“I’m Beautiful and Smart, but I Always Wind Up with the Wrong Person”

P came to therapy with sadness and anger, as though she carried them in her backpack before unloading them on the low table between us. The surface was covered, her combination of feelings familiar to me. I already imagined difficulties. She’d be challenging, but I was not about to give up before I started.

P believed the world had been unfair. Boyfriends expected too much. They tired of her or betrayed her. A therapist doesn’t dispute this, but lives in hope the client will grieve to the point of readiness for self-reflection: consideration of his part in the staging, acting, and dialogue of life’s drama.

We try to aid in the process. A counselor asks about patterns of relationships. I wanted to know if P recognized the resemblances among her romantic adventures. “How do you explain it?” I asked.

They all seemed so nice at the beginning and then — and then they turned on me. I never, never thought …

With such people as P — and there are many Ps in any crowd — the “turning on me” takes several forms. The other becomes prone to anger or alcohol abuse or infidelity. That inconstant soul begins to spend more time with friends or starts to work too many hours; or changes into someone who finds his sweetie dull. He transforms.

He was not this way before.

P had done nothing to cause the Jekyll/Hyde malformation, “I swear,” she claimed. To me, her psychologist, it was not so simple. In her view, the lover was now a minor league version of the devil. Her Magic Mirror, a family heirloom, told her every day:

You are pure, you are grand; in this you had no hand.

Six relationships in 10 years, all with the same beginning and the same end.

In fact, P made at least one mistake, maybe two:

  • Either her judgment of human nature (companion variety) was poor and she kept picking similar types of unsatisfactory men or
  • The lady added some sour ingredients to the relationship formula, influencing if not inducing the unhappiness she reported, however little her contribution.

I asked Socratic questions to no avail. “What attracted you to the man?” “What did your friends think of him before you moved in together?” “Was there anything valid in his excuses or complaints about you?”

Nothing.

We are imperfect evaluators of our fellow-man, every one of us. Our unconscious affections and dislikes are drawn from resemblance to other important figures in our life, instinctive attractions or repulsions, interests and aspirations shared or opposed. Everyone makes mistakes in evaluating others. Friendship and love often founder on differences unknown in first moments.

Less frequently character is the issue, but this too takes time to reveal itself. Courage and morality don’t exist until tested by temptation, fear, or conflict. Most new acquaintances offer their best behavior. Routine daily experiences don’t require us to be brave souls or saints in order to display dutiful goodness. Almost all of us are pretty good at that.

Still, we must evaluate potential employers and friends, politicians and lovers without enough data, usually based on first impressions and behavior in periods of unchallenging normalcy. The lonely look for the perfect match for their imperfect selves. Instead they find another struggling human who fits less well than they hoped; or a honey who is ideal for a while, but not always in all ways. The same applies to the aforementioned bosses and friends.

The world of gauging the personal equation is forever in motion, done on the run. We do the best we can.

—–

P would leave treatment having grieved her broken heart, but without learning much or changing much. One’s personal inertia assumes he possesses every answer to life’s secrets. I’ve yet to meet such a one, but know several who tell me life is in the dance, not in stasis.

—–

I anticipated P’s merging with another man like the others, one who would turn her on and then turn on her. A therapist is not like a can opener, capable of piercing the defensive metal container enclosing his patients. He builds relationships, hopes to engender trust, but his tools are subtle, not surgical.

We ask our clients to give up one self-image for another, to murder the one and create a replacement. Counselors offer something better than dissolving the patient’s befogged understanding of himself, but harder. Some prefer their long familiar selves and want the world to change for them.

It never does.

If instruction would have made a difference, I’d have said this to my story’s troubled young heroine:

There is one constant in all the relationships you describe: you.
Do not mistake rage or hurt for infallible righteousness, no matter how they make you feel.

Imperfection and self-knowledge are hard to bear. Nearly all of us think we understand ourselves well, but perfect self-awareness would bring us to our knees. Instead of the full truth, we drew the outlines of our lives a while ago (with help from parents), marking what was acceptable, healthy, or necessary. For some, this meant a large life, for others a narrow one

If we were poor in our original self-creation — too much license here, too little assertiveness there, or avoidance everywhere — Personality Flaws crept into and colored the picture. They persist without effort; as if living, invisible masters of our existence. Time and repetition mean nothing to them, they last and last until the last, internal holes in the sidewalk of our being. Fall into them or repair the hazards as you wish. Waiting for you to wise-up is their comfort zone.

Many shortfalls reside inside, even for those who — like P — believe recurring dilemmas to be outside of themselves and their control.

A shame.

Remember what Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Those words are harsh medicine. While Cassius’s judgement does not account for the external, invasive tragedies we suffer, they are an accurate understanding of the cause of many frustrations. His truth can be denied, but we cannot avoid the consequences except by work on the single aspect of life most in our control: what is inside us.

