Wisdom in Common Things

A typical zoo, lots of kids, and two bears. Or is it something more?

Perspective is everything.

We are in Berlin. The time is the early 1930s.

The question becomes, who is behind bars and who is on the outside looking in? The past gives us one answer. The photographer’s subject appears to be German Jews or any people imprisoned within a totalitarian state.

Yet the image provokes us to reflect upon our “point of view.” Do we accept our way of perceiving the world as the only valid one? Do we think twice, look again, reconsider our history, our actions, and the people around us?

The process of psychotherapy demands this on a personal level. Peaceful protesters in the streets also challenge us to recognize conditions we don’t wish to confront. The psychologist and the demonstrator carry the same message. As Rilke wrote, “You must change yourself.”

Counseling should cause the client to alter his frame of reference, clean the mirror he holds to his face, reevaluate whether his approach to life is working. If he does not, he remains like those children in the menagerie, on the wrong side of a high fence. But unlike them, he is incarcerated in a cage of his own making.

Try this photograph:

There’s a bit of a story here. I was on a morning walk. If you inspect the photo you will notice a quarter: a 25 cent piece. I bent to pick it up.

The hard object could not be separated from the walkway’s grip. What caused its fondness for the ground?? I suspect the coin dropped before the cement dried. The metal stuck.

Was it an accident or the result of someone’s plan? With what intention?

Several possibilities come to my mind:

  • to make a permanent mark lasting as long as the sidewalk. A kind of immortality.
  • As an experiment. Imagine the experimenter stationing himself nearby and tabulating how often people awaken to the object and hesitate over it. Or recording how many passersby attempt to dislodge the quarter and for how long.
  • Perhaps a prankster wished to frustrate anyone wishing to put it in his pocket.
  • Did the “two bits” offer philosophical instruction on the question, “how important is money, and what are you willing to do to get some? Break the pavement? Break the law? Where does the dollar fit in your system of values? Will you get on your knees in worship before its streetside alter?”

Here is one last picture to contemplate:

We all carry secrets. Perhaps the boy is sharing one and cautioning nondisclosure. The observer is left to consider how genuine and open we are. Anton Chekhov composed this about a man with a hidden life:

He began to judge others by himself, no longer believing what he saw, and always assuming that the real, the only interesting life of every individual goes on as (if) under cover of night, secretly. Every individual existence revolves around mystery, and perhaps that is the chief reason that all cultivated individuals insist so strongly on the respect due to personal secrets.

One wonders. For some of our friends, even those closest, is the most essential element of their life unknown to us? Might we also be unrevealed to them? If so, what is the cost of our concealed state?

They and we connect the observable dots of words and behavior, hoping we know the whole. Do we harbor shameful moments, episodes of cowardice, a haunted gender complexity? Is a sequestered, buried heart still bleeding, a boxed-up desire locked away, an ancient loss lurking?

Inertia resides in an undisclosed soul, just as stubborn in its stuckness as the 25 cents on my local sidewalk.

Will someone tell the person who left the melded money that there are those who would cherish the other side of the coin? Like the boy’s inner life, we only see half.

Shall I talk to the immovable, rounded copper the next time I pass its way? I’ll read him the Rilke poem about change. You’d think changing would come easily to a piece of change.

—–

The Rilke quotation is the last line from his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. The Chekhov quotation comes from his short story, The Lady With the Dog. The first photo is Roman Vishniac’s People Behind Bars.

How Would You Like to be Remembered?

Some people try for financial success, some for fame, others for happiness. But what about after? Thus arises a question. What might you want to be remembered for? I asked 58 of my friends. Forty-three put their words together for me. My response is also included.

