Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

Dealing with Fear of Rejection

(About a 22 minute read)

One of the mysteries of my life is that sometime between my 37th and 39th birthdays, I lost my fear of rejection.   It simply disappeared, evaporated, without my having done much of anything to overcome it.

It’s been about twenty years now, and I can only recall a single instance of the fear returning during that time.  That happened six years ago, and though the memory of it is still vivid for me, the fear lasted only a few hours.  I was visiting someone from my childhood, an older man that I had looked up to, and whose rejection I was always afraid of incurring.  It was more of a flashback to old fears, than the emergence of new ones.

Now, it seems to me possible that I’ve had other episodes of the fear during the past twenty years, episodes I no longer remember.  But if so, it does not seem likely they are many.  Instead, my memories are of doing with ease things that would have once made me feel awkward or embarrassed — or that I would have once never risked doing at all for fear of rejection.  To be clear, I can’t say rejection has never concerned me in all that time, but I think I can safely say that any concerns I’ve felt have very seldom risen to the level of fear.

Which is a good thing because the fear can be debilitating.  It can significantly influence your daily life, causing you to behave in ways you might not otherwise behave.  Among other things, the fear of rejection can impact your partnership and marriage prospects, your friendships, your other personal relationships, your career, and the quality of your life in general.  You can pay for it not only in lost opportunities, but also in anxiety, acute self-consciousness, social awkwardness, and even emotional suffering.  It is even for a few unlucky people, significantly more traumatic than hearing my poetry sung aloud!

The Science of Rejection

So far as I can find out, scientists have been studying rejection for about two decades now, but the focus of most of their studies has been on rejection itself, or the pain and suffering it causes, and not on the fear of rejection per se.  In this post, however, I will do the opposite by focusing more on the fear of rejection than on anything else.  Still, let’s start out with a few things the scientists have discovered.

One fascinating discovery has been that the brain by and large does not distinguish between the pain of rejection and physical pain.  Instead, it uses pretty much the same neural pathways to process both kinds of pain.  In brain terms, a broken heart and a broken arm aren’t all that different.

In fact, this is so much the case, that Tylenol can actually work to lessen the pain of rejection.  In one study, scientists placed a group of people on a daily regime of Tylenol for three weeks.  Then, in the actual fun part of the study, they brought the people into the lab, where they arranged for them to be cruelly rejected.  By placing these lucky people in an fMRI scanner, the scientists discovered that the folks taking Tylenol suffered significantly less pain from being rejected than the folks taking sugar pills.  Again, the brain treats a broken heart and broken arm much the same.

One difference, however, has to do with memory.  That is, we can relive and re-experience the pain from rejection much more vividly than we typically re-experience the pain from physical injuries:

Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too).  [Source]

So why is emotional pain in the case of rejection so closely linked to physical pain and — at least in our memories — even more vivid than physical pain?

The short answer is, because we’re social animals.  The slightly longer answer is that for millions of years during our evolution, we and our ancestors lived in circumstances in which getting kicked out of our community meant nearly certain death.  Humans generally don’t survive all that well outside of groups, except in the fictional imaginings of some authors, adolescents, and ideologues.  Consequently, those individuals who became our ancestors — that is, lived long enough to have offspring — were the folks who suffered the most from rejection, thus making them the same folks who took the most care to avoid being rejected by their groups.

  Obligatory Warning Lable

The science, while fascinating, is still very much emerging, and does not — so far as I can find — thoroughly address the question of how to deal with the fear of rejection, which I think can be at least as consequential in its own ways as the pain of rejection.

Naturally, at this point, I would like to be in a position to tell you that my years of relative freedom from the fear of rejection have provided me the “the seven secret insights” into how you, too, can overcome the fear of rejection, and that those powerful insights can be yours for only $29.95!  But the fact is, I can’t.  The best I can offer you is a mix of science and personal observation virtually guaranteed to mess up your life that might or might not prove useful to you.  In other words, it’s up to you to test these things for yourself.

Three Things That Probably Won’t Work Alone

Going through the online advice on how to deal with the fear, I repeatedly came across three things that I believe — based on both science and personal experience — are unlikely to work.  As I see it, if you try them and they do in fact work for you, then you’ve beaten the odds.   With that said, here they are in no particular order:

• Overcome your fear of rejection through willpower alone!  This is what I tried for a number of years with limited success.  For instance, when I young, I made a point when attending parties to introduce myself to as many women as I could.  However, it took an act of will to make myself do it, because I was actually rather shy back then.  I did find out, though, that I could indeed now and then will myself to do it, and that it did indeed pay off on occasion.  So why do I say “it probably won’t work”?

