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!

A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

(About a 28 minute read)

Love is Timeless

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

I’ll grant it’s possible I might have factually exaggerated a little when I wrote that love, “travels back before gravity was born and forward beyond the last gods”.   Yet, there is still poetic truth to that statement, for love is indeed an ancient thing.

Love easily predates civilization, which is not much more than 5,500 years old.  And it almost certainly predates our own happy species of spear-chucking super-apes, for in all likelihood, our ancestors felt love too.   Some of the most current science on the subject — the work of Helen Fisher and others — strongly suggests that love is deeply rooted in our DNA.    All three kinds of it.

You see, Fisher has found physiological evidence that we humans experience at least three distinct kinds of love.  Not just one kind, as the English language suggests, but three.

Fisher calls them, “lust”, “attraction”, and “attachment”.  And each one comes with its very own physical “core system” in the brain.  Take that, English language — you drooling moron who only has one proper word for love!

I myself believe there is evidence for more than three.  Fisher, after all, has concerned herself only with the kinds of love directly involved in mating and reproduction.  She is mute on the topic of loves beyond that relatively narrow focus.   Which is fair.  No law obliges anyone of us to look at everything.

One of the games adolescents in particular like to play with each other — when they aren’t actually “playing” with each other — is to ponder what “true love” is.  If you look closely at their ponderings, however, you will usually find that they are comparing and contrasting Fisher’s lust, attraction, and attachment, without really knowing that they are doing it.   “True love should be enduring!” Attachment.  “It should be passionate!”  Attraction.  “It should not be merely sexual!” Lust.

In fact, all three kinds of love are equally true in the sense all three are deeply rooted in our DNA, and all three kinds are ancient.

The Suppression of Romantic Love

Perhaps a bit newer than the three loves, but still very ancient by human standards, is the instinct to pair off into couples.  That instinct, which is the psychological basis for marriage in almost all of its various forms, is just as certain as the loves to be older than civilization, and it might even — like the loves — have arisen prior to our own species.

Now, I think we can confidently suppose that, prior to about 11,000 years ago, the three kinds of love and pair bonding — or marriage, if you wish — often enough went hand in hand.  Then, sometime between that date and the rise of the first civilizations, all hell broke lose.   “Hell”, in this case, being the Agricultural Revolution.

You see, the Agricultural Revolution changed us from wandering hunter/gatherers to sedentary farmers.  And that change brought about a change in marriage customs that split apart the three loves and marriage.  Or, to be quite precise, split apart at least attraction and marriage.

Fischer’s “Attraction” can be thought of as what we commonly call today, “romantic love”.  Especially the early, most intense, stages of it.  And quite unfortunately for romantic love, it was capable of interfering with the new agricultural economy.   Basically, one or the other had to go, and it was romantic love that — in a decision so typical for our noble species of nincompoops — got the boot.

The problem, according to what seems to be the consensus of scientists, was inheritance.  Hunter/gatherers don’t have a lot to pass down to their children.  After all they can’t carry a whole lot with them in their territorial wanderings.  But farmers are another matter.  They have land to pass down.  And that means marriage becomes, not mainly an issue of who loves who, but at least significantly, an issue of who gets the land.

In hunting/gathering groups, the status of women — including their rights and freedoms — is closely associated with how much they contribute (relative to men) to the group’s total food supply.  Women, as providers, mainly gather plants.  Men, as providers, mainly hunt animals.   Those hunting/gathering groups that live in regions where plants are the main source of food are generally more egalitarian than those groups that live in regions (such as the Arctic) where animals, as a source of food, far outweigh plants.

It is generally thought that women might have been the sex that first domesticated plants, but at some point, men took over the actual labor of farming and thus became the main breadwinners of the family. That fun development most likely led to a decline in the rights and freedoms of women, and the rise of patriarchies.

Add to all of that, the eternal desire of men to insure that their women folks don’t cuckold them, and you perhaps get the first stirrings of the notion that women ought to be the property of men.  For what better way to make sure your woman doesn’t cuckold you than to basically turn her into your property?  And once you do that, you must also, to be consistent, make her the property of her father and her sons, as well.

