On the Need for Reassurance: What Do You Do After Therapy?


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When we go to the doctor our expectation is to receive a cure: something to finish off the illness. We might expect a similar result from a therapist. He will apply the magic ointment to make our hurt go away. Typically, however, we are not offered a fix with a lifetime guarantee, but guidance in developing a method — a way of living “differently:” a “practice” designed to enable a more satisfying and manageable life.

Perhaps our desire for someone to “make it better” goes back to childhood. Indeed, depending on people is, for many, an endless and desperate project. We look for them to put things right, whether to captain our team, lead our country, or reassure us everything will be OK. Unfortunately, however, there are no magicians, only experts. They cannot be with us forever and, even if they could, our excess dependence would transform them into the human equivalent of a security blanket.

If life is to be lived with adequate confidence we need a method to practice regularly, not another human as our permanent rabbit’s foot or talisman. Not a replacement for an inadequate parent. Not excess dependency, but self-reliance coming from the development of a new “groove:” a repeatedly rehearsed approach to the challenges particular to our life.

How can we carve out such a path?

This is a big question. Usually, however, other questions take precedence. Will I wear out my therapist? Will he leave me? Will he ever say he cares about me in a convincing way?

The unstated belief is that the mental health professional is essential for my well-being; and the hope he will be there as long as I need him. In effect, he possesses the magic, I don’t. You hear this in the lament of the lonely, as well: I cannot do this by myself and my life can only be better when I find “the one.”

Therapists, at least with most of their clients, recognize they need to be transitional objects. A portion of what they do is to enable the patient to develop a method of living designed to make him (the doctor) unnecessary. Put differently, the client learns to master his problems most of the time.

Many patients resist the notion to the point of hoping to become the friend (or lover) of the counselor after treatment ends. Just as we look to our aged parents for wisdom or reassurance, we want not only the therapist’s attachment, approval, and security, but his guidance, as if he can never be replaced, least of all by relying on ourselves.

The idea of “a practice” is not always mentioned by counselors. Oh, the clinician will assign homework, but he might never say homework must continue when treatment ends. Leaving the therapist’s office upon termination is not enough. Rather, the client must continue to do work on himself, climb even higher, take on different versions of the same challenges, and bounce back when thrown to the floor. He needs to remind himself of his strengths, his successes, and what he must do now. This is a practice: “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it,” according to the Google online dictionary.

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Your program might involve regular, organized self-reflection; journaling, mindfulness enhancement, recitation of those people and things for which you are grateful, time set aside to challenge negative self-talk, a plan for increasing your compassion, writing down all those difficult moments you’ve overcome; and a step-wise, graduated list of challenges you want to take on and a chart of your progress.

You may already engage in other such practices. Daily meditation would be one. Daily reading of passages from a religious text is another. Professional athletes and body builders maintain a regular workout routine, even in the off-season. The goal is to solidify your thought and action, create a habit, improve your focus, rely on yourself, and beat back whatever might encroach on past gains.

One of the best examples of this idea is found in Plato’s Phaedo, the story of Socrates’s last day. Knowing that he will shortly drink hemlock to fulfill the state’s death sentence, it is perhaps unsurprising that Socrates speaks with two younger philosophers (Simmias and Cebes) on the subject of mortality and whether an afterlife for the soul can be foreseen. Despite his attempt at philosophical “proofs” of the likely existence of an eternity, they acknowledge the extent to which they (and we) are like children in search of a magician for reassurance. They despair that once Socrates is gone, no such person will be able to provide his kind of logical, well-reasoned, persuasive confidence in the possibility of a life after death.

Socrates gives Cebes the following advice, as applicable to therapy as to facing one’s mortality in a philosophical way, in both cases to dispatch fear:

What you should do, said Socrates, is to say a magic spell over him (the scared child in each of us) every day until you have charmed his fears away.

Cebes persists, believing only Socrates, soon to be dead, has the necessary sorcery.

Greece is a large country, Cebes, he replied, which must have good men in it, and there are many foreign races too. You must ransack all of them in your search for this magician, without sparing money or trouble, because you could not spend your money more opportunely on any other object. And you must search also by your own united efforts, because it is probable that you would not easily find anyone better fitted for the task.

Thus, Socrates has advised these well-trained philosophers to repeat their own magic spell over the child within them: to seek the wizard in themselves to calm their anxieties by way of what he has taught them and whatever further ideas they can reason out on their own. In effect, to develop a practice maintaining or enhancing proficiency in dealing with this challenge of life.

