Changing Our Ideas: What Therapy Often Misses

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Life’s complexity forces us to simplify. We use shortcuts to understand the present and predict the future because living would otherwise be impossible. In the time of our ancestors survival depended on determining whether a stranger was friend or foe, whether a situation was safe or dangerous. Those without the right instincts didn’t make quick and useful categorizations, instead drowning in the gene pool. These unfortunates tended to die young. Any offspring produced by them had a poor chance of reaching maturity and having kids of their own. They are not our ancestors.

What does that mean for you and me? We are, after all, the product of generations who survived because of thinking fast.

Like our ancestors, we respond to threat, make decisions to prosper, and categorize in an instant.

This system of decision-making is a blunt instrument, however useful. The shades of gray between good and bad, helpful and hurtful, opportunity and risk are lost. We react to the world more than think about it.

Do your assumptions about life work for you? Not always, I suspect, even if your choices don’t imperil you in the short run. Some conceptual mistakes are so automatic we don’t recognize they are causing us trouble.

Here are several routine, instinctive and ingrained ways of thinking. You probably have heard friends say one or more of these statements. Can you identify yourself in any of them?

  • I avoid looking back. You don’t get anywhere if you do.
  • I never do anything until I’m sure it’s the right decision.
  • My religion is the only true one.
  • All religion is stupid.
  • Atheism is no way to raise a moral child.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Better to be safe than sorry.
  • No risk, no reward.
  • My political party has a monopoly on virtue.
  • All politicians are corrupt.
  • I am entitled to a good life.
  • Material things are worth a lot more than having interesting experiences.
  • A person of principal should never compromise.
  • That won’t happen to me.
  • Things are always happening to me. I have terrible luck.
  • I’m perfectly OK just as I am. I don’t need to change a thing.
  • I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.
  • I am rational, not emotional.
  • I’m well-enough informed by watching news and catching stories on the internet.
  • I’m a good person.
  • I’m an excellent driver.
  • Thinking about death is a waste of time.
  • Multi-tasking doesn’t reduce my speed or efficiency.
  • People tend to get what they deserve.
  • When I find love I will be forever happy.
  • When I get to the top I will be fulfilled.
  • Children are the key to happiness.
  • I don’t need any friends.

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Let’s look at just one: I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.

I might say that statement is true about my life. The reason I don’t is the following:

I was born in the richest country in the world at a time when education was cheaper than it is today, social mobility greater, and scholarship support more available. I was most fortunate in this accident of timing. Decisions made by my grandparents to leave Eastern Europe set me up for success. Indeed, had they stayed in those countries it is possible they might have died in the course of wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide. Their decision to emigrate could have saved their lives and certainly permitted mine.

My lower-middle class parents encouraged education. My father was a good model of a person who lived a decent life. He gave everything he had to avoid a repeat of the economic hardship of the Great Depression. I knew there would be little family money for college so I worked hard. I can remember a few times when I narrowly avoided severe accidents. One day on an elevated-train ride a bullet passed through the car within inches of my head. On another, in graduate school, I got off at the wrong subway stop and walked through a notorious Chicago neighborhood without incident. I received a deferment from military service during the Vietnam War. Trust me, soldiering wasn’t in me. I would not have survived Survivor. I had much support from teachers. Others opened doors for me and I acquired the good sense to walk through them. The mistakes I made were either forgiven or not damaging to my prospects. My wife supported me when the times seemed dark and offered love beyond deserving. Although my parents and their generation are gone, all but one of my closest friends are still living. My children were born healthy.

I have had a lucky life. Yes, I could make the other argument. I will take credit only for cleverness, industry, and for recognizing I needed to change even when I didn’t welcome change. But if I told you I was a self-made man I’d be ignoring all the others whose finger prints are all over whatever good I’ve done in the world.

I’ll leave it to you to calculate what unfortunate consequences follow when a person takes credit for too great a superiority over his fellow citizen. Indeed, we have a few examples in the public square if your imagination fails you.

Regular readers probably expect me now to expand on the other errors of thinking within the list above. I certainly could. I’ve been guilty of several in the catalogue and at least as many off. Nor am I done altering my take on how to approach the act of living.

