In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

How much is well-being or its absence – depression and anxiety – dependent on what you pay attention to? I mean the present moment, the past, or your future? Does one best way to focus your attention exist?

Let’s look at each of these three possible orientations to time. Today I’ll start where your body is, even if your mind isn’t:

THE PRESENT

Philosophers remind us that the present is all we really have. The past is gone and the future might not come.

At least three paths allow us to live within the fleeting instant:

1. MINDFULNESS BASED ON MEDITATION PRACTICE:

Much effort is needed to develop and maintain this kind of “in the moment” way of being; daily meditation practice for the rest of your days. In doing so you can train the mind to stay in the present and refocus whenever attention begins to move toward a distraction, worry, preoccupation, memory, or anything else but your being within one second at a time. No before or after. No holding on to feelings. You observe the world rather than dwell on it. Thus, for example, pain is less fraught because you do not obsess about it. A benign sense of detachment comes to master meditators. They notice everything, but don’t pile meaning and intense emotion on everything, thus freighting the bad into something worse. Research suggests these are the most contented people on earth.

2. EMOTIONAL OPENNESS TO THE PRESENT AND WHATEVER LIFE OFFERS IN THE NOW:

Unlike the meditation experts, those in this group lead intense lives. Their openness allows for much joy, as it does for sorrow. At their best they are unguarded and brave. I am not speaking here of people with ADHD, who risk being caught in a whirlwind of thoughtless and impulsive action, untroubled by the past or future. Rather, I refer to those who are free with themselves, not self-consciously governed by what others might say or see. They are quite natural, unaffected, and spontaneous. Their self (and self-consciousness) is lost.

Such lives are not full of rigid angles and rectangular shapes. They don’t always conform themselves to boundaries drawn on hard surfaces, as one must in formal sporting events, with perimeters decisively marked as fair or foul, in or out. Think ocean or sky, not ground, when you behold them: creatures who swim or fly. Theirs is a life of discovery and bright eyes. They wish to play, not keep score; celebrate while the sun still shines.

These gifted people (whether by nature or choice) don’t achieve the dispassionate serenity of meditation gurus, but they are more “alive.”

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence,  the talented few are able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

3. ACHIEVING “FLOW:”

This is a cousin of #2, but applies best to work, competitive play, and hobbies. Here the path is not so much social or relational, but the singular focus on a task. In the case of elite athletes, for example, their concentration is extraordinary: They have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness of a stadium full of 60,000 observers. The psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi tells us, “this is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by … great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill … during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. The ego falls away. Time flies … and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The mastery and experience within you is matched to the challenge at hand. You won’t get this often watching TV (only seven to eight percent of the time). Neither will relaxation transport you into “flow.” You must do something. Csíkszentmihályi would have us believe ecstacy is possible in the “flow.”

Some suggest, however, we be careful of too much “in the now” living as defined by the first two paths. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and social/political historian, thought the detachment achieved in a Buddhist type meditation (Category #1) could be a cheat of life experience, a kind of defense mechanism against injury; valuable, but missing the full essence of life.

Those taken by the moment (Category #2) also risk some of the avoidable misfortunes that those who spend more time looking ahead might dodge. Members of this group would push back, however, claiming the reward of emotional and behavioral vulnerability is worth the risk. Take opportunity on, they might say: this life is the performance and not the rehearsal.

Nor should we forget, people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are characterized as living in painful extremity too often. They can miss or discount the notion that nearly everything they are feeling at this instant is temporary, therefore potentially succumbing to passing emotional catastrophe. For them “the now” seems endlessly excruciating.

Want some homework? Ask yourself which “time zone” you usually occupy and which makes you happiest.

Stay tuned. One of my upcoming posts will deal with living in the past, which also has its ups and downs. An essay on future orientation will follow, along with some thoughts about the three types of time-focus and how to manage them.

The second image is Macaca fuscata in Jigokudani Monkey Park – Nagano, Japan, by Daisuke Tashiro. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can You Stop a Person Determined to Commit Suicide? Afterthoughts on Watching “Goodbye Solo”

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Can you save someone who is suicidal? What would you do? If you are like most folks, you’d try to talk him out of it, remind him of what he has to live for, and stay close by to make sure he doesn’t act. You might urge him to get therapy or medication, call 911 or send for an ambulance.

When the patient tells a therapist about his suicidal thoughts, some counselors will ask “Why haven’t you committed suicide?” This is not an attempt to encourage it. Rather, depressed patients will often answer the question by stating what connects them to life. They might refer to religious beliefs, children or family, the hope of a better future, or whatever presently keeps them hanging on. And now the therapist has a sense of whether there is imminent danger and what he has to work with that can keep the patient alive.

Counselors routinely ask new patients about depression and the details of any plan they have to harm themselves. They want to know about a history of such attempts and the person’s tendency to be impulsive. Their concern is heightened if their client is more than usually comfortable with physical pain, a characteristic that can make “the act” easier. They seek information about the individual’s network of friends and family, hoping that he has a web of supportive people.

The healer tries to determine whether the patient believes that he doesn’t count in the world (or worse) that he is a burden on others. Therapists must evaluate the possibility of alcohol or drug use which can create the disinhibition to make the suicide attempt. They ask whether he is suffering from a loss which, if grieved, might provide relief in time.

But sometimes, even an excellent therapist can only do so much. Sometimes medication can do only so much. Sometimes electro-shock therapy fails. And then there are those who will try none of these remedies or, having tried them, stop trying. Which brings us back to the question posed in the title of this essay: can you permanently prevent the suicide of a person committed to it, especially someone whose life is largely behind him?