Overcoming fear through sheer force of will is problematic for a few reasons.  First, it requires a sustained, conscious effort.  You need to keep reminding yourself, pushing yourself “all night long”, as it were, to stick with it.  If you stop pushing, you stop doing it.  Which means that it’s fairly easy to just give up at some point — especially if you are not met with immediate success.

Again, all the while you’re pushing, the fear is still there.  You are at best overcoming your fear, rather than bringing about an end to it.  And that means you are constantly feeling your fear no matter how hard you push yourself to act in despite of it.  That’s fine and dandy if you’re a masochist, but not so good if you prefer to  live without sweaty armpits.

Last, there’s the backsliding. You can be successful on Tuesday, and yet a disaster on Friday.   Again, this is because you have to keep pushing or you stop overcoming.  Put differently, sheer willpower doesn’t appear to have a positive learning curve.   In my experience, merely willing to overcome fear lasts about as long as most New Year’s resolutions before the backsliding sets in.

To be sure, I’m speaking here of willpower alone.  It should be noted, however, that it can be a vital first step when combined with other techniques.

• Overcome your fear through studying the causes of it!  It’s quite tempting — almost instinctual — to search for the causes of your fear in your past.  People who do this tend to discover any number of life events that caused their fear.  Everything from a hyper-critical parent to social rejection suffered in middle school.   But so far as I can see, all such analyses suffer from at least one major problem: They aren’t solutions.

No matter how accurately you identify the personal causes of your fear, the knowledge by itself does little or nothing to resolve the issue.  So something further is needed, but what?  Frankly, I’ve yet to come across in popular advice a “something further” that seems likely to work.  One author, for instance, advised conjuring up your memories of past fears, and then having the “adult you time travel back in your mind to reassure the child you that everything will be alright in the end”.  Somehow, I seriously doubt that will work for large numbers of us.

To be sure, I do not wish to discourage self-examination.  Knowing yourself is key to so many good things in life, but in this case, it’s just not enough unless or until it can be combined with some other technique that will render it effective.

 • Overcome your fear by focusing on the good things that will come from acceptance rather than on the bad things that will come from rejection!  The problem that I see with this nugget of advice is fairly simple.   Just imagine you’re in a poker game.  You’ve got $100 bet, and your feeling mighty anxious you might lose it.   Would the sensible way to overcome your anxiety be to bet another hundred?  Or a thousand?  Or ten thousand?  As you can see, the more you jack up the potential cost of losing, the more anxious you are likely to become.  So why should “focusing on all the good things that will come from acceptance” make you much more than acutely conscious of how much you’ve got to lose if you are indeed rejected?

To sum up, each of these three things seems to me unlikely to work all that well alone.  Yet, in combination with other techniques, I believe they can often enough make a contribution.

Therapies

Encounter therapy is a standard tool of psychotherapists.  Not to be confused with encounter group therapy, which is a very different thing, encounter therapy involves overcoming one’s fears by physically encountering them, over and over again, if necessary.  For instance, a psychotherapist might encourage an especially shy person to walk up and down a busy sidewalk bouncing a basketball in order to draw attention to themselves.  The shy person is thus forced to confront their fears.

Encounter therapy appears to be at least fairly effective, although I doubt it works for everyone.  For instance, back in the day when I was approaching women at parties, it never did get much more than temporarily easier to do so.  That is, it tended to get a bit easier as the night wore on at any given party, but by the time of the next party, I was back to square one.

 It seems to me that encounter therapy is best combined with play.  Put differently, it’s best to make a game out of it.  For instance, instead of bouncing a basketball down the street — which is for merely shy people — decide to directly confront your fear of rejection by setting yourself the goal of getting rejected by a stranger at least once or twice a day.  Setting a goal turns it into a game. Then go out and find a stranger.  Ask him or her to, say, give you a ride across town.  If by some odd chance they accept your offer, then find another stranger.  And keep at it until you get your coveted daily dose of rejection.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  The fact is, it has actually worked for some people, and in my opinion, it most likely would work for most of us.  But it won’t work unless you begin by making yourself do it — and that’s where sheer force of will comes in.  Apparently, it’s best to keep at it for perhaps 100 days, maybe longer, in order to see decisive results.

If it seems rather daunting to bounce out of bed tomorrow morning on a mission from Café Philos to achieve being rejected by strangers twice before midnight, then perhaps you can ease your way into such a noble pursuit by beginning with visualization.