Assembling enough of the wrong ideas into a life-plan is like building a skyscraper on an earthquake fault line without knowing it. Imagine what happens when the earth starts to move.

The bullet-pointed items are not subtle. Each one is black and white. Some lack evidence or have been disproven. Futility of utility has been demonstrated for a number of the statements. Use them at your own risk. Your insurance salesman will not sell you a policy for poor judgment.

Therapy usually addresses behaviors that aren’t working well, emotions in need of comfort, self-esteem enhancement, grief, and the like. Too few therapists, in my judgment, encourage  evaluation of everyday beliefs that contribute to our own undoing. Perhaps it is because the most urgent matters must be considered first. The patient, however, is in trouble if he leaves therapy with the same worldview with which he entered. Feeling better is not enough.

Simply put, if you are to change you might consider scrutinizing the assumptions you make reflexively. There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.

Was the last sentence blunt, too black and white?

No.

That statement is one of the few things about which I am sure.

The top image is called sky sun sunset cloud creative by Svin4821. The 1940 poster comes from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There

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As children we cannot wait to grow up. Time is the enemy. Our pint size and inexperience — not to mention our elders — tell us that we are not ready yet; ready for all the things we’d like to do.

Soon after our chronology reaches double-digits we want to drive and drink and date. We want to be independent. We want to be taken seriously; to do the right thing, to flee the coop.

Time stands in the way, like an implacable Big Ben, blocking our path. Its clock-faces look down like some sort of gigantic, elongated, menacing owl, hovering over our air space. Well, nothing we can do about that. But what can we do to achieve maturity? Surely, just waiting to get older isn’t enough. And age, by itself, is no guarantee of wisdom.

Joseph Conrad’s novella The Shadow Line: A Confession deals with just that: the kind of experience without which one remains innocent of oneself and the world no matter what your age; the kind of experience that is informative and transformative of one’s character. In other words, that brings maturity.

Conrad’s narrator is a young man, a seaman, with no one to look out for but himself. He is impulsive and makes important decisions without quite knowing why. He is easily offended and uncertain of his proper place in the company of others. He wants to get on with things, at the point in his life where:

…one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.

What he will confront — indeed, what he needs to confront — is a crisis at sea with an enemy no less implacable than Time. It is Mother Nature he will face, and the things that can happen when water and air and all the uncontrollable elements conspire to frustrate the lives of men. And he will feel much older because of it:

It seems to me that all my life before that momentous day is infinitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted youth, something on the other side of a shadow.

In the space of three weeks Conrad’s unnamed protagonist is changed by his match with adversity. But what if you are not a seaman challenged by the Godless waters? What might you do to hasten maturity’s arrival? A few things come to mind:

  • Try things that are new and difficult for you. Will you suffer? Yes. Will you fail? Sometimes. But if you keep at it, you will grow from the experience. Keeping only to the tried and true will teach you little.
  • Question authority. No, this doesn’t mean throwing rocks and breaking the law. It means asking yourself whether you should believe all that you’ve been “told.” For example, is your religion the one and only “true” religion? Are your parents good models of how to live? Does your political party have a monopoly on truth? Does material wealth bring happiness? Is technology making your life better? Remember, the crowd isn’t always right.
  • Reflect on yourself, your character, and your behavior. Take an unflinching look at yourself, who you are, and who you want to be as a person rather than as someone of a certain rank or job title. Ask yourself why you keep doing things that don’t work very well. Look at how much of your decision process and conduct is performed on auto-pilot, fixed on a course that was set long ago.
  • Compete, especially in team sports. It is said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” thus referring to the character-building that can happen in team sports played in places like Eton College, an independent boarding school. Pulling for and working with a team of almost any kind is an opportunity to grow as a person. You cannot become mature as a solo-act.
  • Be open to experience and what it can teach. This means you have to be prepared to have your attitudes changed by what you observe (especially of yourself) and what you participate in; and that you have to go out and “have” experiences (including passionate ones), not just read about them or watch them on TV or simulate them via the computer. Beware of electronic signals and noises, cell phones and computer screens that tweet and squawk and bother and bewilder you with things that usually aren’t important. Rather, as Epictetus suggested, be a spectator of yourself and achieve understanding that way.
  • Be open to others. Allow yourself to become close to a few others, not so defended against what they might do to you that you are marooned in a fortress of your own design. You will be fooled and sometimes you will be hurt, but it is hard to mature without the experience of intimacy. And without the joys that come with human contact.
  • Take responsibility. Don’t always be a follower. Develop a sense of leadership and be willing to accept at least some responsibility for your failures, in or out of leadership positions. As Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
  • Alter your default tendencies. If you are prone to act impulsively, slow down and become more reflective. If you are prone to looking back, try to look forward. If you anxiously await the future, set yourself the task of living more in the moment. None of this comes easily, but the practice of mindfulness meditation can often help.
  • Determine what is most important in your life, commit to it, and “live it.” I have an old friend with whom I sometimes differ on political questions. Nonetheless, I admire him enormously for “living” his beliefs. For example, he is a staunch advocate of the sanctity of life, a position founded on a deep religious faith. He not only defends this position, but has spent much of his adult life taking unwanted children into his home and sometimes adopting them. I am in awe. He has committed to something much bigger than himself.
  • Supplement your experience with reading. I’m talking here about the women and men of great ideas who lived in a quieter world: Virginia Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Plato, Epictetus, and others. But be aware that however great their writing, you will not appreciate them (and learn from them) nearly so much until you have done some living. Their words are dead until they are infiltrated by the events, motives, and meanings that you know first hand.

