderful boy — my grandson, of course.

That’s enough to ponder for now. Stay tuned, as my dad might have said in our imaginary radio days, for my take on questions eight through 13.

The top image is a work of Vladmir Grig called Who am I as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

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Simple words are not so simple. Rather, we forget their meaning. We forget how much they should provoke a reevaluation of our lives. Consider the words “take” and “make.” I’ll try to “make” something of their importance in describing the lives we choose.

Here is a common sentence: “I must make a decision.” It sounds more passive than it is. I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. Even in “making” a decision, at least in its most active form, we “build” or “construct.”

Take stock. Take over. Take responsibility. Make a choice. Make something of yourself.

Do you see where I’m taking you? What kind of life do you want? One you take or one left over because you did not capture a place in line?

We all know not choosing is a choice. If you don’t make a decision someone else will; or, perhaps the opportunity to intervene on your own behalf will pass. Many times an active decision is right even when wrong. You grab hold of the wheel of your life and try to steer. Value resides in ownership of yourself: self possession.

Many of the newer therapeutic models are not as contemplative, reflective, and retrospective as Freudian therapy, but add conceptual, emotional, and behavioral change — action — in the present. True, Freud warned about making personal decisions early in the treatment process, when still burdened by unresolved issues. There is recklessness in acting without thought, but finally one must roll the dice of life or stay on the sidelines, part of the audience. Indeed, one persuasive therapy model goes by the name of ACT (the word, not the initials): Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT leads you to a point of decision about what is important to you, commitment to those revealed values, and an eventual behavioral enactment of your commitment.

You have doubtless noticed women whose companions are men of action, whether thespians, builders, or “makers and shakers.” Indeed, a man pursuing a woman is described as “being on the make.” Some of those “gentlemen” are less than uniformly admirable, but their grasp of initiative is. Many other males (and females) lead lives of “quiet desperation.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. You needn’t be a leader to take charge of your life. Each of us has problems. Our inner life can be like a room filled with shelves of challenges we avoid. One must clear the shelves. We either sweep them clean or avert our eyes and lock the room wherein they reside. We then avoid any part of life reminding us of the courage we lack. Our failure might even be rationalized as good judgment — as an avoidance of danger.

How many people can’t eat out alone, try to make a new friend, or phone a stranger (choosing email instead)? How many of us can’t speak in a group or attend a class out of fear? How many adults can’t say no, ask for things, or look someone in the eye while uttering a necessary truth? If you are 16 and you don’t tackle such challenges, OK. At 56, if you still can’t, what then?

A graduating high school senior tells a younger, awe-struck young man why she couldn’t be with him:

“Charlie, I told you not to think of me that way nine months ago because of what I’m saying now. Not because of Craig (her then boyfriend). Not because I didn’t think you were great. It’s just that I didn’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it, too. I want them to be able to do whatever they want around me. And if they do something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.”*

Life in a fetal position is not a life in full. Trying always to please others is a life given away to people who won’t value you because you set your price tag too low. Such an existence is the opposite of “being a man,” a phrase that applies to any mature, confident adult, regardless of gender. Some of us persuade ourselves that the things we don’t do (because we don’t try) aren’t important. A kind of self-delusion. Others live in regret, consumed by “what might have been,” shadowed by the effort they did not “make.”

Regret is the only six-letter word equivalent of a four-letter swear. Unless you do an irreparable injury to another, perpetual regret is like a judge you have assigned the job of looking down on you, pointing an accusing finger eternally.

We all must stretch ourselves to our limit, especially in the first half of life, and learn to hold our head high always. Ironically, in the act of lengthening the spine by standing upright we feel better, and tend to overcome whatever sense of shame lives inside. Few of us, after all, wish to appear spineless.

Passivity isn’t the opposite of activity as much as it is the adversary of “living.”

Make the best of your life. You will die whether you do or not, so you might as well die trying.

*Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 201.

The painting of The Archangel Michael Tramples Satan by Guido Reni is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

My Seven Fathers

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This comes late. Late because Father’s Day was last month and late because this essay was appropriate 50 years ago.