Here is a selection of the answers I received. Each prefaced by a word or two from me (in bold), with a few other comments along with way. I’m going to begin with the response of the only stranger, the actor John Malkovitch. His recently published interview prompted this essay.*

  • Malkovitch: By my friends as hopefully someone who was a good friend, or at least amusing, but I don’t need to be remembered by people I don’t know.
  • A fierce protector of his family: As crafty and cunning – like a fox. Nobody messes with a fox.
  • A woman of conscience: As having been a person whose children were her highest priority, and whose husband and friends joined her children as her dearest treasures, for whom learning and growing were essential parts of her life, who tried to do the right thing in both ordinary and difficult situations, who tried to understand and be kind and compassionate, who made mistakes and tried to learn from them and make amends for them, who tried to be mindful of and was often grateful for both the obvious and the less visible blessings in her life, and who loved as well and as deeply as she could.
  • An ecumenical reply: As someone who cared deeply about people, and who tried in his own way to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. As the expression goes, “God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions.”
  • Fathers: After my wonderful father died, my younger brother said he could feel my father’s love moving through him, as he felt so much love for his own children. I would like to be remembered for honoring my father’s legacy with the same hope, that he lingers on as we pass his name to our children and grandchildren and love all of them in the way we were loved by our father.
  • A man’s man: Honest, fair, loving, successful, a survivor.

This is not a scientific survey. It is, however, a pretty good sample of what my friends think. Who are my friends? A well-educated, mostly liberal crowd who are more than usually successful as it is defined in America. This is not a particularly diverse group. The age range begins with a few people in their 30s and many more who are seniors. Just a few more women responded than men, and this selection reflects the same proportion. I’m grateful to all who answered.

  • A quiet man of depth: As a man of integrity, respected – with few acquaintances, but for those close friends a deep and lasting friendship.
  • An answer which nobody can deny: a fun guy to be around.
  • The importance of trying: I always thought I’d like “A for Effort” on my gravestone. I guess I’d like to be remembered as warm, caring, funny, and smart. A good woman and a good (doctor) and a good wife.
  • Two strong women:
    • As a woman who questioned authority and conventional wisdom and who saw people as individuals beyond established categories.
    • As a person of integrity who was prepared to pay the price for standing up for her values and principles. (Both of these women paid the price).
  • Getting to the essentials: A nice guy. If they can’t say that about me, nothing else really matters. And, if they can say that about me, then nothing else really matters.
  • The value of joy: He enjoyed life and helped others do the same.
  • A quotation: “Changing the world is good for those who want their names in books. But being happy, that is for those who write their names in the lives of others, and hold the hearts of others as the treasure most dear.” From Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind (1996), the fourth book in his Ender’s Game series.
  • A gentle soul: I want to be remembered in a kind, soft, and compassionate way.
  • Beauty: I’d like to be remembered as an honest guy who did his best. A lover of music and all things beautiful.

You might wonder why the answers are short and why the response rate was high. Here is how I posed the email to which my sample responded:

I’m preparing a blog post on the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d be grateful for a very quick answer. One or two sentences only. Not a word more. Your first impression. If it takes you more than three minutes, it won’t be a first impression. Your identity will be masked in both the blog post and any private conversation I have about the essay. No problem if you’d rather not reply. But, as I say, do it straight away if you’d like to do it.

  • Someone sweet: Every once in a while, I would like my family and close friends to hear a song, see a painting, smell a perfume, or remember a phrase and say to themselves: ”What a great memory. You know, she really made me feel loved.”
  • Living in the present: I don’t care whether I’m remembered.
  • A man who knows what he wants: He always insisted on finding the real problem.
  • From a wise counselor. Lawyer or therapist? You might be surprised: As one providing an ear more than a mouth.
  • A lover: I’d like to be remembered as a kind person who truly loved people and who always loved to learn – no matter the subject.
  • Let’s be frank: As a decent enough person who didn’t f **k up my kids too badly! And hopefully, I’ll have done some things to make the world a little better.

The most commonly used words were honesty, integrity, family, friends, love, and some version of the phrase “making the world a better place.” Many of those who offered such words were not included in this selection of comments in order avoid repetition. No one mentioned the word money. No one cared about their name in history books or hoped for lasting fame. If you can hear it, my friends, I am applauding you all.

