Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

Are there endangered emotions in the world, much like endangered species? The ones that disappear? Most of us had sentiments and enthusiasms as small children we now rarely experience. What might they be? Can we get them back?

The greatest events of life, I’d argue, are fleeting. The birth of your first child is one. An early, electric kiss. The clichéd “thrill of victory” as it is felt, not reported. A musical performance of sadness or exultation so powerful you float and reverberate for days. Immediacy, intensity, and loss of self-awareness are found in these moments. Routine breaks. One is swept away.

What do we try to do with such things? Extend them, for sure. Go back to the source and regain them. Produce more children, maybe; more kisses, for certain. Play in additional ball games, too. Perhaps attend the repeat-performance of the concert the next day. But, the repeat almost never captures the wallop, the poignancy of “the first time.”

Does the picture of a speeding bullet seize the essence, help us remember and relive it? The most precious things and people are priceless, in part, because of their short supply and elusiveness. Here and gone. No matter the effort, we can’t catch an emotional deluge in a bucket and keep it in the fridge, just so.

Yet still we try. We want the honeymoon to be endless. We want our child’s spontaneity to continue forever. We think the earth-moving moment should be mounted in a frame or frozen under glass, but its soul is in the movement, not the stillness. The carefully preserved butterfly does not fly.

Some of us, as we age, lose even the ability to be astonished by life, bowled over by happiness or love, sensation or tenderness. Most want a bit of protection, so we add, without thinking, one layer at a time, beginning in youth. Seems safer, more necessary, less risky. The arrows of fate then won’t pierce as far, hurt as much, or so we believe. We want to escape fatal bullets, but unintentionally kill ourselves – the life in us – by trying to avoid them.

The bravest therapy patients attempt to change no one but themselves in their effort to recapture the innocent wonder they had at the point of creation, or grab the life-enkindling thing for the first time. They have the courage to recognize the mirror’s image, to overcome the pain of treatment, to outlast and out-will the unendurable: a kind of therapeutic integrity not to be denied. They grip tragedy and wrestle him to ground. They rip the emotional scabs off their being and bleed until purified and joyous. I still cannot believe how open they are.

As an observer of myself, I can characterize personal life from my 20s to the present as an opening more than a closing. My work required this openness, but so did full immersion in the best private moments as they happened. To my continuing surprise I become more open, not less, even now. Saying what others might not say, but only think; expressing the deepest part of myself to those who care to listen. Looking into your eyes if I am touched by your being. Life hurts more this way, but feels right and perhaps I have no choice: I became and am becoming such a person with little intention. Who knows what version of myself might appear tomorrow?

Death sets the border on everything. The cliché tells us the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people, the last stop on a human world in transit. The trains of life’s are always in motion, much as we want them to wait a minute. The best of them are swift. That’s what makes a train. No picture of a locomotive moves at 60 mph unless you throw it across the room.

So my advice to all of us is this: eyes open, heart open, stay alert, let down your guard as much as your dare; but don’t lose the best of yourself. Make love to life as if she were your first and last, both. She just might be.

Of course, I’m uncatchable, but catch me while you can.

As the advertisements tells us, we are all on sale for a limited time only.

The top image is called Berliner gör’n by Till Krech and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

512px-claude_monet_impression_soleil_levant_1872

When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

256px-soleil_couchant_sur_le_vercors

  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

256px-sonnenaufgang_schilf_im_winter

  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever Became of Julius Rosenwald and William Schuman?

Have you ever opened the old photo album of a parent or grandparent and wondered, “Who are these people?” So many smiling faces lost to the passage of time.

We spend lots of effort at the job of being remembered. No one wants to be forgotten, unless, like the old-time actress Greta Garbo, you “want to be alone.”

Indeed, one of the chief reasons people skip high school reunions is the fear of not being recalled.

Look around you at the buildings. Once gone, the person whose name appears on the edifice loses control. Buildings get torn down, names get changed.

Take Dyche Stadium, Northwestern University’s football field in Evanston, Illinois. The edifice opened in 1926, named after William Dyche, an NU grad in the Class of 1882, who later became the Mayor of Evanston and oversaw the venue’s creation. To the dismay of the Dyche family, NU sold the rights to the name in 1997 to Pat Ryan, then the Chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees. For eight-million dollars, Dyche Stadium became Ryan Field.