I read several “Father’s Day” blogs this past June. Only then did I realize I had multiple dads. To discover this in my seventh decade was quite a surprise.

When I say I had more than one, I don’t mean official stepfathers. Nor did my dad die young, followed by others trying to fill his spot. Yet, the truth is, others did, with his knowledge. I bear no grudges about this. My father was, as the trite saying goes, “doing the best he could,” working as many as four jobs at a time, providing for us all. I never doubted his love. I never doubted his pride in me. Still, he was not present a lot. Not for me, not for my brothers Ed and Jack, and not for my mother.

Not there physically. Elsewhere. Away.

Part of a parent’s job is to be home, but that’s not always possible or easy. It wasn’t for him, a child of the Great Depression, claimed by the necessity of making a living. Every other consideration came after the long shadow of a scary time.

There we were, Milton Stein’s family, with him in the lead, racing hard to escape his shadow. My mom ran to catch up, pursued by her own shadow, holding hands with me and my brothers. All of us were in a dash for dad and his time. To the good, dad won the race with the specter of financial ruin, in reality if not psychologically. Ed, Jack, and I settled in the second shadow behind mom, a darker place than the first: a mixture of her personal insecurity, teenaged malnutrition and tuberculosis, poverty, her alcoholic dad and paranoid mother.

I like to say I came upon my interest in psychology honestly. Including the extended family, living examples of text-book emotional problems could be studied every day.

Other father figures embraced me. Did they recognize what I needed? I’ll never know. What follows is a tribute to these men and all the nameless adults who fill-in for a biological parent. They are rarely acknowledged. It took me much time to realize they should be.

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One was a portly, white-haired, candy store owner named Mr. Sharon, who talked with me about our favorite team, the Cubs, and called me “son.” A neighbor — movie-star-handsome Mr. Maddock — sometimes played catch with me. Add to the list Mr. Hanel, a tall man with a small dog. On his walks down the alley behind my house he let me play with his pet, something my brothers and I didn’t have. The roster includes a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Friedman, who believed in me enough to give me a double-promotion. Nor should I forget Jim Bryan, my adviser in graduate school. His letter from Northwestern, informing me I’d be his teaching assistant, said he would “work with me and on me.” He did, to my benefit.

By far the most important father substitute was my Uncle Sam, mom’s only brother. As the first Fabian grandchild I received lots of attention, the most from Sam. My parents, Sam, and his wife purchased a two-flat building together in West Rogers Park, Chicago, when I was six. Sam and Charlene Fabian lived upstairs and the Steins lived downstairs. Until Sam had a male child (Marty) I was almost his adoptive son. My cousin calls us brothers of a different mother.

Uncle Sam took me bowling, to baseball games, and introduced me to famous bowlers. My dad didn’t know anybody famous, so you can imagine the thrill of meeting the keglers I witnessed on TV. I met Carmen Salvino, Don Ellis, and even received bowling tips from an older bowler, Joe Wilman, who’d once been named Bowler of the Year in the 1940s.

Sam secured autographed pictures inscribed with my name from Hall-of-Fame baseball player Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce. We watched Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger, hit two home runs (one batting right-handed and the other left-handed) from box seats on a May evening in 1956. Mom’s brother built a table-top basketball game we played, carving the “shooters” and the baskets out of wood with his own hands.

Best of all, my uncle talked about his view of life. Sam offered guidance in how to live — how to “make it” in the world. My youthful home provided little wise parental advice. The house was a place where I often had to figure out how to proceed by my own inexperienced wits.

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Most of the adults I knew reacted to the world. Unlike them, my uncle took charge, created a business, displayed leadership. Sam was 6’4,” outgoing, generous, and unafraid of voicing strong opinions — a person with a large presence in every sense. His fatherly embrace and powerful hands offered a tangible understanding of what it meant to be a “man.” His interest in me conferred a feeling of worth almost by osmosis.

Things changed between us when his son, Marty, was born. I became yesterday’s news and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. At 16, I worked a regular after-school job for Sam, but my employment loaded the relationship with unbearable emotional weight. We occupied the dual roles of uncle/boss and nephew/employee at a time when even one role was too much.