Thus marriage became nearly a master/slave relationship.  Women generally still retained a few rights — such as the right to have children by their husbands (an infertile marriage was often enough one of the very few grounds by which a woman could divorce her husband), the right to compel their husband to support their children, etc — but the man had definitely become the lord of the household, and the woman his mere helpmate.  Adios to soulmates!  Goodbye to equal partners!   So long romantic love! The door is on the right!

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

— Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Of course, everything I’ve written here has been a superficial overview, a big picture look at it all.  There are myriads of details.  I must now ask you to fast forward to around 800 A.D. and the Arab World.

The Rebound of Romantic Love

It is about then, according to Joseph Campbell, that things start to change again.  That is, that romantic love begins to make a comeback.  And the comeback starts with the poets of the Arab World, of all people!  Poets, as every sensible person knows, are a suspicious lot.  While its certainly true that many of them — perhaps even most of them — are decent people who support the status quo with their verse, there are enough scoundrels among the lot that we should always be vigilant when dealing with the species.

For example:  Roughly around 800 A.D., a few quite scandalous Arab and Persian poets decided to reform romantic love — which at the time was widely regarded as a kind of madness.

According to Campbell, those deviates got it into their heads that romantically loving a woman for her individuality, her uniqueness as a person, was far and away more important than using her as — an in some sense interchangeable — means to economic betterment, or as a mere sex object.

Only being poets, they said those things with all sorts of unnecessarily flowering words of poetry and strikingly beautiful prose.   As for myself, I never use flowery or poetic words, even in my poetry, but that’s mainly because I don’t want the CIA to mistake me for an Arab or Persian and then send a few drones my way, if you’ll pardon my realism.

Now, I am no longer certain whether Campbell says the poets advocated actually marrying for love.  It seems more that they merely advocated romantically loving a mistress (as opposed to merely loving her erotically), while keeping a wife for heirs.  But at the time, saying anything at all in favor of romantic love would have been radical.

Of course, the powers that be pushed back on the newfangled idea.  For, if you first allow that “true” love is about loving someone for themselves, then you must soon enough afterwards allow that true love has a moral right to cross social boundaries. Rich can love poor, noble can love commoner, a person of one social class can love someone of another social class; and pretty soon no one keeps to his or her proper place in society.  Even common folks would no longer be primarily their social roles, but would become persons, individuals.  Next thing you know, they’ll demand rights as individuals! rather than merely demand them as members of some group, such as peasants, masons, or carpenters.  There could be no end to the scandal!

It wasn’t long after the worst elements of the Arab and Persian societies had invented romantic love that it got packed into the songs and speeches of the troubadours, who brought it to Christian Europe beginning around 1200 A.D. And the notion soon got the European upper-classes to wondering whether their customary marriages were really all that they could and should be.  For the upper-classes were for the most part the only ones at the time who had the wealth to indulge themselves in the thought of — if not actually marrying for love — then at least keeping a mistress for love (and not merely for sex).

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.  — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Now please allow me to jump forward again.   The time, now, is the mid to late 1800s when the growing middle class in the Western nations is at last becoming wealthy enough that it is no longer strictly necessary to marry almost purely for economic reasons.  Hence, the flowering of the idea that one should marry for love.  And this flowering has continued with us up until the present age, known to scholars as The Age of Excruciating Blogging, when the idea has been expanding not only in depth (e.g. to justify such things as same-sex marriages), but also in reach (i.e. into the non-Western world).

The Specter of Divorce

However, the same economic conditions that make practical the notion of marrying for love also, beginning around 1970 when women start entering the labor force in large numbers, make practical the push for a greater egalitarianism between the sexes.   In a sense, society has ever since then been returning to the egalitarianism of most hunting/gathering groups — speaking strictly in terms of the sexes here (Meanwhile  wealth has increasingly become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands).  But with this return came rising rates of divorce.

If you have (1) the notion that you should marry for love, and (2) the economic means to support yourself without a partner, then you might be very disinclined to stay in a loveless marriage.  Divorce seems to have peaked in the United States in 1980, and to have slowly declined since then, but it is still a significant problem — especially, given how devastating it can be.

The wise American solution, of course, is often enough to try to make it tougher for couples to divorce so that their loveless marriages may endure.  Because we Americans all know that quantity is superior to quality, especially when it comes to marriage, right?

