Are You Boring? Words You Should and Shouldn’t Say

I am about to make you self-conscious about what you say. Or, to improve your social stature. Following these guidelines might even make you a more engaging person. I hope the latter. After all, I am a therapist.

Counselors meet many with personal insecurity and low self-esteem. How often do we hear, “I’m so boring.” These oft times timid souls are self-effacing and therefore believed by others either uninteresting or conceited. Those who withdraw from the crowd risk the opinion that they think themselves “too good” to join in.

If you want to compel attention, first think about what you say. Many of us find a new person physically attractive from a distance. Since light travels faster than sound, he may appear bright until you hear him. Fresh ideas help you retain the outer magic.

I do not want to listen to the echo of past conversations. My brain needs dusting, along with scintillating talk as a cleanser.

Here are some words and sounds you ought not to make if you desire to enthrall:

  • Choose adverbs with care. Words like frankly, honestly, and very lose their strength with each additional use.
  • Say less rather than more. If your utterances intrigue, the other might follow-up with a question. This is called conversation.
  • Beware of the following lesson. The 20th-century composer John Cage created a piece entitled 4’33” consisting of a performer coming on stage, sitting down, and timing-out just over four-and-a-half minutes before taking his bows. As Cage wrote in a poem, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.”
  • Avoid overuse of superlatives: stunning, awesome, shattering .
  • Common words such as good or bad need explanation. What was good and in what way?
  • Such adjectives as unfair are overused. Another’s unfairness is your fairness. Explain yourself, but avoid whining.
  • The word hypocrite presents the same dilemma. All of us are hypocrites at some time in our lives. Maybe at any time.
  • Try to overcome beginning sentences with so or um or uh. Speaking is not a race. Your vocalization will stand in relief against the backdrop of stillness. Conceive of your voice as the foreground in a painting where silence serves as background.

  • Some phrases are empty of distinction. “At the end of the day,” comes to mind; “bottom line” is another. I attended a six-hour seminar in which the speaker, otherwise an intelligent and competent woman, used “bottom line” a few dozen times. Had she repeated those words once more I might have rushed the podium.
  • “You guys” is a frequent reference made to mixed gender groups. “You guys” might include women. “Ladies” or “ladies and gentlemen” will get you some notice and show respect. You may dislike the formality I’m suggesting. Remember, I want you to stand out.
  • Pronoun problems occur when using he, she, they, and so on. The listener might not realize to whom you are referring lest you specify the person.
  • Skip the uptalk or upspeak : try not to transform your declarative statements into questions by raising your voice at a sentence’s end. You succeed only in sounding insecure when you uptalk regularly.
  • If you believe something, say so. Feeling is not believing. One is an emotional state, the other intellectual.
  • When you don’t know a word, consult the dictionary and write the meaning down.
  • What words might you substitute for the ordinary ones? Instead of great, consider considerable, significantnotable, important, valuable or major, among others.
  • Listen to recordings of famous orators for guidance. I’m thinking of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Churchill, and Adlai Stevenson II.
  • For shock value, be honest. Unless you are a counselor, you might not recognize how much we humans hide.

As noted up top, much as I wish you more security, excessive concentration on what you are saying is a symptom of ill-confidence. Rehearse alone. Consult a thesaurus, too. Both will make real-time socialization easier.

Once you employ a few of the suggestions above, you’ll be better able to put your focus where it belongs: on the words of the other.

Consume works of the finest authors. Mark Twain, one such writer, said: “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

Twain’s implicit suggestion to read is essential. Unless the people you wish to associate with haven’t a thought in their heads, you need to have a few and a knowledge base they lack.

All this will take effort. Courage, too. Speech is the oral gift of portraiture, like a brush placed in the hand of a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. Think of your voice as the voice of one who sings art-songs. If you do, you will already have become more worthy of respect — both understood and remembered.

——-

Both of the pictures above are called Triple Self Portrait. The first is by Norman Rockwell, the second by Egon Schiele. They were sourced from Wikiart.org.

When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.

How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

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Everyone will know. Everyone will know how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear and are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to say.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A remarkable scholar, a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

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The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman place the noose. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. Your expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim illness without betraying cowardice, conscience, and comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suit – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many?

Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by another, newer story. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. However bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Next comes Finish Line by Thomas Sørenes. The final image is a photo of Musician Third Class Gabriel Brown, at the Jerudong International School, 2011. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revision of an earlier essay publish on this site.

What the Camera Tells Us About Ourselves

Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre

If you look closely at the famous image above, you will see the first photograph of people — a historic event. It dates from 1838 and apparently shows one man having his shoes shined by another man. There were doubtless other things going on in the streets and on the sidewalk — moving carriages, animals, strolling couples and the like — but the technology of early photography permitted the camera to capture only those things that were relatively stationary for about 10 minutes or more.

With this photo, a new history begins that has social as well as technical implications: our concern over how we look to the camera’s eye. In other words, one more thing to manage and one more reason to be self-conscious. Such is the price of progress! A new and very personal preoccupation had been created by the genius of human invention — an unintended consequence of a set of scientific advances, one I’d like to say a few words about, as it relates to everyday life and the need to change your life, too.