Then comes a better life.

The top photo is of the Spiral Staircase in City Hall, London, by Colin. Next comes Citadel of Qaitbay by Ahmed Younis Sit Saad. Chicago’s Rookery Building’s interior is represented in the third photo and the final one. The first shot is its Central Staircase, by Ken Lund. The other is another Staircase view, this one by Velvet. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. In between the Rookery shots, I’ve placed an Inside-outside Innovation picture, taken from Innovation Management.

How a Dangerous Patient Got That Way

Brave Merida

When I first saw “Mr. X” in my waiting room, I thought his head was on fire. Striking, spiked red hair aflame. My mistake. It was his heart.

Before long, he would be on the verge of doing harm. Or, as he saw it, putting things right; being something like an avenging angel on the side of all that he believed to be just and good; a kind of holy warrior.

This is the story of how he went from being depressed and disgruntled to someone who might kill. But it is also a story about what happens when hearts are inflamed with rage.

Until only a short time before the “X-Man” consulted me, he was the sort of guy who, when you saw him in a crowd, the crowd stood out. Hardly a mutant superhero. His physical stature and undistinguished facial features made him appear to be an average man in every way: average nose, average mouth, average height — you get the picture. Back then his hair was conservatively fashioned, not spiked, and my patient colored it a less startling shade.

Mr. X did not welcome attention, you see. Attention in his life had never signaled kindness.

His parents were unkind. His teachers had been unkind. His first wife was unkind. And his kids wanted no part of him other than financial support. They believed his first wife, who said that he was a scoundrel. Thus, we have a man who was abused and neglected, bullied by school mates, and badly treated by wife #1. The divorce had been financially ruinous and somehow that woman had managed to win his children’s favor.

The X-Person was reasonably bright and worked in a technical field of endeavor. He’d made a decent living, but watched as others surpassed him. Some of them were minorities, and rather than looking at possible short-comings in himself (his relatively clumsy social skills, for example), he thought that they were getting unfair promotion. In short, he became a bigot.

x-men-legends-2-characters-4

Then the final blow: a financial downturn and the loss of his job. He came to me after several months of a futile job search. He was both depressed and embittered. My patient had tried to play by the rules and, it seemed to him, the referee was always penalizing him. Having no close friends, the only things he could count on were his second wife’s support and that of his religious faith, which he relied on more and more. It was not the religion of his parents, but one that he’d chosen some time after his divorce.

Therapy was aimed at keeping him afloat emotionally so that he could succeed in finding a proper job. To the extent that he opened himself to looking at his life of travail, the treatment attempted to help him grieve his losses. But, let’s just say that the goal of keeping him from curling into a ball was working, while relieving him of his back-pack of unresolved grief was not.

Several months in, however, it was clear that he was beginning to think about violence. Acting out. Targeting others. And he increasingly saw the religious texts that he faithfully read as indicating that wrong was being done in the world and that it was his job to right that wrong. Indeed, he felt that it would be irresponsible and sacrilegious not to.

Interestingly, Mr. X was untroubled by war and wished to have no part in supporting it or protesting it. Nor was he concerned with children who were abandoned or starving. No, his concern was for the unborn, but his anger was against those who conspired to prevent their birth. Specifically, physicians who performed abortions.

X_men_1

This X-Man was uncomfortable after telling me this. He was more than smart enough to recognize that, if he talked about a plan of action or specified a target, I was required to report him to those authorities who might prevent the worst. When I questioned him about the inconsistency between valuing the lives of the unborn and the likelihood of destroying lives of innocent bystanders in addition to the “murderers” he hated, he brushed-off the thought. When I mentioned the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” he was unfazed. Yet it came from the book he called “holy.”

To my patient, there was no problem in killing the MDs, and anyone else who might die in addition to the doctors would be “collateral damage,” worth the accomplishment of his goal. He did not expect to be punished by the god he worshipped and didn’t care what civil authorities might do to him.

It was clear to him and to me that my concern about potential carnage (he denied “yet” having a plan and claimed he hadn’t definitely decided to do anything) was getting in the way of his treatment. Within a few weeks he indicated that he could no longer trust me because I seemed too concerned about “the others” who, he believed, were beneath contempt. He wasn’t sure if he wanted another therapist when I offered to help him find one, because, he said, “They’d have to report me, too.” Assuming, of course, that he went further with his thinking and actually did come up with a plan and a specific target.

When he terminated therapy I was worried. I continued to try to keep phone contact, calling him every few weeks. And, before long, there was a change. The X-Man landed a job. He sounded buoyant, no longer angry, and free of the obsessive preoccupation with going out of this world in a glorious bloodbath, along with the evil soul or souls whose existence he wanted to erase. This frustrated man was frustrated no more, throwing himself into a job that felt fulfilling and interesting. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

As I look back on that man and that time, I sometimes think about what it takes to go over the line. Would this X-Man, lacking X-Men-like super powers that might have made him feel better about himself, have killed if he hadn’t found work just then? I think he might have. Would he have killed only because his religion saw his targets as sinning? No. With a different religion or no religion, he still could have justified his action. Righteous anger is always self-justifying.