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the total number of bills making divorce harder to obtain have been passed into law by conservatives in recent years, but conservatives are unlikely to give up on such efforts anytime soon because, you know, conservatives.

Liberals, meanwhile, seem to vacillate far too much for an answer either because, you know, liberals.  In fact, both parties seem to be stumped for a solution to the divorce problem.  Which is not at all surprising these days because, of course, politicians.  Even though quite a few scientists from multiple branches of science have now reached a firm consensus that politicians are actually Homo sapiens, members of our own species, I myself still have legitimate doubts about that.  It’s well known there was some scandalous interbreeding with Neanderthals going on a few thousand years ago.  Just sayin’….

Now I should perhaps mention that I am not personally a great and hearty proponent of marriage.  While I think it’s a wonderful thing for some people (in much the same spirit as I think parachuting naked onto an Alaskan glacier in winter to fight grizzlies with a hand-axe is just dandy for some people), I myself find oaths of eternal monogamy stifling on several levels, and I would only be able to tolerate a marriage if it was between me and a free spirited bonobo an open one.

However, I am not yet insane enough to imagine that other people’s monogamy destroys the sanctity of my two divorces and current state of celibacy.  So I’ve tirelessly hunted down for you, dear readers, some fascinating information on how to stay happily married!  You’re welcome!

Here are the five stellar nuggets of reliable marital advice that I found after literally minutes of actual searching on your behalf on the internet!  You’re welcome again!

  • Keep the romance in your relationship alive by buying sexy lingerie.  (American Association of Lingerie Merchants)
  • Get your marriage off to the right start with a timely prenuptial agreement.  (American Paralegal Association)
  • Keep that “Special Sparkle” in your marriage by buying household cleaning products.   (Alliance of Cleaning Agent Manufacturers)
  • Be sure to visit the Friendly Mountain State of Colorado on your honeymoon and anniversaries.  (Colorado State Tourists Bureau)
  • Avoid the proven dangers of vaccinating your children by buying safe herbal remedies instead.  (Dr. Jenny Ann Smams’ Health and Happiness Herbal Web-Store)

As you can see, it’s a simple scientific fact that all it really takes to enjoy a long, happy marriage is a valid credit card!  And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?

Seven Snippets of Science-based Advice

To recap: The Agricultural Revolution, along with other factors, changed marriage from a more or less egalitarian love match into an often loveless patriarchal arrangement.  Then, beginning around 800 AD, some low sorts in the Middle East started pushing back.  Eventually, that led to a rebirth of the notion one should marry for love.  But that raises a question: If love, in one form or another,  is now the basis of marriage,  then how does one nurture and maintain it in order to avoid unhappy, loveless marriages or divorce?

To be clear, I am in no way advocating that people stay in unhappy marriages.  In fact, I think such marriages are better off dissolved.  But “better off” is a relative term here.  In my experience, divorce is devastating, and the only thing worse than it is an unhappy marriage (Whether or not to divorce, however, is a decision best left up to the spouses themselves).  My aim here is not to promote staying in unhappy marriages, but to pass along some sound information about how to head off an unhappy marriage in the first place.

That information does not come from me, however — nor even from the ever trenchant and insightful people at the Colorado State Tourism Bureau — but from a group of scientists largely working at the University of Washington.  The leader of those scientists is John Gottman.   Gottman was one of the founders of the University’s so-called, “Love Lab”, and he and his colleagues’ findings might possibly provide some insights into how couples can build and maintain high-quality, loving relationships.

What I intend to do here is to simply lay out some of Gottman’s research-based insights (with a bit of commentary for clarification provided by me).  He, of course, believes they are quite effective.  I believe they are most likely effective.  But the real judge must be you and your own experience when attempting to apply them.  This is, after all, science, not dogma.  With that said, let’s to the chase!

 • First, if you aren’t doing it already, keep up to date on your partner’s world.  A lot of us don’t seem to do this.  Early on in a relationship, we freely ask a lot of questions.  But so often we fail to actively check later on in the relationship whether anything has changed.  Knowing your partner is essential, according to Gottman, and keeping up with them is a vital part of that.  So, know his or her goals, worries, and hopes; their images of themselves; their relationships to the key people in their lives; and the major events in their history, among many other things.