This query is brought to mind by watching a 2008 American movie of understated eloquence called Goodbye Solo, directed by Ramin Bahrani, and starring Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West. You might recognize Red West, a boyhood friend of Elvis who worked as his body-guard and as a stunt man before he became a character actor.

Seventy-two-years-old at the time the film was released, West has the visage of a man who has lived through everything, paid for each act of recklessness with a line on his face, and suffered more heartache than any 10 of us. He plays a character called William. Solo is his African émigré cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The proposition William offers the cabbie is simple: agree to take him to the top of Blowing Rock mountain in several days for $1000. He never states why, but the cabbie and the audience know it is to jump off and kill himself.

cigarettes aren't doing the job, so Red West decides to end his life on his own schedule in 'Goodbye Solo' (that's the taxi driver on the couch)

They are strangers, but Solo comes from a place where human relationships count for a lot. Moreover, he is an optimistic man, set on improving life for himself and his family. He hopes to become a flight attendant. Solo believes that he can alter his circumstances and that life will take-off for him, not come to the crashing end that William, twice solo’s age, envisions for himself. The cab driver does his best to connect with this old man; to engage him socially, to make friends, to have good times, to bring him into his own modest home; to inject William with some of his optimism about life.

We never find out much about William’s background, although he appears to have no significant social contact and no work to fill his time or give it meaning. There are hints of what life has done to him, or what he has done to himself, but Solo cannot discover much more than William wants him to know. It becomes clear that William’s suicidal intention has been well thought-out; that his plan is not impulsive.

William is not unappreciative of Solo’s efforts, not so fully out of touch with life that he has stopped caring about what happens to certain others. Nor does he dismiss the beauty of nature, if one can conclude that fact by his choice of Blowing Rock as the place of his demise: the last thing he will see (if he follows through with his plan) is the staggering magnificence of the vista beyond the mountain (see the top photo). After all, he could instead blow his brains out in his motel room.

In effect, Goodbye Solo puts a question to us: what is one to do when a long life — a rough life — has simply become too much? When one is care-worn, broken-down, and deadened, but not yet dead? When the beauty of nature and a child’s smile no longer compensate? When the kindness of strangers — their caring and concern — either isn’t enough or is too frightening because it portends only more vulnerability and loss if one allows them in?

Data from the American Association of Suicidology suggest that these are not idle concerns. Although the elderly made up only 12.5% of the population as of 2007, they accounted for 15.7% of all suicides. Moreover, men over 65 were more than seven times as likely to kill themselves than were women of the same age, and this difference grew as they aged.

Lest you become too depressed in reading this essay, you might wish to know a remarkable story that describes how a willingness to play out the hand you are dealt can be a far better choice than to “fold” and leave the game too early: “In Defeat Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon. Therapists are sworn enemies of suicide and hopelessness, of course. Religion and loved ones try to silence such thoughts, as well.

But, especially for some elderly men, the questions are persistent. Can you stop a person like William — as old as William — determined to commit suicide? Can Solo? Should Solo?

Watch the movie.

Special thanks to my friend Bernie for recommending this film. The first image is of Blowing Rock by Ken Thomas, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo comes from the movie, Goodbye Solo, left to right, Red West and Souléymane Sy Savané.

Violence and Intimacy

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Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“I Was Only Joking”

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I’ll give you an example of an ill-timed joke. It happened during the oral examination for my Masters thesis at Northwestern. Oral exams tend to generate a good deal of anxiety in the examinee, and I was no exception to this. The protocol is that the examining committee first meets together and then calls you into the room to join them. After exchanging greetings, the chairman of the committee, your thesis advisor, opens the gathering to questions from the other committee members. And so it was that Philip Brickman asked me the first question, beginning just this way:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Dead silence ensued. My anxiety level went up 400%. I began to imagine my future taking a very wrong turn into four lanes of on-coming traffic. And then, after a pause that seemed to last for ages, he turned to the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis and said:

Philip is spelled with one “L.”

Philip was calling attention to the fact that I had spelled his name “Phillip,” with two “Ls.” I have no memory of exactly what happened immediately after, although I can imagine that everyone laughed. I certainly was relieved; maybe that was Phil’s intent. But, however funny or well-intentioned, it was also a bad joke, one totally at my expense and possible only because of the vulnerability of anyone sitting for an oral exam, and Phil’s authority as one of the examiners. I had no residual resentment toward Phil, who was otherwise always more than pleasant toward me and, I should add, quite a significant research psychologist. But, I give you this example to point out that humor at another’s expense is a problematic undertaking.

I am sure that there are very few of us who haven’t ever taken advantage of the insecurity, vulnerability, or anxiety of someone, to make just such a remark as Phil made. I’ve certainly done it. It is a very human thing to do. And worse if it is done in front of an audience than one-on-one. I’m raising the point only because sometimes people who are sarcastic or mean-spirited do this with regularity and glee. And often, if the target of the humor complains, the jokester will blame the alleged “over-sensitivity” of the person who is the butt of his comment with admonishing words like, “you can’t take a joke,” “I was only kidding,” or “you are too sensitive.”

Maybe, maybe not.

But, once done, we owe the person who we toyed with the courtesy to respect his wishes and whatever sensitivities he does have, whether “over” sensitive or not. To do so is the civil and polite thing to do. Children are especially easy targets for barbs of the kind I’m describing and need particular respect, I think. Life is tough enough for the little guys and girls without adults taking advantage of their unshielded tenderness. That, at least, is my 2 cents on the subject.

And, if you are curious, I did pass the oral exam!

The image above is that of a Laughing Fool (ca. 1500) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.