The basic idea here is to face your fears.  That may sound cliché but it’s actually a fairly effective technique.  You begin by, as vividly as possible, imagining a situation in which you are rejected.  Here, your memories can come in handy.   What was the worse rejection you ever experienced?  Drag that sucker up as vividly as you can recall it.  It can help to write it down in alarming detail.  The point is to get make it as real as you can.

Now intensify it!

Yup, you heard right!  Make it worse!  Think of some way it could have been even worse than it was, and then vividly imagine how you would feel if that actually happened to you.

Next, do it again!  Make it worse than the worse you thought it could be.  Rinse and repeat this fun game for an hour or more daily.  Spend at least ten minutes on each stage in the progression.  And remember — writing it all down is better than just thinking about it.

The astonishing fact is that is a science-backed method for putting a significant dent in your fear of rejection.  Your goal should not be to stop with visualizations though.  You should, when you’re ready, progress to actual encounters.

Frequent readers of Café Philos may be forgiven if — up until this very post — they thought I didn’t know anything about how to have fun.  I am quite certain, however, that I have by now laid that myth to rest once and for all.

A Cognitive Landmine

In general, I’m a great fan of the notion that we are more efficiently changed through our actions than through our thoughts.  Put simply, a hundred days of seeking a rejection or two a day is, in my opinion, more likely to ameliorate one’s fear of rejection than a hundred days of contemplation.

Yet, I have also noticed that sometimes no amount of experience will do the trick because the experience is being interpreted in a counter-productive way.  So I’m now going to mention one belief in particular that has the potential to undermine one’s efforts to deal effectively with the fear of rejection through action, or for that matter, through any other means.

The idea here is fairly simple: Emotions, very much including fear, are reactions to the world as we see it.  But the world as we see it is by and large informed by our beliefs about it.   “Was she laughing at me or with me?’  The answer I give to that question might say more about my beliefs about her, and about people in general, than it says about her in fact.  With that in mind let’s forget all about this stuff, break open the beer keg, and party till it’s Christmas! turn to a belief that could be the cognitive foundation of one’s fear of rejection.

First, I would suggest you carefully examine yourself to see if in anyway you might harbor the desire that everyone like you.  That can be a bit tricky to do because it requires great self-awareness.  Time and again, I’ve heard people say that they do not desire everyone to like them, only to turn around moments later to say something that directly contradicts that notion.  It seems to be a frequent mistake.

In fact, the desire for everyone to like you — whether you are conscious of it or not — is one way to create the fear of rejection.  That’s because desire and fear are companions.  To desire something is to automatically fear that you won’t get it.  To fear something, you must see it as capable of thwarting a desire, unless your fear arises as an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction to, say, a sudden noise.  Otherwise, fear and desire travel hand-in-hand.  So, if you desire for everyone to like you, you fear rejection from anyone and everyone.

Now, the desire for everyone to like you is based on the unrealistic belief that it is actually possible for everyone to like you.  Think about this carefully.  Even though people routinely say they desire the impossible, they don’t really do that.  At least not in any significant way.

For a desire to get hold of you, you must — at the very least — think that it is remotely possible for it to be realized.  You may tell yourself that you truly want to walk through walls, but you don’t fear that you won’t be able to.  You don’t ache when you see a wall you can’t walk through.  You don’t feel frustrated that the wall is solid.  In fact,  you show few if any signs of genuinely desiring to walk through walls.  Thus, if you come to an honest belief that it is impossible for everyone to like you, you will cease to desire that everyone will like you — and with that cessation, you will no longer fear rejection from everyone.  You might still fear it from some people, but not automatically from everyone.  At least, that’s been my experience.

It is important that this is more than a mere intellectual exercise to you.  Instead, the truth that it is impossible for everyone to like you must be real to you.  As real to you as a memory of an actual experience.  So, if you wish to take this approach to your fear of rejection, you must be willing to study the issue until you can all but see the truth.

Once you have become clearly aware of the various reasons not everyone can like you, you will find, I believe, that you have not only lost your desire for everyone to like you, but also quite often your desire for this or that person in particular to like you.

For instance, one reason not everyone can like you is because there are intractable personality conflicts between people that you or they are powerless to change.  But once you see that, you are very likely to recognize when you have encountered someone with whom you have such a conflict.  And you are no more likely to believe they can like you than you are likely to believe everyone can like you.

The bottom line is that if you harbor on any level a belief that everyone can like you, you need to root out that belief if you are to deal effectively with the fear of rejection. In my experience, if you can do just that much, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.

