I work hard to help couples save or improve their relationships. I do not consider, however, that each and every relationship should be preserved at all costs. Some relationships are simply beyond redemption, or were doomed from the start. Some relationships are potently toxic and may actually involve risk of physical harm or loss of one’s sense of self. We need to be able to identify the truly “lost cause” and to dismantle the weird emotional machinery that has, after a fashion, been sustaining it.
Recently a man in his early twenties complained of not having what he wanted out of life, including money, prestige, and independence. I made a comment about “paying one’s dues.” He shot back with fervid earnestness: “I HAVE paid my dues! I went to high school!” No comment required.
It has become fashionable of late for people unhappy in relationships to seek to pathologize their partners, to look for a psychiatric diagnosis wherewith to label them. The formula works like this: “No wonder things are so not satisfying for me. He’s a malignant narcissist.” The partner thus categorized is “clearly” responsible for any problems the couple may be having. I suggest that the assigning of such diagnoses be left to persons professionally trained and duly qualified to make them. I suggest further that playing the labeling game is a cheap and illegitimate form of self-exculpation.
One of my clients remarked recently that he had reached the age at which his father died. As it happens, the same is true of me. A cause for sober reflection.
It's common enough to praise another person's industry and his ability to get things done, but Leo Tolstoy would say of his deceased older sibling: "Brother Nicholas knew how to 'do nothing,' which is a knowledge few people have attained." Now that's something to think about!
Susceptibility in adults to hero-worship signifies a failure in the maturation process. Such adulation reveals more about the emotional deficits of the worshiper than about any objective qualities inhering in the worshiped.
World history is replete with figures bearing the epithets of "the Great," "the Bold," "the Conqueror," "the Magnificent," etc. The merest handful of individuals have been esteemed "the Wise." Hence, the Human Condition.
We note and mourn the passing of Michael Chandley, proprietor of Cellar Stories book store and acquaintance of long-standing. How many the hours spent chatting with Michael and scanning his shelves? How many the books from Cellar Stories that found a home here on Broadway? Providence won’t be the same without Michael.
If you have money problems, you might think that a higher-paying job (or second job) is what you need. Alas, experience teaches us that spending tends to grow in direct proportion to income increases. Make more, spend more. So, before you launch that job search, commit (as in FOREVER) to the idea of Better Money Management. A cardinal rule of BMM: clean up your credit card debt and never pay card interest again. Pay each bill in full and on time. NO balances carried forward! EVER! And make sure that your card carries no annual fee (most don't nowadays) and gives you purchase points that can be converted directly into cash and deposited in your bank account. Make sure, too, that the points never expire. You don't want to subscribe to a "use them or lose them" program. (And if you want an immediate "raise" and to have more cash on hand, start paying attention to how much you're spending on alcohol every week. Most people are staggered when they finally take an honest look at how dependent they are on drinking and how costly it is. Get used to less.)
One emerges from the womb as, say, a female and grows into womanhood. That much is a function of biology. But it's a matter of CHOICE whether one becomes a LADY. Would that more individuals made that choice. (Men, it is perhaps needless to say, are not exempted from this animadversion. Our world needs more gentlemen.)
Often in the course of my work, women complain about their men as follows: "He never tells me he loves me. If I say it to him, he'll act like he doesn't hear me or mutter something like 'Yeah, me, too.' That hurts me! If I press him, he'll say, 'Well, I obviously care about you or I wouldn't be with you' or 'You know how I feel. Why do I have to say it?'" Be careful, ladies! Don't entrust your heart and your happiness to a man who can't simply and spontaneously (and with real conviction) say that he loves
Since moving to Rhode Island years ago, I have witnessed (always with sadness) the closing of several independent movie theaters. But the imminent demise of the Cable Car Cinema on South Main Street in Providence might justly be described as catastrophic for all who appreciate and support quality film.
On Thursday evening, we had dinner at a popular local restaurant. It was crowded and noisy. On Sunday afternoon, we sauntered through Swan Point Cemetery, justly described on their website as “a sanctuary of peace and beauty.” We’re “done” with that restaurant, but we’ll stroll again through Swan Point.