Of course, mirrors existed thousands of years before photography was invented, but allowed mostly for private consideration of one’s appearance. Cameras made the private public and gave new perspective to how one looked, since a mirror only told you about the image you could see looking directly back at you, not from behind or in profile. For a long while, photos were largely posed and often took the place of painted portraits that a family of means might hang proudly at home.

Posing gave the subject some control over the picture. He could dress up, choose the background, and count on the photographer to use only the best of his work; that is, to create a finished product that made the subject look good.

As photography expanded to non-professionals, snap shots were, by definition, relatively spontaneous, with no guarantee to flatter those captured while walking, talking, eating, and the entire range of activities that others might observe “in (unstaged) life.” The internet brought us to our current situation vis-a-vis our photographed appearance. Pretty much anything is now fair game, including pictures that are embarrassing. Indeed, one suspects that unattractive images are more likely to be posted than those that make us look desirable, at least when others are doing the downloads. Appalling has trumped appealing.

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

A Korean Puppy and a Fifth Air Force Aerial Camera, 1951. Sourced from the US Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

We now live in an age of the big “reveal” or, to use English properly, “revelation.” We are revealed in more ways than we can manage, with the internet playing its part. No longer can a permanent view of us at our best be guaranteed. The result is either to accept that we will sometimes look like crap to those who chance upon our picture, or to make sure that only our most trusted camera-ready friends see us as we really are, without carefully arranged hair, makeup, a good shave, and the happy face that we show to everyone else.

Daily life has changed with the ubiquity and portability of the camera/phone. Not only can those who are not present use the dark magic of the lens to see our shouts and frowns and scowls, but we see them too. We see, if we are open to it, all the things that make us look good and bad, not just in terms of physical beauty, but decency, as well.

The camera has become a kind of moral score keeper. Potentially, at least, we observe even those qualities that we wish we could block from self-awareness: expressions of unkindness, indifference, and contempt.

Before a time when the photographer forced his images upon us, we only knew what others risked telling us about ourselves. And, of course, in polite society, this still doesn’t happen with regularity, unless you are a public figure. Our friends don’t want to hurt our feelings, so, whatever they say usually is spoken tactfully. And, our enemies can be dismissed, at least most of the time, because they are, after all, our enemies.

The unposed photo has removed the friend and the enemy from the conversation, equally. We now are face-to-face with ourselves more often than ever before, and in a way that only the camera makes possible. We have a more “god’s eye view,” a little harder to deny, a bit more insistent on truth. As the poet Rilke observed in writing about the Archaic Torso of Apollo,

…for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The photograph now sends us a message. Be the best you can be, not just in appearance. Shrink your vanity and become comfortable with yourself, so that you care less about the opinion of others. Be as good in the shadows as you are on stage. Control your anger. Show kindness. Whether privately or publicly, don’t do those things that would shame you in a crowd. Indeed, you must change your life. So must we all.

The top image is Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre, 1838. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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.

"Follow_the_Oldtimers_Advice."_-_NARA_-_514272

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.

Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

What would it be like to couple a youthful body with the wisdom of age? It is largely the subject of movie comedies, partially because a serious look at the question would be difficult. Still, everyone seems to be wishing for that imaginary combination whenever they say “Youth is wasted on the young.”

My short response to that statement? I think not. Youth is exactly where it needs to be; age as well. But, just to make sure, let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of youth and experience and why they can’t easily be combined, even conceptually.

To begin, what benefits attach to youth?

I’d include a fresh, eager perspective on things; enthusiasm and boundless energy; and a great capacity for getting excited (in every sense). Remember the enkindling experience of a new great song or a new love? You are likely to hear more wonderful music over time, and probably have later loves, but they don’t quite feel the same to you if you are mature when they happen.

Add to the period of life’s early gifts an openness to new experience, intellectual flexibility and the relative ease of molding yourself into a new shape; quickness of mind and body; great beauty and strength. Finally, youth is more innocent and finds it easier to trust, not yet having been so fooled by life and the people in it to assume that appearances are always the real thing.

On the down side, there is the self-consciousness that particularly afflicts the young and can make it a painful time. If some Eastern religions are correct, freedom from suffering and peace of mind are found in a state called “nirvana,” certainly not to be experienced while self-consciously finding your path in life. And, no, I’m not referring to the band “Nirvana.”

We tend to learn more from pain than pleasure. Thus, early life — the period in which we learn the most — is a painful time, of necessity. “The School of Hard Knocks” doesn’t award you a diploma, but perhaps it should.

Most of us do not enjoy the youthful stress connected with not knowing a thing and having to learn large quantities of procedures, skills, and information rapidly. It is no fun being behind all the bigger, older, and more learned competitors and authorities. But this gives way to a more gradual — less “all at once” process of learning as one ages. Routines are acquired. Practice makes perfect. One discovers “the tricks of the trade,” even though baseball great Vernon Law warned that “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.”

Still, experience does tend to make lots of things easier, so that each day is not quite so challenging as it was when we were growing up. And with that experience and the knowledge acquired along the way comes, one hopes, fewer of the errors that are a part of any learning process, thus serving to increase one’s feeling of self-confidence and security; and perhaps even allowing for less self-consciousness.