  • A man with lots of awards who knows their real value: As a good person, good dad, good friend. With now a moment’s reflection, you should be able to evaluate your own professional life. The doodads you put on the wall or the desk don’t mean much.
  • The salt of the earth: Family, friend, honest, funny, Chicago, California, Texas, 2016 Cubs!
  • Someone who lives by these words, though born in 1947: As a funny, cultured pre-World War One gentleman.
  • The Hippocratic Oath from a non-physician: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared about the well-being of others and was concerned to do no harm.
  • A survivor and more: Wonder woman-like. I’d like to be remembered for not only triumphing over traumatic adversity, but also utilizing that information to help others in some meaningful way.
  • Saving the planet: As someone who listened and tried to understand and as someone who made a very small difference to improve the lives of humans and animals. And as someone who respected nature.
  • A mom: As the creator of my family: what I brought together.
  • Last words: How would I like to be remembered? With love by those I loved.

—–

*This essay was inspired by a question Rosanna Greenstreet asked John Malkovich, as published in The Guardian on March 10, 2018. His answer is above and the full article is here: Rosanna Greenstreet/

Part II: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

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In my last post I promised to give you my thoughts on the questions I posed about knowing yourself and examining your life. There were 13 in total, (superstitious anyone?). Here are the responses they prompted in me.

  1. Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross. I can imagine circumstances in which I would take the offer. If I needed money to save the life of someone I loved, for example. Otherwise, probably not. But then, I am financially comfortable. Were I not, perhaps I’d be more inclined to accept. I’d not care to get a bigger house, win status, or travel the world. Nor would I give the year for any charity short of enough dollars to change thousands of lives. There are limits to my altruism.
  2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange? Everything else being equal (which is never the case) this is attractive. Pain can be instructive if you are young enough and the suffering is defeated. Living longer, at least into an old age suffused with agony has no appeal for me. Leon Kass, physician and philosopher, however, argues that discomfort and gradual loss of our abilities combine to make us less resistant and more grateful for the release provided by death. Note that my answers to all of these questions are personal. You might well offer ideas at least as worthy and persuasive, perhaps more faith-based.
  3. What would you die for? My post What Would You Kill For? includes many thoughtful responses I received from friends and acquaintances.
  4. What would you kill for? The same essay deals with answers to this query as well.
  5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it. Were I a deformed young man, enhanced beauty would be difficult to resist. The importance of what meets the eye, of course, depends on the individual’s self-image and how much else recommends him to others in the mating game. The hand of time steals pulchritude from us all, a dime’s worth here, a nickel’s worth there, until at last those who once possessed surpassing beauty often sustain the most damaging psychological losses. We witness what some pursue from surgeons to fight the clock. The world pressures women more than men with regard to appearance, another consideration. At this point in my life, however, I’d take 25% more intelligence, being without an outsized vanity regarding how my externals are judged. Yet I wonder if the added cognitive burst might then separate me from friends and loved ones, literally change my thinking, our mutuality, and increase their discomfort in my presence. The value of relationships means more to me than becoming Einstein. Had I been given the offer of a bigger brain in my school years, however, I’d likely have accepted. We tend to think of ourselves as a kind of unitary whole, despite the changes we go through outside and inside. For a number of the questions in this essay, consider whether you would answer the same way when youthful, in middle-age, and in old age.
  6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination. My first thoughts here were focused on my youth, when confidence and self-assertion were wanting. On the other hand, life worked out before long. Moreover, any edge won with increased bravado would have been temporary, or (as Rosaliene Bacchus commented in response to the original post) might have altered the course of events in ways I didn’t predict. For example, had I been more masterly with some young woman in my single days, perhaps I wouldn’t have met and married my wonderful wife, produced our two great daughters, etc. No, I’d let the opportunity for a “do-over” pass by for the chance of self-advancement, but take advantage of it with respect to someone I hurt. My answer to question #10, based on regret, offers the details.
  7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain. My post What Memory Would You Take To Eternity? describes a heavenly reward consisting of living forever in a single, precious, blissful moment. I chose the instant I treasured most and treasure still, described therein. However, if I had 24-hours to live over again, I’d probably conjure up my father when I was a small boy, maybe three. He created a pretend radio show for me using the nozzle of our vacuum cleaner (hose attached) as a mock microphone. We played different parts, at least as the story was related to me much later. Though I lived it, I own no memory of the event. I’d like to visit him again in the fizzing sparkle of his relative youth, when his heart fairly burst with love and pride in his first born. The pictures of my dad with me show how overwhelmingly happy he was, beside himself with joy. I remember my own experience of this dad role with my children and watch it duplicated today whenever I go over to the home of my youngest daughter and son-in-law Keith with their wonderful boy — my grandson, of course.