Most, if not all religious documents are like a Rorschach Inkblot: one person looks at the picture and sees a butterfly, while another looks at the same picture and sees a vampire bat. The Bible recommends stoning as the punishment for adultery, but we haven’t heard of too many Jews or Christians taking that point seriously lately. In religion, interpretation is everything. No, this man could have been almost any isolated soul who had a sorry history of disappointment, heartbreak, and failed attempts to make his life better; and a bunch of anger ready to blossom into a mushroom cloud.

Nagasaki, 20 Minutes After the Atomic Bomb Explosion in 1945

Nagasaki, 20 Minutes After the Atomic Bomb Explosion in 1945

We humans look for justification for our actions, sometimes before we act, but always after. And we tend to find it. “They’ve got weapons of mass destruction,” said the government, “so let’s invade Iraq before they kill us.” “Slavery is in the Bible (and is not there rebuked) so God intended for us to keep slaves,” as the slave-holding Southern States used to argue. Even the god described in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, is the intelligent designer of the first-ever genocide, which we conveniently think of as the benign story of Noah and the Ark. God’s reasons?

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6.5 and 6.6).

As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

The top image comes from the movie Brave. Some details of this story have been changed to protect the identity of the patient.

My Dad is Bigger Than Your Dad! Contemporary Politics and the Moral Superiority of Six-Year-Olds

Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Bluster. Bullies. Big Mouths. Fulminating, furious, fanatics. The world of politics and political attack ads is a lot like the playground.

Lots of assertions, name calling, and one-sided arguments intended to support my candidate’s moral superiority over yours:

Party A: “So-and-so never met a tax or a spending proposal he didn’t like. Who would you rather trust with your money, you or a government with guys like him in it? And he is an ex-trial lawyer and a tree-hugger!”

Party B: “He only cares about rich people. He wants to cap your Social Security and increase your age of eligibility to receive it. He’s a global warming denier who is in bed with the insurance companies and the gun lobby, too!”

Party T: “So-and-so is a communist, a Muslim, a socialist. Where was he born, really? He isn’t a U.S. citizen! The son-of-a-gun just wants to control your health care and dismantle the Constitution!”

And then there is the worst indictment of all: “He is a career politician!!!!!”

Yes, dear, the world of work would be better served by the amateurs, rather than a career surgeon, a career therapist, or career auto mechanic. The next time I go to a concert, I’d like to pay to hear a singer who only performs in her spare time for friends.

I recently had a conversation with a very intelligent man who believes that we would be better off if every one of the current incumbents is thrown out of office, to be replaced by whomever. “It couldn’t be worse,” he said, “regardless of who replaces them.”

Well, actually, it could. How about the Third Reich, Hitler’s Nazi state? Or Cold War Communism under Stalin? Millions and Millions of the enemies-of-the-state being murdered by each of these leaders. Or perhaps life in genocidal Darfur today?

Or maybe you would prefer to live in the 1930s, our own Great Depression, with 25% of the population unemployed, no Social Security or Medicare or Unemployment Insurance, the down-and-outers coming to your back door for food, and another 25% of the population under-employed? Even in 1937, eight years after the Stock Market Crash, President Roosevelt could describe “one-third of a nation” as “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

Of course, it is not that things today are terrific or that our legislators are doing such a bang-up job; and there are some really bad guys on the ballot.

But, “throw the scoundrels out,” is not much of a political agenda. Anger is a self-justifying emotion, without a plan for governance by itself.

“Let’s cut government spending and lower taxes,” doesn’t tell you which programs will be cut, or how to pay for our collapsing infrastructure. “I’ll eliminate waste and fraud,” is an old standby promise of political challengers which, however good in principle, rarely seems to be accomplished very well once they are in office themselves.

As the election campaign boils over, many of us begin to resemble little boys:

“My dad is stronger than your dad!”

“Oh yeah? Well, my dad is smarter than your dad!”

We seem to see only perfection in the candidate who resonates with us. We overlook his limitations. And we magnify the defects in the flawed visage of the other guy.

The good news is that the six-year-olds will grow up and many of them will realize that dad isn’t Superman.

The part of us that yearns for someone of absolute moral purity — someone who is smart enough and strong enough to take care of us forever — finally realizes that dad (and mom) probably won’t fill the bill.

The bad news is that many of us just transfer our unquestioning allegiance from parents to candidates, rendering ourselves as naive as we were at age six.

Angels and devils. Bad guys and good guys.

If only the world were always that simple.

 

The above image is Robert Marshall Root’s painting of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois.