The Psychological Lessons of Literature

When is a story more than a story? I’m not suggesting a common page-turner, a thriller sweeping you away. Instead, I refer to a fine short story or novel, and its ability to reveal something more about human inner-workings than even a mass market psychology text or a self-help manual.

Take Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Not a title to make you think the writer knew much about the unsettling emotional complications of two psyches within a law office. He did though.

A scrivener is a copiest, a scribe, such as lawyers employed in the days before off-set printing and Xerox machines took their jobs away. Legal documents had to be duplicated by hand: back-breaking, carpel tunneling, mind-numbing work. Long hours bent over an unsuitable desk made it worse. Your profession was known by the permanent ink stains on your hands and clothing.

The unnamed attorney who narrates the story tells of a quiet, strange employee. He gives us his first impression of the man: “I can see the figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectful, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby!

Mr. B. was a good worker, too — for a while. Before long, the boss makes a routine request to which the scrivener’s only reply is “I would prefer not to.”

More and more such responses challenge both the lawyer and Bartleby’s three co-workers. The stand taken is never explained. Eventually the employer even discovers the fellow living in the firm’s offices after hours: not to do anything amiss, but to pass his solitary time. And he “prefers not to” do otherwise.

Our narrator tries many means to impress Bartleby with the necessity of compliance. The lawyer, however, is a Christian man in the best sense, and feels a human connection to the odd creature, thus stopping him from calling the police for his removal from the building.

What have we here? Is this a tale about mental illness, social isolation, or a passive-aggressive soul’s ability to control a situation by saying no? Is it an indictment of the oppressive conditions of long days spent in work that requires attention to detail achieved through concentration on a mindless, repetitive task? Is Melville making an indirect social comment on entitlement, such as Mr. B’s presumption in turning a job into a work-free, free-ride to salary and a residence? Does he mean us to recognize the title character’s employer as a charitable man or one with too weak a will, thus becoming hostage to an employee who does nothing?

Could the novel be trying to point out the absence of a satisfying place for many of the residents of a capitalist-dominated world that is too concerned, as Wordsworth told us, with “getting and spending?” One more possibility: might the author wish us to consider why two men very differently situated in the pecking order of professional life would continue to behave as they have rather than change, no matter the consequences?

The reader is put into the role of psychologist, trying to understand Mr. B. and the attorney. Both are extremes and we learn from extremes perhaps more than those examples of life in the middle of things. The underling is stubborn without limit, the individual “on top” displays limitless charity.

Does Bartleby offer us an everyday example of a person so mistreated in the past that he can no longer differentiate a man offering a helping hand from one whose hand is prepared to strike him? If so, those of us who engage in creating our own slow motion, step-by-step tragedy should take note.

The reader is left wondering whether Bartleby might even be heroic, displaying passive resistance to an increasingly demanding, corrosive, and alienating work life that is unfitting to him and us. Is he a precursor of the kind of people Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard?”

I could as easily call Mr. B. a depressed and self-destructive man, acting in such a way as can only end in his misfortune.

Melville’s 36 paperback-pages can be read many ways to be sure. It is laugh-old-loud funny, on occasion, as well. And if you find yourself siding with Bartleby or his employer, you might ask yourself why one and not the other?

Regardless, try not to judge these two men harshly. Like the remaining three wage slaves in this law office and a few we meet along the way, they are just trying to make the best of the hand dealt them by nature, their upbringing, and the world of other men and women.

As the old saying goes, “but for the grace of God there go (you or) I.”

How Well Do You Fit in? The Therapeutic Dilemma of the Introvert in an Extroverted World

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In my therapy practice I encountered many people who didn’t quite fit into the world. Sometimes it was because the world valued beauty and they were not beautiful, sometimes because they had no interest in sports where others cheered for a team, and sometimes because their skin color and religion were out of place. More often they believed their internal life didn’t match up with those around them: too sensitive or unlikeable or too serious; peculiar, different, odd. Quiet in a loud world, thoughtful in an impulsive world, gun shy in a world where many shoot first and don’t even ask questions later. Most importantly, they lacked a niche, a social group, a family or family substitute in which they felt safe and cared for — a place of solidarity and belonging — or an institution (like a small community church) offering something bigger than the commonplace mission of “getting and spending” and personal success at any cost.

To provide therapy for such people one must acknowledge that, indeed, some of us fit better into a different time and place. I’d like to look at the therapeutic model from which the counseling field grew and ask the question: does it still offer the best possible assistance to a person who is isolated, perhaps by his nature and temperament, perhaps by a society prone to discounting his human qualities, perhaps by a world transformed from being too closed to too open; perhaps by all of these.

Psychoanalysis, Freud’s method, developed in a Victorian Era, tailored to the values, customs, and morals of the time: a repressive society in which a woman who showed her ankle in public could cause a small scandal. Polite social gatherings didn’t permit discussions of sex. Revelation of personal problems betrayed weakness and breached decorum. One suffered silently. Not surprisingly, Freud offered a treatment designed to open those topics not disclosed elsewhere, fashioning the counseling apparatus to lift the gurney of a disapproving society off patients who had been crushed by it. In other words, psychoanalysis was a therapeutic approach tailored to a different social world than we live in today, at least for those of us in the West.