Gleeful Summary

There is much else that could be said about this subject but lucky for you, a blog post is not a book.  However, I’ll briefly mention some further ideas you might want to consider:

  • Try setting your expectations of being liked low, but not too low.  Put them in neutral, so to speak, rather than in forward or reverse.
  • Avoid end of the word thinking about rejection.  I have too many friends who bump up their fear of rejection by fantasizing that the actual experience will be far worse than such things tend to be.  Yes, it can be painful, but you’ll survive.
  • Check your motives for wanting someone to like or accept you.  Are they honorable.  Unless you are a fairly wicked person (in which case, we should get together for coffee), dishonorable motives will backbite you.  That is, the intention to, say, exploit someone will increase your fear of being rejected by them.
  • For much the same reason, avoid being hyper-critical of people.  If you are, you will tend to take it on faith that any rejection you suffer from them is because of some flaw of your own.  This is absolutely not true the vast majority of the time.  But if you believe it’s true, it will surely increase your fear of rejection.
  • Even if and when someone rejects you for yourself, try to see it as a compatibility issue, rather than a condemnation of yourself.  “She didn’t like your sense of humor”?  That says little or nothing about the quality of your sense of humor, and everything about her own tastes in humor, and how incompatible her tastes are with yours.  If you see it as a condemnation of you, your fear of rejection will blossom like a weed in your heart.
  • There are over seven billion humans on this planet, and perhaps a few million more politicians, too.  That’s a lot people, human and otherwise, and with that many people, there is no real reason you can’t find at least a few — say a million or more — who genuinely like you or even love you as a person.  But how to filter out the ones who do from the ones who don’t? Try looking at rejection as a filter that is actually helping you to do that very thing.  This might not decrease the pain of being rejected all that much (there is science to suggest it won’t), but it can in my experience at least decease the fear of being rejected — if you take it to heart.
  •  Now, if you take none of my advice save for one thing, then take this: Never, ever universalize rejection.  If someone tells you they’re dumping you because you’re “too kind”, never conclude that means everyone, most people, or even a significant fraction of the world’s seven billions will think you are “too kind”.  Never!  Such thinking is totally barking up the wrong tree, hounding down the wrong trail, sniffing the wrong crotch, humping the wrong leg.  Get my drift?  And worse, it will increase your fear of rejection nearly astronomically.

There ain’t no good guy.
There ain’t no bad guy.
There’s just you and me,
And we just disagree.
— Dave Mason, We Just disagree

Nine times out of ten, Mason is right.

I’m turning the conversation over to you now.  This is your BIG opportunity to cheerfully tell me how wrong I am!  Please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and stories in the comments section!

How to Overcome Naked Terror

(About an 11 minute read)

One morning, a few weeks after I’d met Becky, I decided to call her in the hopes of having a lively little phone chat.

“Hi Becky!  It’s Paul!  What a beautiful Saturday!”

“Hi Paul!  I’m good, but I can’t talk right now.  The kids and I are about to leave for Valley View Hot Springs.  Would you like to come along?”

I’d never heard of the hot springs, but I had a policy back then of accepting invitations.  Any kind of invitations, except — perhaps — to bank robbery.  Bank robbery was where I drew the line — usually.  So I told Becky I was in.

“Great, Paul!  But let me first make sure it’s alright with Aaron and Leah.”  Presently, I could hear her asking the kids, but I couldn’t hear their responses.  Then Becky came back on the line.

“They want you to come with us, but on one condition: You have to keep your clothes on.”

“My clothes on?  Why would I take them off?”  I thought the kids were joking.  I was about to say something goofy in response to the them when Becky said, “I forgot to tell you, Valley View is clothing optional.  I’m going nude, but you should bring a swimsuit or shorts.”

I had never in my life been to a clothing optional resort.  I hadn’t even gone skinny dipping in all my 38 years, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as the “type” to enjoy getting nude in public, whatever that “type” was.  So I was secretly glad the kids had given me an excuse to wear something, bless their little candy-begging hearts!

Valley View Hot Springs turned out to be a rural place, twenty-five miles distant from the nearest city, and purposely kept as close to its natural state as any resort could possibly be kept.  It wasn’t at all crowded the day we went, but there were enough people around that I noticed something rather peculiar:  About a third to perhaps a half of the people were speaking in low voices, nearly whispering, as if in a cathedral or some other sacred space.

When I asked Becky why people were whispering, she whispered back that she didn’t know, but that it was common there.  Then she speculated that it might be the natural beauty.  “I think the people whispering might be respecting the spirits that live here.” She added.