 • Second,  nurture fondness and admiration.  In various studies, Gottman claims to have been able to predict with an accuracy of between 80% and 94% whether a couple will soon divorce.  Although his rates of prediction are still controversial, it seems that his insight into what factors to look for as dangerous warning sights a couple is on the verge of divorce are somewhat less controversial.  The key factors are: (1) criticism of partners’ personality, (2) contempt (from a position of superiority), (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  Of the four, Gottman believes contempt is the most important.

To counteract at least some of the four factors, make it a habit to remind yourself of your spouse’s genuine virtues — even in the midst of a conflict.

• Next, turn towards each other.  Gottman believes that in marriages, people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. For instance, your partner might say to you, “Come take a look at my newest stick figure drawing of you, dear!  I think it might be my best work to date.  Do you think we can have it framed to hang above the fireplace?”  If you somehow positively acknowledge your quite possibly deranged partner’s bid in circumstances like this, then — according to Gottman — you are laying a foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

On the other hand, if you routinely “turn away” from these bids,  then you are doing the opposite.  That is, you are undermining the foundation for emotional connection, etc.

• Let your partner influence you!  As Gottman puts it:

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagrees, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. It’s just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But our data indicate that the vast majority of wives—even in unstable marriages—already do that. Too often men do not return the favor.

 

• Solve your solvable problems.  Not all problems are solvable, but you should certainly solve those that can be solved.  Gottman proposes how to go about it, too.  To quote:

  • Step 1. Use a softened startup: Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings without blame, and express a positive need (what you want, not what you don’t want). Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up.
  • Step 2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts: De-escalate the tension and pull out of a downward cycle of negativity by asking for a break, sharing what you are feeling, apologizing, or expressing appreciation.
  • Step 3. Soothe yourself and each other: Conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and you are too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying. Take a break to soothe and distract yourself, and learn techniques to soothe your spouse.
  • Step 4. Compromise: Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

Apparently, those steps were not invented by Gottman, although they are recommended by him.  I myself, however, used to use a version of them back in the day to great effect.  The challenge is to turn them into habit so that you stick with them even in the heat of a conflict.

• Overcome gridlock by honoring your partner’s dreams.  Gottman believes that many “perpetual conflicts” have at their root possibly unexpressed dreams, goals, or visions.  These can be simple things, such as what neighborhood to live in, or they can be as huge as what one partner believes is the meaning of life.  In dealing with gridlock then, you should try the tactic of discovering your partner’s dreams for themselves and your marriage, and then honoring them.  You don’t need to make them your own, but you do need to honor them.

• Last, create shared meaning.  Once again, as Gottman puts it:

 Marriage can have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, family values, and cultural legacy that forms a shared inner life. Each couple and each family creates its own microculture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It strikes me that, to the extent they are effective, Gottman’s insights can be applied far beyond marriage.  They can, for instance, be applied to any partnership inside or outside of marriage.  And they can even be applied to “mere” friendships.

In my opinion, his insights look to be of some use, but of course, as I said earlier, the final authority on that is you and your own experiences trying to apply them.

Impressively Profound Summary

For various reasons,  old, patriarchal marriages seem to be on their way out the door not just in the Western world, but increasingly elsewhere, too.  It may yet take another hundred or two hundred years, however, before they are almost entirely a thing of the past.   The success or failure of those marriages was largely measured in terms of such things as the number of children born to them, whether they resulted in anyone’s economic betterment, and, of course, their duration.  Considerations such as whether they were loving marriages didn’t arise until nearly modern times.  But today that consideration has so much come to the forefront that even most proponents of traditional marriages now like to say love is key to a good marriage.

The old patriarchal marriages are being replaced by new, more egalitarian marriages based primarily on love.  Ironically, these allegedly “new” marriages are very likely to have more ancient roots than the allegedly “old” marriages, for they seem to date back to our hunting/gathering past, when societies in general, and not just marriages, were more egalitarian.