256px-Ryan_Field

Percy Bysshe Shelley would have understood. His poem Ozymandias tells a similar story about the collapse and destruction of an ancient monument to a once formidable and arrogant ruler. An inscribed pedestal is the only thing left:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/af/S_F-E-CAMERON_EGYPT_2005_RAMASEUM_01319.JPG/256px-S_F-E-CAMERON_EGYPT_2005_RAMASEUM_01319.JPG

If the exception proves the rule, then we should talk about Julius Rosenwald. You probably don’t know his name and Rosenwald wouldn’t have cared.

Julius Rosenwald (pictured at the top) was President of Sears, Roebuck, and Company from 1908 to 1924, and the Chairman of its Board until his death in 1932. In 1917 he established the Rosenwald Fund, a charitable enterprise designed to have no endowment, i.e. an untouchable bankroll to be invested for the purpose of the charity’s survival. Rather, Rosenwald intended the Fund to disperse grants “for the well-being of mankind” until there was nothing left. The money was gone by 1948; and with it, any chance we might hear about it in our time. Only a 2015 documentary on the philanthropist’s life has (for the moment) reintroduced his name to the public.

During its existence Rosenwald’s fund distributed about $70 million, with much money going to the establishment of over 5000 schools in the South, aimed at educating black youth. Rosenwald was also a principal founder of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, seeding it with five-million dollars and serving as its president from 1927 to 1932. At the time, people in Chicago were as likely to refer to the structure as the “Rosenwald Museum” as they were the Museum of Science and Industry.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/Museum_of_Science_and_Industry.jpg/512px-Museum_of_Science_and_Industry.jpg

William Schuman’s name, on the other hand, was never a household word. But in his day (1910-1992), only Aaron Copland was a more prominent living American composer in the classical world. Moreover, as president of the Juilliard School and then of the emerging Lincoln Center, no one had a greater influence on serious music in the middle portion of the last century. Schuman also wrote 10 symphonies among other works, and won the first Pulitzer Prize ever given for musical composition. His Symphony #3 is arguably the greatest such piece written by an American.

William Schuman: Symphony No. 3

Yet, the centenary of his birth in 2010 was hardly noticed by performing groups and the major US orchestras pay him little attention. I asked an orchestral executive why, with few exceptions, deceased 20th century Americans like Schuman are not performed. His wry answer: once dead “it is easier to say ‘no’ to them.” All the friends in high places who programmed Schuman’s music are now gone, along with his music, except for occasional performances and recordings. The musicians and executives of our own time don’t know his work and don’t care, or so it seems.

Schuman would have agreed, I suspect, with the notion that a composer’s life is like trying to create art on a block of ice on a hot day in July, to paraphrase Arthur Miller. In other words, you hope those notes will last and be played, but the odds are against you.

Shakespeare treated the fleeting memory of our existence more gently in the words he gave to Prospero, the sorcerer, in The Tempest. Prospero’s comment comes as he ends a brief staged performance — a play within a play. What he says refers not only to the matter of creating illusions in the theater, but also to the insubstantial and temporary nature of life itself, not just our names:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air…

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The irony implicit in Shelley’s and Shakespeare’s words is that while they talk of the transience of things, their names and works live on. Though it’s not called Dyche Stadium any more, the place Dyche built still stands along with the “Rosenwald Museum.”

Got to run. A recording of Schuman’s Symphony #3 is coming on the radio. Perhaps his music, like that of Gustav Mahler, will be revived 50-years after his death.

The future is full of surprises.

Who knows. Somebody at the reunion might remember you after all.

The top video is the trailer for the 2015 documentary, Rosenwald. The 1970 photo of Ryan Field (formerly Dyche Stadium) comes from Greenstrat. Steve F-E-Cameron is the author of the Temple of Ramses II, Luxor, Egypt. The photo of the Museum of Science and Industry is courtesy of Knarfol. All of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is the Columbia LP (long playing record) cover of William Schuman’s Symphony #3 with the smiling Schuman facing the photographer.

September Song

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Pin_Oak_Leaves.jpg/512px-Pin_Oak_Leaves.jpg

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.

Leaving Life With an Empty Trunk

I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He 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 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. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.

Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not 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 write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.

What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from 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 heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this 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 the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”

Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.

I can think of worse philosophies of life.