I myself didn’t believe in spirits, but I had learned by then that Becky uses such words to describe something real.  Maybe not real spirits, but something that’s nevertheless there, if you can only see it as well as she does.  Once, for example, she told me that a mutual acquaintance of ours was “possessed by a bad spirit today”.  I didn’t know what she meant until I ran into our acquaintance to discover she was in the pissiest mood I’d ever seen her.  So when Becky told me Valley View was inhabited by spirits that people respected, I wondered what it was that people were respecting?

Becky wanted to go soak in the Upper Pool, which was the pool furthest up the mountainside that the resort is located on.  We set out on a dirt trail to it, Becky in the lead, followed by Leah, then Aaron and I.  Aaron was seven that year, and rather short, even for his age.   About half way to our intended destination, we came to an obstacle.  The trail suddenly took a sheer leap upwards of about three feet — too much for Aaron!  After making several attempts to negotiate the slippery earth, he cried out after his mother and sister, “Go on!  The pioneers must go on! Some will fall behind to perish, but the wagon train must go on!  Remember me when you reach the promised land!”

I was quite impressed.  Only seven?  I hoisted him up on the ledge, both of us laughing.

The Upper Pool turned out to be occupied by a fair number of people.  Becky, who hates crowds, turned us back down the trail to a couple lower pools.  She then told the kids to go play in the lowest of them, while she and I would watch them from above.  “Quietly!  I don’t want to hear any noise!” She commanded.  I looked forward to a peaceful afternoon soaking in a naturally warm pool in the midst of nature — and in my shorts.

It was about then Becky said, “You can take your shorts off, if you want.  It doesn’t matter either way to me, but the kids won’t be bothered by it now — they’ve got their own pool.”

My younger brother says of me now and then that I am, “the calmest man under stress he’s ever known.”  He says that about me because he’s only ever seen me caught in quicksand, about to slam into the back of a semi-truck in an auto accident, or in the process of losing my home, wife, and business within the course of a few short months.  He’s never seen me under real stress. Unimaginable stress.  Mind crippling stress!  Had he seen me that day, moments after I took my shorts off, my brother would have taken back every good word he’s ever spoken about me and stress.

Why did I do it?  Honestly, I didn’t anticipate the degree of embarrassment involved.  Becky made it look easy, natural.  So easy and natural that she made it look in comparison hard and unnatural to stay dressed.  I thought, “It’s a little out of my comfort zone, but it looks fun.”   But just three or so minutes later, I was thinking, “OMG! I’m blushing!  I can feel my face on fire!  Jesus!  My arms are red!  I’ve never blushed like this in my life!  My chest is red!  My chest!  Do penises blush?  Oh, I am so going to die if Becky asks me why my penis is red!”

Becky, though, had pulled a book out of her backpack and was now laying in the pool, her head propped up on a bank, and engrossed in reading, totally ignoring me.  Mercifully, I might not have even been there so far as she was concerned.

Becky and I had met perhaps a month or six weeks before, and we were quite rapidly developing a brother/sister friendship.  Neither one of us seemed sexually interested in the other, a fact I found comforting because I was just two years out from my second marriage, which had been to an exceptionally cruel woman.  At the time, I tended to run faster than lightening from any woman who seriously hinted at our becoming sexually intimate.  I wanted no repeats of being pieced through my chest by the intense suffering and loneliness that only comes from making your bed with someone who fundamentally rejects you as a person.  But Becky was as reassuringly asexual towards me as she was free spirited towards life itself.

But for the next couple hours I wasn’t thinking of that, not even thinking about Becky so much as I was self-consciously thinking about myself.  I felt the eyes of everyone who came and went on the nearby trail.  I dreaded that someone — or, worse, some group — would arrive to share our pool.  And I poured over in my churning mind every detail of my body, questioning whether my body met the standards for being “acceptable”.

At some point though, it simply occurred to me that I was being an idiot.  That is, I had the sudden insight that all my present troubles came from my not accepting myself just as I was.

I don’t recall it was easy, but over the next few minutes I somehow managed to shift gears from feverishly judging myself to calmly accepting myself.  About then, I began noticing things, things that had escaped me while I’d been so concerned with me.  The breeze through the pines sounded like a river, insects were chirping, the sunlight dappled the pebbles on the floor of our pool, there were dust devils crossing the fields in the valley below us, and Becky was asleep.  When had she fallen asleep?  I didn’t know.  I only noticed it after I quit thinking so much about myself.

