What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

study-for-inner-improvement-1977

Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

even-if-happiness-forgets-you-occasionally-never-forget-it-completely

  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

untitled-1993

  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

evening-magic-2000-jpglarge

  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.

Why Loved Ones Refuse Therapy and What to Do About It

man-watch

You’ve tried — with your friend, your spouse, your adult child. You made the case for counseling. Some hem, some haw, some say they will, but don’t. Others just refuse.

Why?

A few reasons to consider and what you might do about it:

  • Stranger danger. Suspicion of strangers is deeply rooted in the human race, derived from our primitive beginnings and ever-present con-artists. Your friend’s personal experience of betrayal may be a key factor.
  • Saving face. Much in life depends on reputation. How many of our parents admonished us to hide the family secrets and “be sure you don’t tell the neighbors!” Men, in particular, want to project strength, the better to succeed in the world of work and win a desirable spouse.
  • The doctor doesn’t care. He is only in it for the money and measures his patients’ value by the size of their bankroll. Should counselors then give treatment away and make their living after hours by standing on street corners with hat in hand?
  • I’m afraid my employer will find out. I can’t risk it. If you use insurance, the insurer will know your diagnosis, as will every such company in the linked system. They are not supposed to reveal anything to your employer. However, if you work for someone with few employees and his premiums go up the next year … ?
  • Therapy is for the weak, a crutch for the spineless. A therapist argues instead that facing your demons and working to change are signs of strength, not evidence of frailty: an indication of courage, not its absence.
  • I don’t believe in the value of looking back. Sometimes therapy doesn’t require it, but a historical evaluation can remove the bolder from your backpack and allow you to move ahead with pace. On the other hand, baseball’s Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you!”
  • Emotional pain. Whatever reasons are given, the prospective client can be unconsciously timorous at opening painful issues — digging up a grave bursting with undead horrors of the heart and memory.
  • I’m a logical person, not into feelings. I can solve this logically. Such statements are uttered most often by those who aren’t as logical as they think.
  • A real man does things, he doesn’t talk about them. But what if he doesn’t know what to do after trying everything?
  • Fear of change. Most of us find discomfort in new challenges, in or out of treatment. Yet change can’t be avoided unless you want to wear the same clothes in the same size and color the rest of your life; and continue to travel to the same job site even after your employer bars the door.
  • Fear of the mystery. The counseling office is a bit like the inner sanctum of a haunted house — a place of strange rites and secrets, incense and shadow play, frequented by the ghost of Sigmund Freud. The person who wants control will find few guideposts. Will a wizard cast a magic spell on him?
  • Fear of medication or hospitalization. Though you can’t be forced to take meds as a rule, some are terrified they might hear the doctor recommend it — or worse, a hospital stay.

What’s to be done? I received calls from spouses who wanted to make an appointment for their mate. This is rarely useful. If the individual lacks the courage or motivation to seek treatment himself, the likelihood of his appearance at the appointment is a coin flip at best.

Begging and pleading have their limits, too. The more you push, the more therapy becomes your agenda, not the person you care about. You own it, he doesn’t want to buy it. The more you pester or threaten, the faster he runs. If he does attend a session, his motive is to placate you, not heal himself.

Sometimes it helps to enlist the persuasive talents of one who is respected by the prospective patient: a clergyman, best friend, or close relative. The danger here, however, is an unauthorized revelation to a third-party interpreted as a breach of trust. A similar risk occurs when you plan an “intervention:” getting several friends and family members together to encourage and explain their concern to the doubtful potential client. This technique is more often used with alcohol and drug abuse problems, and is easier to rationalize when the person’s life is out of control and in danger.

I am not speaking here of people who are at risk of harming themselves or others. Thus, legal remedies to force the issue are not available. If your steady expression of loving concern cannot turn the tide, waiting might be the only alternative. The accumulation of pain perhaps will do what you can’t.

You are left in a difficult situation: straining your patience when everything in you wants to scream.

512px-03_Georg_Favbe_Jacot_von_1870

Most of us spend a good part of our lives wishing others were different: more loving, kinder, attentive to us in a way rarely offered; with an intensity and compassion that finally permits the auditor to “get us.” We want the love of this one, the respect of that one, and wish another would take our words to heart. We think and plot about attracting the dark stranger, selling the human product (ourselves), and winning the vote of the crowd.

The good news here is the presence of one person we tend to ignore. While we work on others to change, he remains in the shadows. We don’t need to run after him, persuade him, make an appointment to meet six weeks in advance, and cause his face to turn in our direction. His visage greets us in the mirror every morning.

When others resist our efforts to influence them we are left to change what we can about ourselves — what we may and what we must: our attitude, emotions, and reactions to the one who refuses treatment — and to the rest of life as well.  The transformation begins whenever we want. The process of self-modification can persist as long as we live. Unlike changing the loved one, however, the necessary alterations are in our hands.

The most important opportunities in life sometimes have been there all along. We wait for the other to wake up while what is changeable in ourselves awaits its own awakening. Imagine standing at a crossroads: one path leads to a darkling state of perpetual hope or desperate preoccupation with a person you can’t control. You pass the time alternately gnashing your teeth or imagining what life might be like if only he changes. The other road directs you to a house of natural light and mirrors revealing all sides of the one human you do control. This workshop evokes the hard work of the master sculptor in everyone, the painstaking job of reshaping our basic stuff.

Become your own work of art.

050613102055--Bristol RWA gallery starting point for Festival of Stone Sculpture Trail

The second image is a Ladies Watch Case photographed by Zeigerpaar and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photo comes from the Bristol RA Gallery Festival of Stone Sculpture.