It's hard not to notice that people who are oh-so-quick to hurl the thunderbolt accusation of "You're being SELFISH!" are themselves, more often than not, the true candidates for that unpleasant designation. They have little if any tolerance for frustration or thwarting of their needs and desires, and they have learned that "selfish" can be a potent tool in manipulating others and thus getting their own way. It's crucial to our emotional well-being that we appreciate the difference between being "selfish" and being "self-caring."
No one ever did someone else a favor by putting her on a pedestal. There's not a lot of room in which to move around up there--and it can be a long way down. Which is another way of saying that loss of one's exalted position is virtually guaranteed. The person who puts you on a pedestal is indulging in fantasy, and when you tumble there generally is no redemption. You are either "everything" to that person, or you are as the dust beneath his feet. Better to be seen for who you are than to be psychologically airbrushed in accordance with the wishes and needs of another.
To paraphrase Bette Davis ("All About Eve"): Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy year.
He who yearns for a substantially "improved" life-partner should start by being one himself. To reap the full riches and rewards of an intimate relationship, cultivate patience, kindness, compassion, and overall decency. To harvest, one first must sow.
Just recently a writer in the NYT reminded us that “Not everything that feels bad is bad: Some pain is worth it.” Amen to that.
The sociologist Philip Slater once made this astute observation: "Few people would argue seriously that a volcano is better than a flower, but humans have always been more inclined to worship volcanoes than flowers."
(Slater is the author of The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Put this on your "must read" list. The decades since its initial publication have done nothing to diminish its power and relevance.)
"Don't race. Allow yourself some extra time to get there." Such was the oft-repeated urging of my parents during the years of my youth. Far better, they felt, to be early for an appointment and have to kill a bit of time, than to rush frantically and just make it. (Arriving late was NOT an option.) Not profound advice, perhaps, but it's something I put into weekly (if not daily) practice and that lends itself to a more rational and relaxed life.
In her seemingly boundless confidence in me, as regarded in all things, my mother once asked for investment advice, stipulating "high yield, low risk, and liquidity." Of course, if there were such investments (and if I were able to identify them), I would long ago have retired to my own private tropical island for a life of consummate ease and unbridled self-indulgence.(Not really!) On the whole, the rewards to be won in a human existence, be they financial or professional or emotional, (not mutually-exclusive categories), come at the cost of some level of risk. And, yes, generally the greater rewards entail greater risks. But to make one's way through the years in a risk-averse manner is to be less than fully alive. He who fears to take chances will never know the rapture of triumph.
A man I know insists that he has never watched any movie more than once. No film, in his estimation, is so entertaining or engrossing as to warrant more than that. Personally, I don't feel that way. There are some movies I've watched repeatedly, and I won't even attempt to justify this by saying "Oh, I see something I hadn't noticed before with each new viewing.” Watching a beloved film multiple times over the years is like spending an evening with old and trusted friends. They may not have anything really new to bring to the encounter, but it's awfully comfortable to be with them. In fact, the "sameness" and predictability are part of their appeal. I feel this way about re-reading books. Should I re-read a title when there are so many new (to me, at least) books waiting to be read? Well, why not! The same thinking would apply to food selections and musical choices. It's good, once in a while, to order something new from the menu – or to expose oneself to unfamiliar performers – but there's a whole lot of satisfaction to be found in the familiar, the tried and the true.
While therapy can sometimes accomplish great things, changing lives in profoundly positive ways, it cannot alter someone's basic character. A man with an established life-style founded on deceit and egregious self-promotion at the expense of others, is not going to emerge as a human benefactor or paragon of virtue. It is well for people to keep this in mind when considering couples counseling. An unsuitable partner, hauled with& manifest reluctance to sessions, won't change. Maybe try a different therapist? No! Find yourself a better partner.
Good words from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better."
"Life-Craft: The Art of Living Wisely and Well." What, exactly, is the idea behind that? It's not enough to get free, say, of symptoms of anxiety or depression. It's not enough to figure out ways to make more money and be able to buy new stuff. Life-Craft is about living meaningfully, purposefully, and creatively. It's about establishing a kind of harmony in one's relations with the world–and also within oneself.
All too often in the city, one hears people driving by, playing rap so loudly; that their cars and surrounding buildings vibrate. I recognize the utility of rap as a vehicle of social protest, as an affirmation of being "cool" and a kind of rebel, as an instrument of what may be termed "auditory aggression." But MUSIC it ain't! It fails completely melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. And the "messages" rap imparts were better left unsaid. If rap we must have in our society, let it be played in remote places, by persons bent on masochistic self-abuse. Or let it be used, say, instead of water-boarding as a form of torture.
Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is shutting down this spring, bringing to a close nearly a century and a half of activity. I, for one, lament its imminent passing. No, I haven't been to the circus in many a year now, but I enjoyed it even as an adult. And I have so many pleasant memories of circus performances during my childhood years, when "The Greatest Show on Earth" tag line seemed a completely reasonable, non-hyperbolic descriptor.
"I'm committed. I'm REALLY committed! As long as I feel this way, I'm committed!" I remember one Ellen, a graduate student, speaking these words to a group of us during my first year of doctoral study. It escapes me now just what cause or ideology Ellen had embraced with such fervor, but I do recall the general hilarity her statement provoked. She so totally missed the essence of an act of commitment. To proclaim a commitment is easy; to adhere to the commitment in the longer run, all too often very hard. Consider marriage vows. Caught up in the intoxication of the moment, couples eagerly assert their mutual undying love, devotion, and respect. But how many couples will be equal to honoring their pledges when life, in one way or another, sours for them? Commitment is about courage, not caprice; about integrity, not convenience. At its most striking, commitment is expressed in a willingness to face the firing squad or the lions in the arena.
If you are in the habit of telling other people what you think they need to do (e.g., "You need to break it off with that girl!"), then YOU need to stop doing that. Such communications, however well-intentioned and on the mark, seldom produce a good result. In fact, they typically cause resentment. At worst, they can provoke self-defeating pertinacity in the person you're trying to help. The world would be a far better place if we practiced restraint and held our tongues.
I want to share with you something really remarkable. A college professor of many years’ standing, I now proclaim the disappearance of the “average student.” (We used to call them “C” students.) Yup, the average student has simply passed into oblivion, gone the way of the dodo. Like the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, all students of today are “above average.” They are a kind of academic “elect” (in Calvin’s sense of the term): the grades they receive are to be independent of the works they perform. Any grade lower than “B” is to be taken as evidence of some sort of professorial dysfunction or perversity. It would be helpful if, on day one of class, each student wore emblazoned on his shirt a conspicuous “A” or “B,” thereby making it clear to the teacher his responsibility in the matter of grading and thereby relieving him of the tiresome business of correcting exams and evaluating essays. Better yet, the “A” or “B” could be tattooed right in the middle of the student’s forehead.
Some folks espouse the notion that we are living in a computer simulation. We only think we are real! This strikes me as a bootless conjecture, a mere rendering of the Cosmic Clockmaker of the deists of the 18th century into terms more compelling to the contemporary mind. An ostensible "explanation" that, in fact, explains nothing at all. I am reminded of the story of the American Indian and the anthropologist. "The world rests on the back of a turtle," asserts the Indian. "And what does the turtle rest on?" asks the anthropologist. "Another turtle," responds the Indian. "And what does that turtle rest on?" inquires the anthropologist. In exasperation, the Indian exclaims, "It's turtles all the way down!"
I've long made it a habit to record, from my readings, passages of particular perspicacity. Here, for example, is a trenchant observation from the historical novelist, Rafael Sabatini: "You may shout yourself hoarse proclaiming a man's virtue, and no one pays attention. Whisper a word of his vices, and the world is all ears." And I cannot help but agree with James Boswell's remark, "What a strange thing is the human mind!"
Doctor Kane's No-Cost Music Therapy: If you're feeling draggy and down in the dumps, go to You Tube and tune in to "Louis Armstrong – Potato Head Blues – 1927." For best results, listen at elevated volume. Should an even stronger pick-me-up be required, try "China Boy – Sidney Bechet – Big Four – 1940." Repeat as needed. For the alleviation of stress and anxiety, "Tommy Flanagan – Peace." No harmful side effects!
“I just want to be happy." How often have I heard that plaint over the years! As if happiness were a birthright, a matter of cosmic benevolence or divine dispensation. In fact, though, such felicity as any adult among us enjoys is largely a consequence of a life well lived. Happiness doesn't fall on us as a gentle rain from heaven. Rather, it is a hard-won accomplishment in which a cultivated sense of responsibility plays a key part. Finally, unalloyed happiness without surcease can never be a permanent state of being. Nor, I think, would we want it to be.
Hillary Clinton earns between $225,000 and $400,000 for a single-hour’s speechifying. No doubt I’m selling myself short, but I’d do it for a paltry $100,000. Say, how much did Jesus get for doing the Sermon on the Mount gig?
“La petite mort” (the little death). So do the French describe the immediately post-orgasmic state. Having just returned from a week’s stay in Mexico, I can’t help but feel that the expression applies even more aptly to the ending of a vacation. “Quelle tristesse!” Perhaps the manic picture-taking of the typical vacationer represents, in part, an attempt to mitigate the impending sense of loss, an effort to capture the fleeting and essentially “uncapturable.” I am myself no taker of pictures. But I have filed in memory the sound of the booming Pacific breakers, the warmth of the Mexican people, and the pleasure derived from time spent with new friends Doug and Jane of Seattle.
A long, long time ago, listening to Mozart's 'Sinfonia Concertante', K. 364 with a friend, I happened to remark: "It's a privilege to belong to the same species as the man who composed that." Only the other day, I learned that Lenin (yes, THAT Lenin) was similarly moved while listening to Beethoven's 'Appassionata' with Maxim Gorky: "I know nothing that is greater than the 'Appassionata'. I'd like to listen to it every day. It is marvelous superhuman music. I always think with pride – perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvelous things human beings can do!" I'll confess that this bit of emotional congruence between Comrade Lenin and me is gratifying. One finds spiritual kinsmen in the oddest places.
Having grown up well before the advent of computer generated imagery, I am frequently taken aback by the (now) all-too-evident studio artifice in films first viewed in childhood. The adult eye readily identifies the painted backgrounds, the miniatures, and the various other tricks of the trade. Ideally, adult perception would, in a similar fashion, penetrate the devices (including outright mendacity) used to sustain acceptance of and conformity to certain social and political “realities.” Mark well the conjurers and charlatans. They do abound.
In December I identified love, work, and play as fundamentals in a healthy life. To these I would now add a fourth: creativity. I am convinced that each of us has some creative capacity, some inner urge to make, to bring forth, to express. The manifestations of this urge are myriad: making music (my own choice), painting, woodworking, knitting, dancing, amateur acting, sculpting and so on. Is there time in an already busy life to cultivate some creative outlet? Of course! Just consider how many valuable hours are frittered away every week. Turn off the TV! Walk away from the computer! Put down the cell phone! A final thought: The satisfaction derived from exercising our innate creativity is not dependent on the attainment of a professional level of competency. One needn’t, say, be a guitar virtuoso to enjoy playing the instrument. One needn’t win ballroom competitions to find pleasure in the dance. When it comes to tapping creativity, there’s no such thing as “not good enough."
What’s the very best way to begin the new year? By contacting me and setting up your first appointment. If you’ve found your way to my site and are reading this now, then clearly something is troubling you. It’s my business–and a matter of personal dedication–to help individuals and couples work through issues and conflicts and blockages of all kinds. Your problem is probably not a brand new one, so get in touch with me and let’s get cracking on it.
Asked about sound mental health, Freud equated it with the capacity to love and to work. I would add a third element: play. A healthy, well-balanced life should combine all three. Alas, though, that's not often the case. When I meet with a client for the first time, I ask: "What are your leisure activities? What do you do just for fun?" The typical responses are "I USED to do such and such" and "Well, I don't really have much leisure time." Some folks tell me their free time is spent at the gym. How sad! Good workouts are great–and I speak from decades of personal experience–but hardly what I would call genuine fun. Something is sorely amiss here. Without play, life is grim and we merely grind along.