A couple weeks after that first trip, I was invited on another trip to Valley View by Joe (A quite remarkable eighteen year old friend whom I’ve written about here).  Soon after that, the invitations from Joe, or from others in his group, became fairly frequent.  I never asked to go along, but I didn’t need to.  For reasons of their own, that group of 15 to 22 year old men and women had adopted me, and had made it a habit to include me in many of their numerous road trips to Valley View, or to other destinations.  So, I became an old hand at going nude in public.  I learned that speaking in a low voice or even whispering at Valley View was just as common as Becky said it was.  And I also learned more about acceptance from those trips than I’d ever learned before in my life.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a Christian minister, told me that she and her husband had visited a nudist resort.  It was a new experience for both of them, and she said the experience was a bit overwhelming.   “But not overwhelming for why you might think, Paul.  I never expected such acceptance from people.  The nudists at the resort were more accepting of themselves and each other than my congregation is on a Sunday after services.  Paul, it was as if they were practicing Christian love.  Practicing it!”

By the time she told me that I had already formed my own impression that nudists were remarkably accepting of both themselves and others.  I wasn’t quite ready to testify to it before Congress — and I still am not — but acceptance has usually seemed thick in the air at the resorts I’ve been to.   And most of the people I’ve gone with to those resorts have at one time or another mentioned it.  Naturally, I have cooked up an idea or two about it all.

As I see it, going nude in public is comfortable to the degree that you accept yourself as you are.  But so far as I can see, it’s not really possible to completely accept yourself while still being judgmental and non-accepting of others.  You can’t give up one without giving up both.  And if that’s true, then it might explain why nudists tend to be much more accepting of both themselves and others than, say, the typical congregation after a Sunday service.   Moreover, I’ve come to wonder whether it’s those feelings of acceptance and being accepted that make so many people at Valley View think to speak in whispers, as if in a sacred place.  Are those feelings of acceptance the spirits Becky talked about?  My guess is that’s what she was getting at.

But what do you think?  Am I sniffing down the right trail here, barking up the right tree, sticking my nose in the appropriate crotch?  Or should I get out my bong and indulge in more Colorado weed while re-thinking the whole thing?  Please feel free to offer your advice, guidance, opinions, observations, wisdom, and, of course, generous cash rewards!


Hat Tip to Quinn, who blogs at “When Do I Get the Manuel“, and who inspired this post with a post of her own, Stripping Off in Suwa, Japan.  If you are not familiar with Quinn’s writing, you would be doing yourself a favor to click over to her post and become acquainted with some of the best, most engaging writing that I’ve come across on a blog in the past ten years.  I know.  I know.  You’re thinking, “She’s not some decrepit old fart from Colorado telling us boring stories of his flaming embarrassments and shamelessly hounding us with his alarming theories about nudity, so how can she be that good?”  Trust me, she is:  She’s going to spoil you!

Can a Person Who is Alienated from Themselves find Happiness?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

–Oscar Wilde

In Artic Dreams, Barry Lopez somewhere talks about an Inuit word for a wise person.  The word, if I recall, means “someone who through their behavior creates an atmosphere in which wisdom is made tangible.”  When I read Lopez a few years ago, I thought of Paul Mundschenk.  As I recall, I never once heard him claim to possess, say, compassion, good faith in others, or kindness.  Yet, he embodied those virtues, as well as others: He made them visible.

Mundschenk was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, and, as you might imagine, I discovered he was inspiring.  But not inspiring in the sense that I wanted to be like him.  Rather, inspiring in the sense he showed me that certain virtues could be honest and authentic. I was a bit too cynical as a young man to see much value in compassion, good faith, kindness, and so forth.  I thought intelligence mattered an order of magnitude more than those things.  Yet, because of Mundschenk, and a small handful of other adults, I could only deny the value of those virtues; not their authenticity.

I can see in hindsight how I naively assumed at the time that we all grow up to be true to ourselves.  Isn’t that normal for a young man or woman to make that assumption, though?  Aren’t most youth slightly shocked each time they discover that yet another adult is, in some way important to them as a youth, a fake?

Perhaps it’s only when we ourselves become an adult that we eventually accept most of us are less than true to ourselves, for by that time, we so often have discovered what we consider are good reasons not to be true to ourselves.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Rather, his notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any fronts or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform.

Often, when I remember Mundschenk, I remember the way he shrugged.  I remember some folks for their smiles, others for their voices, but Mundschenk for his shrug.  It seemed to hint of Nature’s indifference, but without the coldness.  Which, I guess, makes me wonder: Is there anything unusual about someone who is both notably indifferent to himself and notably true to himself?