There was, however, a positive side to the era. Values identified in bold letters were supported by strong institutions. The family and church might crush you, but they also provided decisive direction and unconditional, although superficial, acceptance, at least if you followed the rules. You  weren’t on your own, adrift, and uncertain about how to lead your life. The restricted set of permitted choices made the day less complicated and overwhelming. The life map presented by family and social institutions, government and military, offered easy-to-follow steps.

If Freud were alive today would he have used a different model for treatment after his world vanished?

I suspect so. He could not fail to notice how the closed, restrictive, prescriptive social order has been replaced by one more permissive and open. A society requiring unquestioning acceptance of your parents’ religion, vocational advice, and veto power over a potential spouse has been set aside.

Now, for example, you are considered free to determine not just your faith, but whether you want a religion at all. Yes, parental direction and disapproval are still present, but they have lost a good part of their grip. A federal government that once ordered you to perform military service, today leaves the defense of the country to volunteers. Sex is everywhere (as are exposed ankles and more). There is no place to hide. Loud voices predominate. Extroversion trumps introversion. Freedom to make personal choices comes with the expectation you will make good ones instead of being overwhelmed by the array of possibilities. Few behavioral menu options are forbidden and most are public.

We live in a garden of delights or a world of confusion that would have seemed dreamlike, disorienting, and scandalous in the time of Freud’s early work. We cannot escape a Kardashianized existence of energetic, fast-talking, self-promoting performers who are role models no introvert recognizes in himself. Meanwhile, he has the vague sense of missing someone he has never met.

What components should therefore be added to the traditional “talking cure” in the second decade of the 21st century?

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I’d begin with recognition that the social world of today is tipped to the advantage of extroverts. At least one-third of us, however, are not so classified. Methods of self-enhancement and personal validation for introverted clients must go beyond an effort to make them into fake extroverts. Temperament is more or less fixed by biological inheritance and very early experience. An introverted and insecure patient can become more self-confident with the help of therapy, but his preferences for privacy, quiet time alone to recharge his energy, and one-to-one contact over an affinity for large groups are likely to persist.

The introvert is not true to himself if he tries to become a chattering machine: the “Bigger Than Life” of the party. Treatment must value his qualities as an introvert and support him in his effort to find a useful niche within the work and social worlds that makes the best of his unique skills. His temperamental strengths include an ability to listen, reflective thought as opposed to impulsive action, seriousness of purpose, persistence, and a good eye for risks. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking offers a place to start.

A second component consists of helping clients find or create socially supportive, cohesive institutions and groups where they can attach to something less isolative, more fulfilling, and bigger than hollow self-interest. As noted by Sebastian Junger in his short, but powerful new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, our ancestors in prehistory lived in small groups (50 or fewer) whose survival depended upon pulling together. The tiny society was largely “classless and egalitarian.” Sharing was essential and little personal property existed. Loyalty was prized. Status, to the extent it was present, came from providing for the group and defending it in war. It was a place where quietly doing your part was enough for acceptance and approval, membership and the availability of a mate. Everyone fit.

Contrast such a living situation to the endless, senseless, heart-deadening contemporary competition to be as good or better than your peers and survive on your own or, if you are lucky, in a family including only a spouse and children. Our ancestors were bound together by a mutual necessity and support now replaced simply by sharing an address: living in apartment buildings and neighborhoods of nameless strangers. Isolation is the inevitable result of having little intimacy, as well as sham closeness dependent only upon the accident of sharing a cubicle or the ties of occasional after-hours good times that do not bind.

The therapeutic project of the urban, anonymous 21st century must recognize the present historical moment as especially challenging for the introvert. More than most others, he wants relationships of depth. The therapist’s transfigured and transfiguring task is to creatively enable his client to locate some way to connect, belong, and find meaning instead of settling for alienation — the extent of which few are permitted to know.

Treatment is a serious job for this serious person, it is true. What could be more fitting?

The first image is called Alone by PiConsti. Look closely for the tiny creature in the picture. The photo beneath it is Isolation Lake (5) in Chelan County, WA by Bala. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Parenting: When Love is Not Enough

madame roulin with her baby marcelle by vincent van gogh

Well meaning parents don’t always do well.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you can mess up your children without really trying.

Take the following example: two caring, well-educated, good people. They were in love with each other and loving toward their children.

One child was handsome, outgoing, and had a sunny disposition. Other children and adults were drawn to him. He awoke every morning with a smile on his face and brought cheer to those around him. Although not a great student, this boy was certainly bright enough; he made his way more than adequately in the world of friendship, study, and eventually, work.

His brother, however, did not have it so easy. To start, his body was ungainly. Even as a kid, he lumbered and lurched in locomotion. His cumbersome, block-like (not overweight) form caused him to stand out. Because of  a lack of refined adroitness in matters of balance and dexterity, he was always the last boy picked in the choosing of teams on the playground and in the gym class.

