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.