I was put in mind of Paul Mundschenk this morning because of a  post I wrote for this blog three years ago.  The post was intended to be humorous, but I titled it, “An Advantage of Being Cold and Heartless?“.   Consequently, the post gets two or three hits each day from people looking for advice on how to make themselves cold and heartless.

I can imagine all sorts of reasons someone might want to make themselves cold and heartless.  Perhaps someone they are on intimate terms with — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a partner — is wounding them.  Or perhaps they are among the social outcasts of their school.  But whatever their reasons, they google search strings like, “How do I make myself cold and heartless?”

Nowadays, I think it is a mistake to try to make yourself tough, cold, heartless, or otherwise insensitive.  But I certainly didn’t think it was a mistake 30 years ago, when I was a young man.

Yet, I see now how my values and priorities in those days were not largely derived from myself, but from others. The weight I placed on intelligence, for instance, was from fear that others might take advantage of me if I was in anyway less intelligent than them.  I valued cleverness more than compassion and kindness because I thought cleverness less vulnerable than compassion and kindness.  And I carried such things to absurd extremes: I can even recall thinking — or rather, vaguely feeling — that rocks were in some sense more valuable than flowers because rocks were less vulnerable than flowers.  The truth never once occurred to me: What we fear owns us.

It seems likely that when someone seeks to make themselves insensitive, they are seeking to protect themselves, rather than seeking to be true to themselves.   If that’s the case, then anyone who tries to make themselves less sensitive than they naturally are runs the risk of alienating themselves from themselves.

Can a person who is significantly alienated from themselves be genuinely happy?  I have no doubt they can experience moments of pleasure or joy, but can they be deeply happy?  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  Perhaps a little bit like asking whether someone who wants a melon will feel just as happy with a pepper instead.

Are We About to Get Screwed Again?

Naomi Klein’s book on disaster capitalism, The Shock Doctrine, contains a number of — and this is being polite — difficult to defend claims.  Yet, I haven’t seen anyone discredit her core claim — and people have been trying.

Her core claim, as I understand it, is that Free Market Capitalists have learned to take advantage of emergencies, disasters,  and calamities in order to impose the social, economic, and political changes they desire:

At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.

Indeed, I agree with those critics of Klein who state that, despite its flaws, The Shock Doctrine is one of the few books that really help us to understand the present, and that Klein may have revealed a master narrative of our time.   One can disagree with some of the things Klein offers as specific examples of disaster capitalism, but it seems no one has been able to refute her thesis that disaster capitalism is being practiced — and practiced routinely — these days.  There are about a half dozen “big ideas” that go very far to explain the political world we live in.  The notion that Free Market Capitalists have been taking advantage of calamities to first destroy the order of things, and then to replace that order with Free Market Capitalism, is almost certainly one of those six big ideas.

When disaster capitalism was in its infancy about thirty or forty years ago, the Free Market Capitalists would wait for a calamity to naturally occur.  Apparently, they don’t always wait for calamities nowadays — instead, they sometimes manufacture them.  And it seems the current budget crisis might be just such an example of a manufactured crisis.

As Yves Smith points out this morning on her blog, Naked Capitalism, this budget crisis stinks all the way to satellite orbit:

Let’s review how we got here. Obama made it clear before he took office (hat tip reader Hugh) that he intended to go after Social Security and Medicare. As we discussed, shortly after he took office, Obama was privately reassuring conservatives that he’d curtail entitlements once the economy was on a better footing. Clearly, he’s been willing to settle for “better” being tantamount to “not in imminent danger of falling off a cliff.” And if you had any doubts, Obama made his intentions abundantly clear (to use that Nixonianism) by creating a Deficit Reduction Commission and staffing it with enemies of Social Security, former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and Senator Alan Simpson.

The second thing to keep in mind is that his deficit ceiling crisis is contrived. The Bush Administration bumped up against it multiple times and never used it as a basis for budgetary theatrics, even though it was also keen to cut Social Security. Obama could have taken action long ago, before the midterm elections, which were seen as putting the Democratic majority in the House at risk, to gain more headroom.

So it seems possible to me that what we have here is another instance of a conscious effort to panic the American people into supporting something that it is against their best interests to support — namely cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

And I think it will probably work.  Just as the Gulf War worked.  Even thirty, forty, or fifty years from now a lot of folks will still be swearing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that we invaded Iraq because that country helped Osama Bin Laden conduct the attacks of 9/11.  I seriously doubt many people are going to question — genuinely question — what has been so carefully fed to them about the existence of a budget crisis.