That’s enough to ponder for now. Stay tuned, as my dad might have said in our imaginary radio days, for my take on questions eight through 13.

The top image is a work of Vladmir Grig called Who am I as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

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Our choices tell us who we are. In hypothetical situations it is easy to be heroic or generous, but no one can be sure what he would do until tested in real life. Since we prefer to believe the best of ourselves, if faced with a genuinely costly decision we might act differently than we think. You already know your history in life choices familiar to most of us: electing more time at work or at home, determining what to spend your money on, choosing a life partner, etc. What of those you haven’t experienced?

With all that in mind, I offer you several imaginary scenarios designed to reveal your values. You might find out something new about yourself if you take any of them seriously. After all, the words “know thyself” were inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo. I’d be grateful if you comment and share your thoughts as you consider the outlined scenes, even if you mention only one. I suggest you consider just one at a time. In a future post, I’ll give you my own ideas about the dilemmas listed below:

  1. Someone asks you for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.
  2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange?
  3. What would you die for?
  4. What would you kill for?
  5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it.
  6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination.
  7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain.
  8. The gift of immortality on earth is yours — to live forever, never aging beyond your current age. Do you want it? Why or why not?
  9. In your travels you come upon a fountain of youth enabling eternal earthly life at whatever chronological age you choose, with only the knowledge and experience you possessed at that time. To what moment would you return? Might you decide not to drink from the fountain? Tell me more.
  10. Who is the one person living to whom you most owe an apology? Why haven’t you expressed your regret?
  11. Imagine you can live the fantasy of succeeding in everything you try and being continuously satisfied by the progress of your life. It will be experienced as absolutely real, even though you will be in a chair connected to a machine keeping you healthy, supplying you with food, and fooling you into believing you are elsewhere. Alternatively, you can try to make your way in the real world you and I live in, as you do today. Which would you opt for?
  12. You are offered a risk-free, brief surgery permitting you to give yourself ecstatic pleasure by pressing a button whenever you want: the most powerful mood-changer ever invented. The marvelous joy beyond joy lasts only 10 minutes, so if you want more you have to press repeatedly. Do you accept this “gift”? Explain.
  13. You are given a trip in a time machine, enabling you to go back to the moment in history you’d prefer to live in, in whatever place you’d like to live, though you’d remain your current age. The journey is one-way — no coming back. Moreover, you can bring only one other person with you. Would you do so and with whom? To what historical moment and place? Elaborate your deliberation process.

No right or wrong answers here. Have at it!

The painting is The Fountain of Youth, 1908, by Paul Jean Gervais. It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Land of Those Who Dare Not Speak: A New Year’s Parable

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Imagine you stand in a courtyard, four doors equidistant from you. One leads — you hope — to some version of material prosperity: stacks of crisp greenbacks, luxury, titles, accomplishments. Are they more than you need or what you desperately need?

Behind door number two resides jealousy. Here is the personal storehouse of unfulfilled wishes. A worker stands with a brush. He paints everything with the green of envy. No objects inhabit the place, only the ideas with which you fill your head, catalogued for your review: the kind of marriage of this one, the beauty of that one, the genius and happiness of another. To enter you must speak the language of complaint.

A third portal stands in the shadows: the door of the undeserving. Those who step through believe they lack the right to speak of suffering. They’ve been told their life is good. All their externals are properly arranged. They present the world an outward show of seeming to be what is expected. Acquaintances recognize little else, but the soul knows a deeper truth. Here is a library of unexpressed grief, pages beyond counting. The books are sealed and unread. Like all libraries, no sound is permitted. The residents of this prison open their mouths as if to talk, turn around, expect someone to judge them ungrateful for what they have, and leave the pain unspoken. Theirs is the green of nausea, the self-imposed invalidation of a corked bottle filled with tears not meant to stay inside.