The young usually have a greater sense of “possibility” than the mature. It is easier for them to turn around, retrace steps, and start over. They are usually less encumbered by things like spouses and children, mortgages and other debts. However much one loves the spouse and children, they are also a responsibility that constrain you. As Francis Bacon said, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

The fresh mind is more comfortable with change than the stodgy and stuck older person, as anyone who has looked at the effect of technological advances on these two groups. Indeed, one danger of aging is to gradually feel more alienated from the world in which you live, partly because it is no longer the world you knew.

Of course, the fuzzy-cheeked have more time ahead of them in most cases, and much less behind them than do the mature. What is more, the “sense” of time passing is different in the novice and the old hand; the latter can feel it passing with a speed that his junior cannot, even though the clock is the same for both.

I don’t wish to suggest that all the best of life is to be found in youth, but the rewards of the mature time of life are certainly different. If you can avoid becoming frozen in your ideas and jaded by having seen (and suffered) too much, you just might appreciate things more when you are older, not take them so much for granted.

My wife tells me that she never saw the moon in the old days, when she slept through every night. A bit older now, we both find that a trip past the skylight “into that good night” reveals the glorious moon shining down on us, the beauty of which is some compensation for sleep that is not as sound as it used to be. Just so, the love a mature person has its own, perhaps less urgent biological necessity, having to do with knowing that nothing lasts forever, a feeling that is often hard for a young person to fully grasp, even though he knows it to be true intellectually.

The more seasoned individual should have become more comfortable in his own skin, even when that skin undergoes its own unwelcome changes; less concerned with what the crowd thinks (although, obviously, this isn’t true for professions like politics)!

In real maturity there is a steadiness and calm: you’ve seen worse before, you’ve lived through a lot; so you know that not everything is a matter of life and death. Or to quote a famous basketball coach’s advice to his young players: “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You’re going to die a lot.” And so the mature person “dies” less often than his youthful counterpart and is at least a little better at taking on difficult challenges. The man with seniority no longer sweats so much of the small stuff.

If he is more than just chronologically mature and has actually learned from time and experience, he has begun to accept some things — doesn’t rage so often and so easily at the unfairness that is a part of any life. Not surprising, then, that revolutions are usually for the young. Not that they aren’t worth fighting even by those who are older, but somehow the older man is no longer “that person” who is capable of the kind of energy and passion and idealism that fuel most revolutionaries. Life finds him less intense, not so easily worked up. Just look at the way young orchestra members sit on the edge of their seats, while seasoned musicians look more “laid back” and you will know what I mean.

Reflecting on my career as a therapist, I think that a few of my patients might have done better with the older than with the younger version of me: the seasoned psychologist who had “seen it all before” and could therefore make faster and more accurate diagnoses and more apt therapeutic interventions; the man who was more secure and more able to keep an appropriate psychological distance from the patient: not too close and not too far away.

But, it is possible that some of my patients would have benefited more from my younger self, one with more energy and a need to prove himself. That less experienced version of me, of course, sometimes had a hard time keeping the right therapeutic balance because he was prone to caring too much. But, sometimes enthusiasm and energy carry the day despite other shortcomings. “Swings and roundabouts” (offsetting gains and losses), as the British like to say. You are who you are at whatever age you are and you try to better yourself. A good therapist and, I should say, a good person should be forever looking to improve.

You would not want it otherwise if you were, as you will be inevitably, the patient of some medical or therapeutic practitioner. Experience does count. You wouldn’t want a surgeon, no matter how talented and bright, who has done the operation you are about to submit to only once before. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want a once great specialist who was worn down by routine and time.

Ideally, whether it is a therapist or a physician, what I think you’d want is someone with a good deal of experience but who approaches you with a fresh attitude; trying to recapture, if possible, that awareness and enthusiasm for the job that we usually associate with “the first time.” The very greatest scientists and lovers, teachers and musicians, friends and therapists “make it new.”

Victor Mature, a famous movie actor of the mid-twentieth century. Was he mature? He was married five times.

Back to the question of whether youth is wasted on the young, can you imagine going back to your childhood or teen years with the knowledge and experience of someone 30 or 50 or 70? How could you possibly fit in? And look at those middle-aged, well-seasoned folks who behave and dress like twenty-somethings. Same problem.

We are stuck with who we are, but there is a lesson in this, I think. No, it is not to spend the rest of your time regretting what you had and lost; or never had and wishing you could go back and try again, armed with all that time has taught you. Rather, the lesson is in living life fully at whatever age you are, because, in part, you will never be that particular version of yourself again. We need to stumble to learn, as we do particularly in our youth; and we need the losses that come with experience in order to appreciate what we have.

As much as change is frightening, it does make the experience of living more interesting. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said 2500 years ago, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Embrace the new river and the new version of yourself, at whatever age.

On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up?

The top image is called Old and Young by Mbjerke. The second one is a New Zealand OFLC Poster. Both of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Dave Barry ad photo comes from Amazon.com