To easily form an opinion is human nature; to easily change one’s mind is not — which is precisely why the Free Market Capitalists rely on calamities, real or manufactured, to create the fear and panic that are necessary to get most of us to change our minds.

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Recommended Further Reading:  “The Audacity of Dopes“, posted on Slobber and Spittle, by Cujo.

Fearful Little Lives

He was talking about sin, and about how society didn’t want to hear about it anymore.  He said, “‘Hell isn’t fashionable these days”, but he said it like he regretted it.

—  Overheard in a bar

A few days ago, Tom Rees posted on a sweet little study that suggests people who are scared of one thing, tend to be scared of many things.  Teach people to fear hell; they will end up fearing their own shadows.

But if that’s the case, then it might make you wonder about all those times you’ve heard someone complain no one gives a damn about hell anymore.  Basically — if the study is accurate — those folks are complaining the rest of us aren’t living the fearful little lives they think we should be living.

Strange world, maybe.

I figure the odds are excellent that anyone who complains about a lack of hell in your life must be an authoritarian.  What do you think?  Good guess?

The Two Ways of Selling

When I was in sales, I discovered there are — for the most part — only two basic ways that people sell something.

  • Either they sell their product,
  • Or they sell against the other guy’s product.

In theory, it’s simple to sell your product.  You find out what your client wants so much that he’s actually willing  to do something in order to get it, then you explain to him that your product will give him what he wants so much to have, and you ask for the order.

In practice, it often takes a few skills to sell your product.    For one thing, you’ve got to be at least half of a detective to figure out what some people want.  You must know how to actively listen.  You’ve got to know how to communicate clearly and persuasively.  You need to be familiar enough with your product that you can be justifiably confident it will do what you say it will do.   It helps mightily if you really do give a genuine damn that your client gets what he wants — or at least you do on Tuesdays.  And so on.

Fortunately for brand new sales people, as well as other such perverts, there’s a much easier way to sell something.  Just sell against the other guy’s product. For one thing, it requires fewer skills to sell against the other guy’s product.  For another thing, you need not be tops in the few skills it does require.

Instead of finding out what your customer wants and then giving it to him, you simply persuade him he’s somehow getting screwed by his current vendor. Persuading him he’s getting screwed is the easiest way of doing it, but you can also finesse it by playing to other negative emotions as well.  Yet, no matter whether or not you finesse it, the common theme is that you are not really selling your product — instead, you are persuading your client to reject the other guy’s product.

Realistically speaking, there are enough fear based people out there — people who are habitually more scared of doing something wrong than they are desirous of getting what they want in life — to keep you in business forever.  So, it’s by no means an impractical way of selling something.

So far as I recall, selling against the other guy’s product only has one drawback from a purely bottom line perspective:  It’s very difficult to do it and charge a premium price.  You almost always need to position your product as lower priced than your competitor’s product. That can cut into profits.  Or worse, commissions.

I used to know some very competent sales people who simply would not touch selling against the other guy’s product.  For the most part, they had well established relationships with their clients, and most of their sales came from repeat business.  Also, for the most part, they believed in themselves as able to make a difference.  As Chuck, one of the best sales people I ever knew, told me, “I honestly don’t know if our service is that much better than everyone else’s.  But I do know that if you buy from me, you get me as part of the deal, and I work very hard to make that count for something.  When someone has a problem, I get it fixed.  No excuses.”

And then, too, I’ve long suspected some of the sales people I once knew were all but criminally guilty of setting ridiculously high personal expectations for themselves.  Patently absurd stuff like: They will not run over old folks in crosswalks even when it’s necessary to make an appointment on time, they will not set fire to a school even when their client has expressed a craving for roasted marshmallows, they will not bad mouth the competition even on Sundays when they have their client over to watch the big game and she’s a captive audience.

It’s been ages since I was in sales and I no longer know many salespeople.   Nowadays the people that put me most in mind of selling against the other guy’s product are pundits, politicians, and (fundamentalist) preachers.   From what relatively little I’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh, for instance, it seems he devotes most of his energy to tearing down his political competitors.  But then, I think that’s true of many pundits, politicians, and (fundamentalist) preachers these days:  They seem to lack any vision, any “product” of their own that is genuinely something more than a thinly disguised excuse to attack their competitors.

Thank goodness we’re above all that at Café Philos!  Other blogs may be out to get you, but you can rest assured we’re not.  And a new scientific study just out shows that we actually cost you less in time per sentence read than our nearest competitors.  Only here at Café Philos are you and your loved ones guaranteed the safety and peace of mind you deserve — now at a reduced price!