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.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

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Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

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Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

September Song

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I was talking to an unmarried friend recently, not a young man, who presented me with a dilemma that was troubling him. It seemed that an attractive and intelligent woman, much younger than he, was showing an interest in him.

Friendship? Romance? Business advantage or advice?

All yet to be determined.

But he wondered whether to pursue the relationship, particularly if it might become romantic, sexual.

Now my friend is extremely bright, a thinker all his life. Indeed, this is how he makes his living — thinking, evaluating, considering, pondering, weighing, judging; and then conveying the result of those calculations to others, who pay him well for his service.

He sees lots of potential problems, although he doesn’t know the woman well at all — yet. Might she be interested in him only for his ability to assist her professionally? Wouldn’t others looks askance at the two of them together, a woman of 30 and a man of 55?

Or could one of the things that now attracts her to him — his capacity as a mentor or guide, someone who has much more experience of some very interesting things — eventually be seen as a problem when she tires of the “student” role and begins to resent the “teacher?” Wouldn’t the generation gap, the memories and formative influences that they don’t have in common, eventually separate them?

Now all these, and more, are not unreasonable thoughts. The problems that he sees could very well occur.

But other men might see it differently. They would welcome the attention of a young and attractive female, the energy, the sexual tension, the admiration, the possibility of what still might be. Indeed, some men of any age could well believe that they’d won some sort of dating lottery in just this situation.

But then, my friend lives in his head a lot, a thinker, as I said. And thinkers think. Not because it always works, not because they have to, but because it is almost as natural and automatic as breathing. Simply because they’ve always done it.

Most of us, past a certain age, just keep doing what we’ve done and getting what we’ve got. Not that what we’ve got has always been that great, but the unknown future seems fraught with danger and only the safety of the well-trod path appears to offer any security. Better the mediocre “known” than the dangerous, but perhaps promising “unknown.”

And so, the man who has always worn only Brooks Brothers suits for fear of others criticizing his wardrobe choices will still wear those suits; and the adult who had little money while growing up will continue to under-tip the waiter and sit in the “cheap seats” in the theater despite the fact that he has a million dollars in the bank and a secure pension on top of it; and the orchestra musician too long beyond his prime will play the violin still, not because he so loves it, but because he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time if he quit the thing to which he has devoted his entire life.

One is trapped by social expectations and insecurity, another held tight by the dead hand of the past, a third lacking the imagination or courage to reinvent himself. All are like sail boats becalmed, in a still-state of living without life.

But the days grow short as you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

My advice to my friend? See what happens. You aren’t young any more. Life is short. Who knows what it may yet have in store?

Before long spring will be in the air again. Even if it is not the spring of your youth, the earth’s spring might yet enliven you.

And listen to Walter Huston’s recording of September Song, music by Kurt Weill, words by Maxwell Anderson.

His rendition remains the best ever, even if barely sung, because of a sensibility that knew very well that of which he sang — the September of life and the hope of romance to heal the lonely heart.

The photo above is a Picture of Pin Oak leaves turning color c/o: Rmccrea, Wikimedia Commons.

The quotation is from September Song.

A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions leading her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.