The proper approach for the therapy patient might be said to take whatever he has learned in treatment and make it a practice. Yes, this is lots of work, but what is the alternative? Life will not hesitate to provide you with more challenges. We stop growing at our own peril, just as the athlete risks getting out of shape by abandoning his practice routine. Concern for your psyche is not like a diet, to be ignored and replaced with poor nutritional habits once the target weight is achieved.

Whether you maintain a practice or not, your counselor will still be there in most cases. But don’t you think you would be more secure by taking your life in your own hands once he passes the baton?

Your therapist does.

The top sculpture is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, sourced from Hiart at Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.

Finding Your Soul Mate: Everything You Need to Know

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The idea of a “soul mate” goes way back. How far back? Before the notion that destiny had a hand in marriage and before Eve was allegedly created for Adam by removing his rib. All the way back to Plato, 2500 years ago.

Indeed, in his writing you will find the idea of a “better half,” quite literally. If you believe you are missing something in the relationship department, you can do worse than consult the wisdom of the ancient Greeks.

Plato deals with the proper mate in his Symposium, the story of a dinner party in which everyone takes a turn praising love. The most famous of these speeches is by the poet Aristophanes, who says we were rather different creatures at the dawn of mankind. Humans came in three varieties: males, females, and hermaphrodites (people with both male and female sex organs). These folks were big and strong — pretty full of themselves — and attempted a heavenly assault on the gods.

Zeus, heaven’s CEO, decided to put the insolent hoard in its place. He cleaved each of the three types of Homo sapiens in half to make them all weaker — cutting them down to size and making two people out of each one. Since they all began with two faces, four legs, and four arms; they were left with one head, two legs, and two arms, exactly as we are today. Similarly, because they originally had two sets of sex organs, now they had but one, the standard allotment for you, me, and our children. Of course, Zeus had to do a bit of sewing to make appearances seemly.

What happened next speaks to the question of looking for your soul mate:

“Now, when the work of bisection was complete it left each half with a desperate yearning for the other, and they ran together and flung their arms around each others’ necks, and asked for nothing better than to be rolled into one … “

Aristophanes story thus explains why we are always trying to make “two into one.”  “Each of us is forever seeking the half that will tally with himself.” We wish “to be merged, that is, into an utter oneness with the beloved.”

The author also explains sexual preferences. The original man, when cut in two, sought another man — his second self — to retrieve the love he lost. The women who began our race also wanted their earlier female counterpart. Only the hermaphrodites desired a heterosexual relationship because their other half was of a different gender.

Later on in this work Plato offers us a speech by Socrates as the ultimate word on love. No soul mates, I’m afraid. For Socrates, love must always be the love of something; and his target is loftier than any of the preceding speakers imagined and free from a preoccupation with mere physical beauty. Indeed, it is so spiritually beautiful, wise, eternal, and perfect as to be beyond even his description. This was the original meaning of a platonic relationship: one in which the partners take part in the most elevated, transcendent discourse.

For those of us living on earth, however, my hunch is Aristophanes’ story has the greatest appeal. It is certainly entertaining and set Western civilization in pursuit of the perfect mate: one who is “hot,” fun to be with, and shares the same interests. Ah, well … perhaps something was lost in the fog of time and translation.

Should you wish to learn more about love I suggest you cozy up to Plato. On the other hand, the Collected Dialogues (of which the Symposium is one) offer cold comfort if you are looking for a warm body.

Still, if you really get into it, you won’t be thinking of human touch. You will be enamored of wisdom — face to face with virtue’s self.

And you will have become a philosopher.*

Socrates would be pleased.

The above painting is an African mixed-media canvas by Turgo Bastien, sourced from Turgoart on Wikimedia Commons.

*The word philosopher derives from two Greek roots: philo, meaning love and sophos, meaning wisdom. Tread lightly, however, when you meet a woman called Sophia. Sophos is the root of her name!

Seven Signs of Getting Older (on the Wretched Road to Decrepitude)

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I thought of calling this essay “The secret signs of aging that THEY won’t tell you about.” I figured that might engage the conspiracy theorists out there. TRUST NO ONE, as The X-Files used to remind us.

Still, I hope that you will trust me enough to treat what follows as a public service designed to inform you of some little-discussed, but tell-tale signs that your body is heading in a direction from which there is no return.

Why am I doing this? I don’t want you to be taken by surprise when decrepitude finally arrives. It happened to my mom in just that way. One day, past middle-age, she looked at her face in the mirror and heard herself uttering, “When did this happen?”