The new marriages, however, do raise some problems, for they usually are not shored up by oppressive or coercive societal pressures or laws.  Because they are based on love, they are freely entered into, and perhaps almost as freely exited.  Thus, to keep them together puts a premium value on nurturing and maintaining love in the relationship.  And that, of course, is great news for therapists and marriage counselors!

But where do you think marriage is headed?  Is it true that egalitarian marriages are increasingly shoving aside patriarchal marriages — perhaps even worldwide?  How key is love, really, to a happy marriage?  Are there any remaining reasons or justifications for unhappy couples to stay together these days?  And will civilization survive the Age of Excruciating Blogging?  Please weigh in with your thoughts, feelings, comments, and drunken offers of marriage!


A closely related post:  Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”

Late Night Thoughts: Poetry-Readings, Weltanschauung, Love, Abuse, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

Silence

You’ve spent the day into the night alone
When the moon suddenly rings
Like china dropped on a tablecloth,
Startling you.

◊◊◊

Lori decided to organize a poetry reading.  She persuaded the owner of a downtown restaurant to lend her his back patio.  Then she designed some fliers and printed them up.  Meanwhile she was going about lining up people and their poems.  When the night came, she strung up some tiny colored lights, lit the candles she’d bought for all the table tops, and turned out the patio’s main lights: A good flashlight would do to spotlight the poets.

A fair number of people showed up, but not much went well after that.  Several of the poets had weak voices that didn’t carry to the back tables, or even much beyond the front row.  Some of the others had written abominations.  Lengthy, long poems, for the most part, that lectured you on their author’s feelings, but failed to produce any feelings in you.

The most common problem, however, was that so many of the poets had shown up fully prepared to read their poems.

You can do a lot when sounding a poem.  You can dramatize it, you can chant it, you can swing it, you can sing it, you can cry it out in pain.  You can even sometimes drone it  when that adds to its meaning — but however you perform it, you shouldn’t just read it.  It’s not the newspaper.

Fortunately, the whole night was saved by a single poet.  A young woman rose up and tore something about love and the abuse of intimacy from her chest that she flung across the patio like sheets of windblown rain.  You almost cried for her, a stranger, even as you stood and pounded your hands together.

◊◊◊

Weltanschauung, or “worldview”, is such a grim, heavy, ponderous term that I am fairly convinced Immanuel Kant invented it around 1790 at approximately three o’clock on some cold morning — typically our weakest hour — while sleeplessly suffering from a near fatal case of indigestion brought on by an all-too-heavy Prussian Winter’s meal of greasy sausages and sauerkraut the evening before.

The concept, in my opinion, is pretentious and incorporates only the thinnest shred of psychological insight — the insight that most of us think we have a more or less coherent view of the world.

Do we really have a single coherent worldview, as Kant thought, or do we, as Whitman suggested, “contain [contradictory] multitudes”?

I’ll go with Whitman.

◊◊◊

My first wife was stunning.  To be sure, she couldn’t drop jaws, not quite.  But she could audibly hush a room just by entering it.   And that’s how I first noticed her.

One day, two weeks after classes had started, Jana walked into the dorm cafeteria for the first time.  She’d transferred into our university a couple weeks late from the University of London, and when she entered the cafeteria that day it was the first time anyone had seen her.

Of course, it wasn’t as if the whole, huge room of a few hundred people went silent.  But the noise level did sink so much that day that you could suddenly pick up clear snatches of conversations from all the way across the room.  And heads turned.

When the group I was eating with — males from my dorm floor — had recovered their voices, the speculations naturally began in earnest.  Who was she?  Had anyone seen her before now?  What floor did she live on?  And, most importantly: Was she the first, second, or third most beautiful woman in the dorm?

Why does our noble species of super-sized spear-chucking apes always rank things?  Isn’t it enough to say, “She’s gorgeous”, without having to say, “She’s the most gorgeous”, “The second most gorgeous”?  Why?

I opted for third most gorgeous.

As it turned out, Jana’s new home was on a women’s floor that we’d scheduled a party with for the following month.  I showed up around eight that night, and started making my way through the women folk.  That is, I start circulating with the objective of systematically saying “Hi” to every woman at the party, one after the other, and regardless of whether we’d met before or not, until I’d said “Hi” (or more than “Hi”) to every woman who was not too preoccupied with an alarmingly glowering boyfriend.