Recently I searched online for Fred M., a professor of mine in graduate school. It saddened me to learn that he'd died some years ago. I vividly recall my introduction to him, at a get-together of faculty and new students. Reticent and awkward, he did not impress. I imagined he'd be happier in a bowling alley than in the halls of academe. In time, I discovered that Fred was a dandy guy; warm, funny, smart, and utterly unpretentious. I asked that he serve as my master's advisor, and he graciously consented. Fred M.: one of the Good Guys. Old friend, I salute you.
According to Woody Allen, 80% of success is showing up. What of the remaining 20%? In what does that consist? I suggest that a big piece of that is paying attention. I was going to say "simply paying attention," but in our Age of Distraction there's nothing simple about it. Don't despair, though. Being focused and properly attentive is not a natural endowment, but rather a skill or discipline that can be cultivated. And rich are the rewards for such efforts.
“I love you but I don’t like you.” These were the words I overheard the woman in the booth directly behind me speak to her dinner companion. Is it, in fact, possible to love without liking? I think not. We should be chary of confusing obsession, fixation, or infatuation with love. “Love” in its mature sense necessarily involves liking (and esteeming) the Other. A love worthy of the name is not simply an affair of the heart, a matter merely of feeling. It must also invoke the high-level cerebral functions of clear thinking and sound judgment. Infatuation is doomed to evaporate. Love is destined to endure.
It is all too easy to resist making what amount to imperative changes in our lives. And we can justify inaction by invoking the various trite rationalizations, excuses, and extenuations that lie so conveniently at hand. You’ve all heard them before—and maybe even have had occasion to press them into service yourself. “It wouldn’t be any different anyplace else.” “Better the devil you know.” “I should just learn to live with it.” To make a significant life change can be scary. It typically entails the risk of emotional and financial distress. But isn’t it better to take one’s courage in one’s hands and head into an uncertain future than to languish, psychically frozen, in a soul-deadening and ultimately hopeless situation?
Many years ago I lived in a little town in the heart of the Appalachian coal fields in order to carry out firsthand psycho-cultural research on a regional religious sect. One evening, having typed up my hastily scrawled field notes and transcribed my interview tapes, I pulled out my trumpet and proceeded to entertain myself. I soon became aware of the sound of another trumpet, off in the distance. For half an hour or so we played; he, his songs and I, mine. I never discovered the identity of my secret sharer. No matter. Together, for a magical moment, we'd nullified the Void. "You, Me, We."
What's the most common mistake new romantic couples make? RUSHING INTO THINGS! In my many years of experience as a therapist, I've seen again and again the pitfalls of premature exclusivity and too-hasty commitment. Early in a relationship, with a paucity of information about the other person, we "fill in the blanks" (so to speak) with fantasy stuff. We see them through wish-contaminated eyes, as we need them to be rather than as they are. It takes time to gain genuine knowledge about another human being. Give yourself that time. Don't let your needs, insecurities, and fantasies run away with you. Build your relationship on a solid foundation.
On university campuses these days, one hears all too frequently the faculty lament/imperative, "We have to get them to think more critically!" The intended beneficiaries of this self-proclaimed crusade are not campus administrators or politicians, but students. If faculty themselves were less disingenuous–or perhaps more aware and acute in their own ratiocinations–they'd see that the real goal of this endeavor is NOT genuinely original and independent student thinking. The true desideratum is that students trip more easily down currently conventional thought-trails, not blaze new ones. This is about indoctrination, not liberation. I leave aside consideration of the extent to which the less-than-fully-formed hormone-soaked brains of the immediately post-adolescent are susceptible of training in anything approaching meaningful critical thinking. Also, young folk are not exactly blessed with a surfeit of compelling adult role models in this area. A final bit of reflection: critical thinking and short attention spans can never be compatible bedfellows.