To the good, he was astonishingly bright and intellectually curious, but this only fueled the separateness he felt, to which his graceless body also contributed. Outgoing though he was, peers tended to shun and ridicule him. Social skills did not come instinctively and this young boy’s efforts at outreach neglected the usual questions that facilitate social contact: queries like “How are you?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”

Monologues rather than conversations were the result, further emphasizing this kid’s peculiarity and securing his status as an outsider.

His parents were at a loss. Certainly, they treated their dear son with kindness and affection, and applauded his prodigious intellect and curiosity about the world. But, when they saw his unhappiness and discovered that peers marginalized and ridiculed him, each of the parents tried to put a good face on things. While they defended him when they actually witnessed the cruelty he received, the boy’s hurt was not discussed very much at home. The parents minimized or ignored his pain, believing it best to encourage him to believe that things would soon get better and telling him not to let the ill-treatment of the other children bother him.

Soon enough, this child tended to his wounds by himself, confiding little in his parents, as if he instinctively realized that they would not or could not offer him any response that would feel good. Those times late at night, often just before bed, when a child is most vulnerable and open to spill his pain, passed without the flow of consolation. Thus, like many children (especially boys) who find themselves feeling empty and alone, deadening his emotions was preferable to exposing his heart to further injury.

To be fair, mom and dad figured that their boy would come to them if he needed or wanted to talk, and read his attempts to kill his emotions as a lack of need for the solace that can be achieved by having a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, they thought that he would be angered by any attempt to invade his privacy and bring up uncomfortable topics.

Nor did the elders provide guidance in how to be more reciprocal with people or give him direction in how to create conversations rather than monologues. They never pointed out that it was important to show interest in what others were doing or saying, despite the fact that both of them routinely displayed this with their children and in their own social lives. Instead, the parents reasoned that their son was already feeling hurt and rejected; and they feared that they might injure him further by telling him that his conversational style could be improved.

By the time of his adulthood, our subject had become what one might expect based on his early life. Surpassingly bright, he went to an elite college and had a coterie of those who admired his intellect and creativity, but no real friends. The pain of rejection had long since been pushed down deep inside, to the point that he might not have recognized the need or value of “closeness.” He was as out of touch with the emotional side of his own life as he was with the feelings of his conversational partners. Our young man seemed to have little need to find out about what was going on “inside.” Nor did he understand that his failure to ask questions to peers could be seen as arrogance, indifference, or peculiarity.

Still, our youthful gentleman led an interesting life because he sought out intellectual stimulation and threw himself into numerous activities within the world of the sciences and the arts. But, it remained a solitary existence, even if it was no longer clear to what extent he felt marginalized, so cut-off did he seem from the matters that connect head and heart.

His parents still tried to put a good face on their son’s way of living, as much as they knew about it, since they continued to be hesitant to ask him sensitive questions. But deep down they wondered whether he could possibly have any close friends (not to mention lovers) given his way of talking to people. Even now they felt that it was too late to bring up things that might cause him pain or trigger his anger at them for prying into his life.

Instead, the parents would occasionally comment to friends about their unusual son, make good-natured jokes about him, and simultaneously take enormous pride in his considerable intellectual and vocational success in the very stimulating, if strangely disconnected life he had fashioned for himself.

In defense of the elders, it should first be said that they could have done much worse. Their son didn’t do drugs, steal cars, embezzle money, or trip old people crossing the street. They parented him instinctively, as most of us do with our children. They certainly did not want to hurt him but, in their tiptoeing around his emotional pain, they failed to recognize opportunities to provide needed consolation and guidance concerning the social skill he lacked.

One can imagine that things could have been different. Had the parents been comforting and validating of his early humiliations rather than choosing to minimize them, perhaps he would have felt less isolated and not cordoned off his feelings even from himself. Had mom and dad gently guided him in how to converse, he might have had more social success and seemed less odd because of his penchant to prattle on about himself. If the parents encouraged their child to salve his own and others’ unhappiness by first providing that soothing themselves, maybe intimate relationships would have flourished.

It is impossible to know for sure. Child-rearing isn’t like a laboratory experiment, with an experimental and a control group. The “what if” questions are never answered with certainty. Sometimes nature has its way, no matter a guardian’s best and most understanding efforts at nurture.

Raising children isn’t easy. If you are lucky, you have a child like these parents’ first born, who responded well to the instinctive default parenting style of mom and dad.

But, for those of you who have more than one child, it quickly should become clear that they do not come out of the womb as identical sprouts, each needing just the same amount of sun, temperature, water, and nutrition. No horticulturist would treat a tropical plant in the same way that we would care for one that can only flourish in a more temperate climate.

And yet, even today, parents too often believe that “one size parenting” fits all children, and that it is the child’s job to adapt to the parents’ approach to upbringing rather than the other way around.

Put another way, you can be a good parent to one child and a less-than-good parent for another, simply by taking the identical approach to each of them.

The rule is simple: be the parent your child needs you to be.

Search yourself. Ask what your offspring requires. What will work best for this particular little human being?

Then, if you discover that the required approach to child-rearing doesn’t come easily to you, learn and stretch yourself.

You are responsible for a human life.

No job in the world is as important.

The above image is Vincent van Gogh’s Mother Roulin With Her Baby.