A young man or woman will profit if he looks at life like a funnel. Begin at the wide end, taking in everything, investigating many things. Sample the riches that nature and civilization have provided for you. Once you have begun to establish your values, what is important to you, and what you are good at, narrow your focus. Make some choices. Concentrate on perfecting  your chosen craft and devoting your time to fewer things in greater depth.

At some point you will have to discover whether “God is in the details” or “the devil is in the details.” But if your approach to work is slapdash and casual, I doubt that even the devil will care. Discipline matters and you cannot be mature unless you both know its importance and “show” that you know by putting it into practice.

One final thought. If maturity, aka wisdom, is your aim, be aware that you must never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop deepening the capacities of head and heart. Life is rich. Spend your time well. There is never enough. Once over “the shadow-line,” you are free to roam.

The top image is a 2004 photo of Big Ben at Dusk by Andrew Dunn, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Things We All Need to Learn

The things we need to learn wait for us. They are very patient.

I think you know what I mean. At least, you have seen it in others. The person who is angry, who never learns how to control his anger, or perhaps isn’t even aware of the need to control it.

Then there is the passive person, the one who cannot stand up for himself easily, who defers to others, who gets taken advantage of pretty routinely. And, despite this, doesn’t change over the years.

Some of us choose the wrong friends or wrong lovers or the wrong business associates, making the same mistakes again and again. Others continue to use failed methods in raising children. Some of us never face our fears fully (see Albert Brook’s film Defending Your Life for a funny take on this problem). And then there are the people who are impulsive, act without thinking, over and over; or the ones who are sloppy at tasks, not careful enough; or those that are too compulsive, too detail-oriented, trapped by their obsessive attention to small things.

I could go on, but instead, its time to ask you a question. What are the challenges in your life that you have yet to master, the ways of thinking or behaving that don’t work for you, but which you repeat? Most of us have a pretty easy time spotting the errors in others, but how about your own?

There is an old joke about how we learn:

A man walks down a road and falls into a hole. He didn’t see it and, because it is a deep hole, it takes some time to get out.

The next day the man walks down the same road and falls into the same hole. He still didn’t see it, but might just get out of it more rapidly this time.

The day after, the man walks down the same road, sees the hole, but falls into it anyway.

The following morning the man walks down the same road, sees the hole, and this time walks around it.

And what does our hero do after the next sun rise? He walks down a different road.

Holes, like problems unsolved, have all the time in the world. They wait for us, first to recognize them, to see the danger they pose, and then to change our behavior so as to avoid the danger. As the saying goes, “if you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve got.” Others have said that one definition of insanity is to continue to use the same failed strategy, all the while expecting different and better results.

How long will you wait to change? Your problems can last a life time. They have no train to catch, no meetings to attend; they take their time, not troubled by waiting. Or, should I say, they take your time. All of your time.

Do you really want to wait that long?