Several years ago, while I was Director of Clinical Education and Senior Supervising Therapist at a local non-profit counseling center, interns would often ask me for book recommendations–texts that would help them become better practitioners. To their surprise, my suggestions often included works of literature by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Balzac, etc. No, these authors were not "psychologists" in the formal sense of the term, but they knew the human heart; in their own way they sounded the wellsprings of human motives and emotions. The same may be said for certain film makers. Bergman and Kurosawa come readily to mind. The great classics of film and literature are forever relevant because in essence they transcend the time and place of their creation. They tell us about US!
Mid-life crisis is typically associated (for men, at least) with a sudden interest in flashy red sports cars, women young enough to be one's daughter, heavy work-outs at the gym, etc. In other words, a desperate attempt to maintain (or revive) the sense that one is as good as one ever was, that time is not passing with such relentless and merciless rapidity; that the ravages of aging can be held off pretty much indefinitely. But there's more to mid-life crisis than the shock of physical decline and perceived diminution of attractiveness to the opposite sex. For many persons it's the stunning realization that one has fallen short–perhaps VERY short–of his important life-goals and is really past the time when those goals are realistically still within reach. Most commonly, the goals are about wealth and social position. No one wants to feel himself a "loser," suddenly and irrevocably "out of the game." For other people (far fewer perhaps), the crisis is precipitated by the nagging sense of "emptiness" that can develop, in spite of one's having achieved precisely what he had set out to accomplish. How does one deal with the feeling that "it all seems rather pointless. There must be more to life than this." A conspicuously higher level of achievement in the same arena isn't the answer. No one's happiness ever was doubled because he went from two-million dollars a year in earnings to four-million dollars. No one's life-satisfaction ever was enhanced for the longer run because he added, say, a ski chalet in the Alps to his already impressive real-estate holdings. Mid-life crisis is by no means inevitable. In so-called "traditional" societies, it is virtually unknown. Those Americans who fall prey to it are paying the price for living in a society that values the attainment of money, possessions, and status over the cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and healthy independence of thought and action; for living in a society that exalts (not to say, worships) youth and, basically, despises age; for living in a society that encourages quick and easy (and all-too-ephemeral) satisfactions and largely ignores (or dismisses as irrelevant) the needs of the "inner" person–what some folks would call the "spiritual" strivings. "Mid-life crisis"? Isn't it really a symptom of a larger "cultural crisis"?
A professional man of my acquaintance has had along string of quite disastrous, rapid-cycle relationships with women. His choices are wildly and invariably inappropriate. He announces each new woman in his life with the observation that "she's REALLY beautiful!" Unfortunately, physical charm is the sole basis on which he decides to woo and win a woman. While this fellow does indeed gain pleasure from contemplation of a pretty face, he is also of the conviction that his social status is enhanced in direct proportion to the pulchritude of the woman on his arm. When I happened to suggest that, in searching for a mate, he give less attention to outright beauty of form and face and focus instead on traits of character, he gave me the most quizzical of looks, as if I were speaking a foreign language or simply out of my mind. I am reminded of H. L. Mencken's view of the matter, set down some 90 years ago and still true: "Of infinitely more value than personal beauty is the quality of simple amiability. The most steadily charming of all human beings, male or female, is the one who is tolerant, unprovocative, good-humored, kind. A man wants a show only intermittently, but he wants peace and comfort every day. And to get them, if he is sagacious, he is quite willing to sacrifice the scenery." Amen.
"No man is an island." So opined John Donne nearly 400 years ago. To be sure, each of us needs significant human contacts, to be embedded in some kind of meaningful social context. Again and again, though, I have encountered individuals who define themselves almost exclusively in terms of other people. They are uncomfortable when alone–bored (how frequently do we hear that term these days) and utterly at loose ends. They try to quell feelings of discomfort (or outright desperation) by drinking, using drugs, gambling, shopping compulsively. And also, of course, by absorption in some electronic device. Some get a terrific ego boost from receiving "likes" for various online postings, as if praise or positive feedback so promiscuously distributed for such largely inconsequential stuff actually matters. Chronic feelings of boredom, a sense of desperation when not with others, obsession with social media–recognize these for what they are: symptoms of a self in trouble.