Beyond the final door a barren landscape stretches to the horizon. Everything is brown and gray, like a snowless, unformed winter’s day. You spy something new: tinges of green — a few mini-shoots, the color of possibilities. What could grow there? The things you can’t see, not yet, but just might increase if offered a chance — by you and circumstance.

You recognize something shiny among the shoots: the large shard of a broken mirror. The silvered glass looks back at you. And then you realize you are a thing that might grow, enhance. Still, this place is the hardest, least sure.

Four doors. Which will you choose? Or will you wait, decide not, hesitate?

The photo is call 1green doors by psyberartist. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

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Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

What Music Would You Take to a Desert Island?

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Toward the end of Woody Allen’s wonderful movie Manhattan, the character he plays asks himself “Why is life worth living?”

His answer?

Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.

Like what?

For me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… Willie Mays and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony (by Mozart) and Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues… Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s… Tracy’s face…

Humor then, followed by the art of a gifted baseball player, music, movies, a work of fiction, visual art, food, and the young woman he realizes he loves, almost too late.

Your list would be different, mine would too. But isn’t it interesting how prominent music is on lists such as this, how often people find that an interest in music binds them to lovers, friends, and the joy of living?

A popular radio program on the BBC since 1942 has been asking what music you’d take with you if you were a castaway. It is called Desert Island Discs and it has hosted interviews of nearly 3000 prominent people in that time, trying to find out what tunes would be essential if they were marooned on the proverbial desert island.

On their website Desert Island Discs you can hear a number of these programs and discover the musical choices of folks like Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Tim Robbins, Emma Thompson, Jerry Springer, Barry Manilow, Whoopi Goldberg, J K Rowling, Stephen King, Simon Cowell, Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others from the world of science, philosophy, literature, and government.

Back to Woody Allen’s question, what makes life worthwhile for me?

My wife and children, my friends and my brothers… Brahms’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s Symphony #3, Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and I’ll Be Seeing You… Judy Collins… Alfred Stieglitz’s photo The Steerage and Van Gogh… The Lives of Others, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lost Horizon, and The Prizoner of Zenda (the last two movies with Ronald Coleman)… getting to know (really know) people…

Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving… baseball and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund… Shakespeare… Chocolate… Dim Sum, Superdawg (a Chicago area hot dog drive-in), and almost anything cooked by my wife Aleta… Precious and Peanut (family dogs)… listening to and telling stories… the satisfaction of doing something difficult and well… a good cup of coffee and the singing of the birds on a spring morning.

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And if you asked me what would I want in any heaven worth the name?

All that plus my father in middle-age and my mother before life defeated her.

Put another way, I guess I am living in something pretty close to heaven on earth.

Not bad at all.

Since, for most of us, food is one of the joys of living, you might want to take a look at an interesting and recently initiated blog on that subject: Adventures in Food.

The top photo is Brown sisters Melody, Deondra, and Desirae performing on a Steinway grand piano at CBC Radio Studios in Ottawa, Canada as part of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on September 12, 2006. Photo by Mike (Binary Rhyme) Heffernan. The bottom photo is The Steerage taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Upside of Depression and the Downside of Medication

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Are there advantages to being depressed? Something good about something we think of as so bad? A recent New York Times Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer makes just that case: Depression’s Upside.

The essence of the argument is that some episodes of depression allow for and encourage a kind of analytic rumination that is productive. Put another way, the tendency in depression to focus on a problem, mulling it over to the exclusion of other thoughts, permits the sad person to find a solution to his difficulty and change his life in a positive way.

The counter-argument, however, is that the ruminative process is both painful and unproductive — that it often creates a kind of self-flagellating preoccupation with one’s trouble rather than a process that leads to something good; that unhappiness and focusing on pain and its concomitants simply feed on themselves to no helpful end.