The growing psychological distance became a physical one, too. My folks purchased Sam’s portion of their two-flat at his request and the Fabians moved from Chicago to the suburbs. With the end of high school I saw relatively little of him. Sam died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and three children with an emotional vacuum impossible to fill.

Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change. Life goes on with new people and fresh concerns. Accepting this reality is difficult. Sam served more than well in his fatherly role and, perhaps, I was what he wanted for a time: a son borrowed, not yet born. As Marty says, we are “brothers of a different mother,” and therefore sons of the same father, in tandem.

Still, when I think of Sam it is with a sense of wistfulness. I regret few things in my life, but wish we had been closer at the end. Given a magic wand, I’d like to spend a few more minutes with him, knowing all I know now. I’d give him a big hug and say thanks.

Seven fathers. A lucky number. I could have done much worse.

Much worse.

The top photo displays four generations of the Hebert family, three of whom are (or are about to be) dads. From the rear, Tom, David, Keith (my son-in-law), and ______? The fourth generation is shown in an ultrasound image. The compilation was created by my daughter  — Keith’s wife, Carly.

The second photo was taken at my Uncle Sam’s wedding. Left to right: Aunt Charlene, me, Uncle Sam, and Aunt Florence Fabian. The final image is of my father and mother.

Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok

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The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same glass differently.

Let’s think of the glass as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now look at the goblet again and ask not if it is half-empty or half-full in terms of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question.

What will you do with it? What will you do with whatever is inside the glass?

Here is an example of how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64 in 1945, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be further enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death-bed that he had hoped to leave the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” still occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

He could have said that he wanted to leave an empty glass rather than an empty trunk. The point is that he wanted to expend everything he had inside himself on the job of life. Spill it all out. Use it all up.

Bartok  believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself; his responsibility to his fellow-man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give; to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him and those that he had developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not only because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They create or recreate because they cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different from the attitude of those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heroes, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate their model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It rejects the withdrawn self-protection that insures that we will miss-out on what we really want; the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced,  the life that might have been, “if only…”.

Bartok had no choice in his failure to “leave with an empty trunk.” He composed one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia that killed him. It wasn’t for lack of trying that his “trunk” was still full of creative ideas.

The rest of us don’t have the same excuse if we leave life with some part of the best of ourselves held in abeyance — at least not yet. Why? Because we still have time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our trunk with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, that goal was to empty it of the things that were internal. Many are torn between the two. A life of consumption or a life of creation. Clearly there is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have had the time to have done more, not consumed more.

I can think of worse philosophies of living.

This post is a reworking of one I published about four years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

Advice for Life: Dr. S’s Savvy Suggestions for Survival

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When I was 16 I thought that life would be peachy once I knew how to drive and had a girlfriend. Unfortunately, achieving those two goals did not produce a permanent state of bliss. The first didn’t seem very important once it was accomplished; and the second — well, I regret to say that even love becomes something that one takes a bit too much for granted, except when it is absent.

If I could have given that kid I was some guidance, the list of advice wouldn’t have included those items because he (I) already knew I needed to learn to drive and find love. Nor would I have instructed him to work hard; or about the importance of the almighty dollar, values osmotically communicated within my childhood home. But here is a list of the things I might have offered, even if that 16-year-old version of myself couldn’t have fully understood them all:

1. When your mother told you that “Your eyes are bigger than your mouth” as you looked at a glorious piece of pie, she was on to something: the illusion of appearances. Some things and some people who look good, aren’t good. Or, have no lasting value, only a temporary pleasure that, like the food your mother was talking about, might not be as wonderful as you think.

2. Be quick to recognize patterns of mistakes and stop repeating them. As Bill Clinton said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

3. Perpetual regret is some version of hell. The first half of your life gives you lots of chances to recover from wrong turns and thereby avoid sentences that start with “I should have” or “I shouldn’t have.” You have the time to start most things over.

4. Hiding, hesitating, and hoping don’t work very well. To get ahead in life you can’t just read about it, imagine it, or worry about it. You actually have to do it. It’s a little like jumping into a cold pool. Once you’re in the water, you get used to the cold temperature and discover you can swim.