Of course, some of the more obvious signs of aging are well-known. Things like losing your hair, going gray, loss of muscle tone, and increasingly “jiggly” body parts are already represented in popular culture as danger signals. So are wrinkles, age spots, a tendency toward a thickening of the mid-section, memory issues and so forth. So I’m going to deal only with those things that are a bit less obvious.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Becoming invisible. As a kid I enjoyed watching reruns of the movies that were based on the H.G. Wells tale The Invisible Man. Eventually, however, I discovered that no secret formula was required in order to achieve this apparently non-material state. Germaine Greer described it in a 1993 book called The Change. She was referring mostly to women, but it applies, to a lesser extent, to men as well. Simply put, if you are someone who has historically drawn the gaze of others because of your fetching appearance, eventually that stops, usually earlier than you were expecting. Instead of turning the heads of others, they now walk past you with hardly a look. You have become invisible. Your age is showing.
  2. The descent. Your body parts are on the move, like an infantry in retreat. Breasts, butts, jowls, double-chins, and even your height are slowly succumbing to the superior force of the opposing army, otherwise known as gravity. The direction of their path is toward “The Underworld” as the ancient Greeks used to call it. We usually refer to it as “six-feet under.”
  3. The generation gap. I started teaching at Rutgers when I was 25 in 1972. I can recall a moment in my first year there, lecturing a group of 19 or 20 year-olds. For some reason I brought up the name Adlai Stevenson II. No one had any idea who I was talking about. Yet Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and famously confronted the Russians at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, only 10 years before. Yes, he died in 1965, but most Americans my age would have known who he was. In that moment, I realized that there was a body of knowledge that I could no longer naively assume I shared with those younger than I. As you might have noticed yourself, it eventually grows to cover lots of ground, with you knowing about things that are older, and younger people knowing about things that are newer. Movies, music, and TV shows are among the areas of information that seem to overlap less and less. Familiarity with historical events and technology also inhabit this divide, separating you from the growing group of people who were born after you.
  4. Betrayals of the body.  There is way too much territory here to cover fully, but let me give you a sense of what is in store for some of you. Your body will begin to inform you that its performance of actions you have taken for granted, does, in fact, take some effort. You are likely to discover that you actually have knees and that their job isn’t easy. Some aches and pains here and there tend to creep in, particularly involving your back. By middle-age, arthritis isn’t unusual, although it can be quite mild. Your nose and ears can begin to look bigger. If you are a man, shaving your face eventually becomes more of a challenge because the contours of your face change, leaving tiny hills and valleys that resist your effort to scrape them smooth of stubble. Your skin is likely to get drier. Sense of balance can decline. Many of both sexes encounter the need to urinate more frequently and find themselves scouting out public washrooms just in case. Yikes!
  5. How People Treat You. I remember taking my daughter Carly to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 50, asking for two tickets, and being given a “senior discount” automatically by the young cashier — well before I was actually a senior. Young people, when they notice you at all, will see you as ancient by the time you are 40. Not long after, they will begin to refer to you as “sir” or “ma’am.” In the grocery check-out line, even middle-aged cashiers will ask whether you need help carrying the groceries to your car. I realize that some of this kind attention is given simply as a matter of course even to those who are younger. But, regardless of how fit you are, it will remind you of the fact that you are no “spring chicken.” And, just in case you are a checker at the grocery market, I’d like to let you know that I do indeed need some help. The help I need is to stop being asked if I need help!
  6. Sleep disturbance. You are at an increased risk of having trouble sleeping. This is actually much reported, so you can find the details elsewhere.
  7. The evening out. No, I’m not talking about a night on the town. This item refers to the changes in physical appearance that cause people to begin to look more alike. It is pretty scary really. Some male faces begin to look more like the female kind, with or without the addition of “man boobs” a little lower down. Some women’s faces look less different from those of men, even to the point of facial hair growth and thinning hair on top of the head. Perhaps worst of all, people who were once movie-star beautiful eventually discover that their declining level of pulchritude makes them less distinguishable from those who were never good-looking. I guess Mother Nature figures that the unfair advantage of beauty is just on loan, not a permanent gift.

Now that I’ve described these lesser-known signs of aging, I’ve gotta ask you a question. Why did you want to know? If you are young, whatever that is, you almost certainly don’t really believe you will ever become aged. And, if you are old, well, you probably already know the secrets I’ve mentioned. But, what good, at either period — young or old — does it do to know this stuff?