In my clinical experience, therapy with people who are depressed over loss or injury often breaks down into two phases. The first of these is a grieving process, where the person expresses and processes (or sometimes purges) the feelings of anger, sadness, emptiness, desolation, and hopelessness that come with the loss of something of value — a love, a job, high social status, a capability, a fortune, etc.

The second phase involves learning from one’s painful experience about how to live differently, make different decisions, associate with different people, become more assertive, overcome fear; value things differently in life such as money, material things, status, accomplishment, friendship, and love.

Naturally, neither of these two phases is absolutely discrete — they blend into each other and overlap each other. As a practical example, someone who has had a series of bad relationships will typically need to grieve the unhappy end of the most recent one and, in the process, learn how he happened to choose a person or persons who made him so miserable; then changing whatever needs to be changed internally and externally so that different and more satisfying choices occur in the future.

People who are like the hypothetical individual just cited usually come into therapy in emotional pain and seek relief of that pain as promptly as possible. This desire is entirely reasonable — who wouldn’t want this? Some of them request medication, which is often the fastest way to “feel better.”

But many are leery of psychotropic drugs and see them as artificial, hoping that therapy will produce a more lasting fix without dependency upon a foreign substance. Indeed, while a good therapist will strongly encourage the use of medication for someone who is seriously depressed, i.e. suicidal, unable to work, sleeping away the day away (or almost unable to sleep); that same therapist will also know that medication sometimes serves to “de-motivate” the patient, giving him or her a relatively quick solution that allows that person to tolerate an intolerable situation. In the New York Times Magazine article mentioned above, Dr. Andy Thomson describes this problem eloquently:

I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage. I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great. I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’

Clearly, this woman was aware that she needed to be in some amount of discomfort in her relationship with her husband in order to be motivated to get out of it. The drug made her feel better, but, it also reduced her incentive to change herself and her life. It was, in effect, a kind of band-aid, rather than a real cure. It anesthetized her and, in so doing, robbed her of something that was essential for new learning and behavior change to occur.

Unfortunately, most people who come to therapy are neither as courageous or insightful as the woman just described. Once they feel significantly better, whether due to therapy or medication, it is common for them to be less interested in continuing treatment. They have recovered from the event that precipitated their entry into therapy, but they might not yet have learned enough to avoid making the same mistakes that contributed to the problem in the first place.

Such a person can reason that the cost of therapy (both financially and in terms of time, effort, and the difficulty that comes with changing one self) is now greater than emotional pain from which they might still be suffering. Put another way, at this point, doing therapy “causes” more difficulty and pain than not doing therapy, just the reverse of what seemed true when they started the treatment process.

At this stage, those who continue in therapy have something that an old mentor of mine, Truman Esau, used to call “therapeutic integrity.” What he saw in some of his patients was an almost heroic desire to make themselves better regardless of how much the actual process of doing so was difficult, uncomfortable, or painful.

These patients didn’t shy away from problematic truths about themselves or others. They worked hard to stretch and challenge themselves, knowing that it was crucial to improve. They didn’t simply want a quick fix. Like the woman in Dr. Thomson’s example, they recognized that some pain was essential to being motivated. They knew that there was no such thing as “a free lunch,” and were willing to do whatever it took to repair and better their lives.

If you are in therapy now, it will be important for you to be sensitive to this shift from the often intense distress that brought you into therapy, to the point when the therapy itself might seem distressful. This can mean that the therapist is not skillful or that he is pushing you too much, but it just might also signal that some of the most difficult life changes you need to make are still ahead of you, even if the cost of making those changes seems greater than when you started treatment.

If you leave therapy because it is hard and unpleasant work, the problems you have won’t care. They will simply continue to reside in you, work on you, and trip you up. It is not enough to get over your last disappointment or unhappiness, but to change yourself enough to avoid future problems.

Few things that are worthwhile come to us for free.

The above image titled Depression is the work of Hendrike, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Grieve, How to Live

grieving-parents-side-view

You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.

We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.

What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.

Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.

Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.

How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.

To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”

But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”

But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.

And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.

To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.

And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.

You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.

The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”