5. Don’t fool yourself by rationalizing your misdeeds or denying the real reasons you do what you do. But do learn to forgive yourself for most things. You are human, after all, and mistakes come with the package.

6. Perfectionism will kill you. So will slovenliness. Goldilocks was right about a lot of things: don’t aim for “too hot” or “too cold,” but for “just right.” In philosophical terms it is “the golden mean” — that place between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little of a quality. Some people call it balance.

7. No one cares about you except your mother, and even she has other things on her mind. OK, the first part of the last sentence is an exaggeration, but most of the people you know are too busy thinking about themselves to think much about you. Get over your self-consciousness.

8. You will pay for wisdom. Pain teaches, pleasure not so much. The body gives way in any case. Take care of your body; enjoy it and all the many pleasures of being young. Indeed, don’t take life so seriously that you miss the joy in living.

9. You too will die. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, actually hired someone to remind him of this fact every day. The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people. As Gregory Maguire has written, “Happy endings are still endings.” That tends to put things in perspective, so note the truth of it without constantly dwelling on it.

10. There is always someone better (and better off) than you are. There is always someone worse (and worse off) than you are.

11. You can’t have it all. Choose wisely, but remember Einstein’s words: “Try not to be a person of success, but rather a person of value.”

12. Accumulate experiences moment to moment, not possessions. Money and “stuff” are overrated unless you don’t have enough to get by.

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13. Make friends. People are the problem, but they are also the solution. Grudges will eat you alive, so try to let go and enjoy people for who they are, not who you want them to be, unless they are real scoundrels who should then be avoided. Spend more time trying to change yourself and less trying to change others.

14. Be nice. Or, to quote from American Opinion Magazine: “My boy,” said a father to his son, “treat everyone with politeness, even those who may be rude to you. For remember that you show courtesy to others not because they are gentlemen, but because you are a gentleman.”

15. Religion isn’t essential to morality. Some of the kindest and most decent people you will encounter don’t believe in God. But some really wonderful people do.

16. You must change yourself perpetually because of the changing circumstances in any life, not the least of which is aging. Think of life as a moving target, not one that is stationary. It follows that you should always seek to learn more from both study and experience. By the way, the most interesting people you meet will be the ones from whom you learn, by their words or their example.

17. You have to take chances, otherwise you can’t grow. Make the transition from seeing challenges as a crisis to seeing them as an opportunity.

18. Acceptance of the things that can’t be changed and appreciation of the good things you have are both life long tasks. Work at them.

19. Think about how you relate to money, food, time, and sex. Know where your potential spouse stands on each of these before your wedding day.

20. Reproduce. That’s why you are here, but don’t do so to save your marriage, and recognize that raising a child is a tremendous amount of work. Only have a baby if you want to be involved in all aspects of your little one’s life.

21. Overcome the things of which you are afraid. If you don’t they will diminish your life and continue to haunt you until you die.

22. Get to know your parents and, if possible, their early history. Whether by their good or bad example, they have something to teach you. There is also probably at least one person in your family who is so nuts that you want to reach for a giant nutcracker. Try to stay out of his or her way.

23. If you are an anxious or worried person, know that most of the things you anticipate either won’t happen or are survivable.

24. Always treat the wait-staff well.

25. Learn to be assertive. The world can be a merciless place if you don’t. Don’t explain your reasons or make excuses when no one asked. Don’t ask for permission when none has been requested. Someone might just say “no.”

26. Dr. S’s Bonus Item: Almost all the things you think will be the permanent solution to your problems provide only temporary relief. Once you solve one difficulty you are on to the next one, which probably requires a different remedy. Life is about learning that you can take on new challenges, not about finding permanent solutions to a fixed and unchanging set of problems.

27. Dr. S’s Second Bonus: If you want to get ahead, do what President Woodrow Wilson said: “Do not follow people who stand still.”

The top photo by Jonas Bergsten is of a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, Mountaineer Model. The poster is called Follow the Old-timer’s Advice and comes from the Office of Emergency Management, Office of War Information, 1941-1945. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.