Yes, if you are young, perhaps you will take better care of yourself because you give some thought to your body’s future. And, consideration of your physical destiny will remind you to develop sources of self-definition, pleasure, and meaning other than the glorious state of your face and physique. Still, decrepitude is a “bigger than life” opponent who tends to have his way. There is little you can do to fend off time’s offending hand.

I suppose you can put the information above in the category of “the examined life.” I’m usually in agreement with Socrates on the matter of the unexamined life not being worth living. But, I’ll tell you what, your unexamined physical future is probably best left hidden under a rock most of the time. Like the thread on the sweater that begs to be pulled, a preoccupation with such things is pretty destructive. Believe me, you don’t want to imagine a day when you will ask your lawn care service to add the trimming of your lengthening nose hair to their weekly task of cutting the grass.

The top image, called Everyone’s Invited, is the work of SuicideGirls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to “Grow Up?”

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“Oh, grow up!” Is there anyone who didn’t hear some version of this humiliating admonition as a kid? Often voiced by another kid, or some chronologically mature person who probably needed to “grow up” himself.

Still, it does raise an important question: what does it mean to grow up? What qualities are present in those people we respect for their maturity?

Although it may not be very humble to do so, let’s start with the quality of humility. And its important to remember that humility is not identical to a lack confidence. Rather, it involves the recognition that in the big picture of the universe, you are a very, very small part. That is to say, unless your name is one that ranks with Einstein or Beethoven, virtually no one will know your name in a hundred years.

As Goethe put it, “Names are like sound and smoke.” They disappear that easily. Humbling indeed. You probably aren’t as important as you think you are.

Which means, of course, that your problems, at least most of them, aren’t that important either. The ability to recognize that most problems are transitory and only temporarily bothersome is another sign of maturity. Now, I’m not talking about brain cancer here, but the more garden-variety ups and downs of life. It sometimes helps weather them to realize that you will care little if anything about those difficulties in five years or even five months.

No, as the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.” Or, at least most of it.

Another important quality of being a grown-up, I think, is to have a balance between your head and your heart. We all know people who are way out of balance — those who claim to be imperturbably logical like the Mr. Spock-type Vulcans from Star Trek and others who come apart at the smallest disappointment or frustration, letting their emotions whip them around like a passenger on a “tilt-a-whirl” amusement park ride.

Emotions are there for a reason; the pain of them needs to be attended to, lest you leave your hand on the stove’s burner because nature didn’t inform you to remove that hand. Equally, your head is required to have good judgment and learn from experience, to be cool under fire, and to forge ahead in spite of fear.

In other words, balance is a sign of maturity. Balance of head and heart, work and play, action and contemplation, passion and repose. Socrates said that one should be grateful to old-age that the passions rule us less. But do not live a life without passion, especially when you are young enough to enjoy it! He also said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And so maturity requires some thought about your life, where you’ve been and where you are going, why you have done what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and what lies ahead. It requires an unflinching look in the mirror and the intention to improve.

That means, of course, that being a “grown-up” demands that one has learned something from experience and continues to learn more as experience unfolds. My friend Henry Fogel has said, “I like to make new mistakes!” Meaning, naturally, that there is no point in repeating the same old ones.

Another friend, Rich Adelstein, once told me that he thought that if he were able to figure out the solutions to his then-current problems (he was 50 at the time), he believed that he could simply keep living in the same fashion, using the same solutions to confront whatever was ahead of him. But, he rightly realized, that there would be new problems requiring new solutions, and that the version of himself that faced those new problems would be older and different, and therefore might see things quite a bit differently than the 50-year-old version.

This is an example of maturity, along with a signpost to some of its characteristics, including the need to change, the ability and willingness to be flexible, and the awareness that learning along the way is required. Rich was able to change, and to change his mind about the need to change.

What other qualities might be present in the mature, “grown-up” person? Confidence and the capacity for self-assertion, certainly; the ability to laugh, and to laugh at yourself, not at the expense of others; to take risks and do things that might be hard or embarrassing or scary or frustrating until you master them; to be independent in thought and deed, not to follow the crowd or require a caretaker or someone to make decisions for you; and of course, the capacity for intimacy and love, knowing all the while that embracing others makes you vulnerable to loss.

An additional aspect of wisdom that is usually related to age is having a sense of what is worth fighting for and what is not. There are more than enough battles worth joining in this imperfect world, but one cannot take on all of them without battling 24 hours a day, an exhausting and impossible prospect. And so, maturity requires sufficient knowledge of oneself and the world to make decisions about standing fast or standing aside; holding to principle or being willing to compromise. And accepting that sometimes we will be defeated.

So, yes, being a grown-up means accepting the world on its terms: that loss and disappointment, in causes and in people, are an inevitable part of  life, and that to defend too strongly against them deprives you of the most important and precious things that life has to offer: the thrill and camaraderie of fighting the good fight; and at a more personal level, love, closeness, tenderness, and the acceptance and affection that can only come from unguardedness. To live as if your heart has never been broken and never can be, then, shows both maturity and courage.

Responsibility-taking is another part of being mature, admitting that “yes, it was I who made the mistake.” We all heard the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree a long time ago, and it is entirely about responsibility-taking and honesty. And, as that reference might suggest, honesty is no small part of the “grown-up” life. As the sages say, it simplifies life enormously to be honest. Too many people justify their dishonesty by claiming that they are trying to spare someone else’s feelings. Don’t be deceived. Usually it is much more self-serving than that.

Back to humility, where we started. Part of being mature is having the humility to realize that you too might, “but for the grace of God,” be in someone else’s less advantageous spot, and that therefore they should be judged less harshly for whatever they have done or whatever has happened to them, or perhaps not judged at all.

Maturity means cherishing the quiet moments as much as the thrills. And, most definitely, it means living in the moment, mindful of everything, trying not to get caught up in hoping it were different (even though you might well be justified in doing so); allowing yourself to stay centered where you are in time, rather than to be looking back or forward while the irreplaceable, unrepeatable instant of your life passes by.

Look back too much and you will be caught in the sadness of  time-past and unfulfilled longings and regrets, while missing what is possible in the present. Similarly, living in the future tends to generate anxiety in anticipation of what may come, and deprives you of the same present moment that passes by those who are looking back at yesterday.

Accepting and liking oneself is a part of being a grown-up. Not that you don’t need to or want to change, but to appreciate what is good about yourself and to accept some of the inevitable limitations to which all of us are prone. Not to avoid self-improvement, but to avoid self-denigration.

To be a grown-up means living a principled life, one with a commitment to certain values, and to put those values to work, not just in words, but in deeds. As the AA crowd likes to say, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” And those principles, those values, must be informed by the fact that we are all mortal, all in-transit, but that the planet and the human race are here (we hope) for the long haul. We are “just visiting” as the Monopoly board reminds us when we land on a certain space. The game will outlast us and so will life on this planet, if we don’t mess it up.

In putting those commitments to work, we must actually do work. Freud was right when he pointed to love and work as the essential organizing forces in any life. If you are mature, unless you are aged or infirm, there is work to be done. Life is made more interesting and engaging by doing it, too. The mature person is not simply a spectator in the game of life.

At least one other quality should be mentioned in this pantheon of qualities in the house of maturity: gratitude. Appreciation of what you do have and appreciation of simple things: a beautiful day, the affection of your children, the ability to do things, a touching song or story, and good friends — all the stuff of life that is too easily dismissed.

Let the last words on the subject of being a grown-up (and much more) go to Adlai Stevenson II, in his 1954 speech at the senior class dinner of his Alma Mater, Princeton University. These 55-year-old words spoken by the 54-year-old Stevenson are as appropriate now as then:

…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws — all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages — are as well-known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions — a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love — the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men; and perhaps, too, a little faith, and a little reverence for things you cannot see…

To my way of thinking it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that count in the long run. You’ll have more fun, you’ll do more and you’ll get more, you’ll give more satisfaction the more you know, the more you have worked, and the more you have lived. For yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.

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On the subject of maturity, you may find this of related interest: Youth vs. Experience and Maturity: Who Has the Edge?

You may be interested in this topic, as well: Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There.

The top image is Mevlevi Dervishes Perform, created by K?vanc and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. According to the Wikimedia site, the Mevlevi Order is a Sufi order founded in 1273 in Konya, Turkey. “They are also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah).”

“Dervish is a term for an initiate of the Sufi Path… The Dervishes perform their dhikr in the form of a dance and music ceremony called the sema. The sema represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to ‘Perfect(ion).’ Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the ‘Perfect.’ He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity (hence my use of the picture for this essay) and a greater perfection, so as to love and be of service to the whole of creation.”

The bottom photo is the work of shioshvilli and apparently depicts Whirling Dervishes performing the sema ceremony at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, Turkey on June 10, 2006. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.