Naturally, my aim at that age was to get laid, and I was perceptive enough to know that could often enough be accomplished simply by “working the numbers” in order to find the women who had also come to the party with an aim of getting laid  — a perception that by the end of the second semester would result in my being voted in a meeting my floor’s “Whore of the Year”, a title of unquestionable distinction and honor.

The alleged distinction and honor, in my case, was marred only by the fact that my competition consisted almost entirely of engineering students. Almost to a man, they were good, decent people.  But surely to a man, they were socially awkward.  As socially awkward as they were smart.  And, as just about the lone male on the floor in possession of at least a single social skill, I would have won that title even had I never picked up a single woman all year — just for being willing to talk with women!

Towards midnight, all I could show for my efforts were some platonic conversations with a few women I was genuine friends with. They were generally long conversations because I’d lost focus on my objective (beer will do that), and I doubt now that I made it through all the women at the party.  It was about then, however, that I noticed Jana sitting off by herself.

After our introduction that night, we started dating.   Yet, for all my alleged worldliness, I felt insecure and intimidated by her beauty.   She was, after all, the most gorgeous woman I’d dated up to that time in my life, and I was quite unsure of the extent or depth of her attraction to me.  Add to that, I was nowhere near her class of physical beauty.

Of course, by thinking of her as a class or two above me in beauty, I was comparing myself to her, ranking her and me, and I didn’t have the wit or insight at that time in my life to grasp that my comparison was one of the roots of my insecurities.  For had I not compared myself to her, ranked us, and then taken that ranking seriously, I would not have thought of myself as inferior to her in looks, and felt insecure because of it.

It all came to a head on one of our dates when Jana and I were sitting in a late night deli that was packed because the bars had just let out.  Jana was wearing a cheerful T-shirt with a cartoon frog on it.  Beneath the frog were the words, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming”.

My consciousness kept returning again and again to those words, wondering if they had anything to do with me — which, of course, is routine for consciousness.  That is, it’s always trying to figure out what something has got to do with one’s self.

Finally, my simmering insecurities boiled over, “What’s with the shirt?”

“The shirt? This shirt?  What do you mean, Paul?”

“Umm…I’ve got to know.  Does that shirt have anything to do with me?  Am I one of your frogs?”

Jana burst out laughing.  It was the biggest laugh I’d gotten from her yet.  Fortunately, she wasn’t laughing at me.  She was laughing at the idea I might be a frog to her.  “No”, she said at last, “I wasn’t thinking of that at all when I put it on tonight.  I just grabbed the first thing in my closet.”  After a thoughtful pause, she added, “Besides, I’ve been thinking recently that you might be my Prince.”

◊◊◊

Have you ever had a friend who contacts you only when he or she is down and troubled?  A friend who perhaps never seems to want your advice so much as they want someone to dump their feelings on?  I think most of us have had such a friend at one time or another in our lives.

Here’s another question:  Have you ever read a poem — an excellent poem — about such a friend?  It seems to be a rare topic in poetry, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s such a common experience in life.

Davy D’s recent work, An Hour With Jake, is a masterful treatment of the topic.  The craftsmanship alone is excellent: I couldn’t find a word that I thought needed to be removed, nor a word that I thought needed to be added.   And the words are true, on occasion almost clinical in their accuracy.  But there is nothing brutal, nothing ugly in Davy’s poem. There are even touches of humor.

Davy not only looks at his friend Jake’s behavior, but at his own responses to Jake.  The result is greater richness and depth.  Here’s an excerpt:

scripts roll.

his, a tale of how
his wife,
his dog,
his work colleague,
don’t understand him.

mine, a crafted questionnaire
designed for glibness,
adding to the
self-help deception.

Poets ought to be experimental, in my opinion, willing to take a risk, and never expecting themselves to produce one masterpiece after the next.  That makes it all the more rewarding when one composes an excellent capture, as Davy appears to have done here.  An Hour With Jake.

◊◊◊

In my experience, there are at least four kinds of love.  More, if you subdivide the four.  But one thing they all have in common is that they are affirmations of something.

Sometimes they affirm something as narrow as sex, and sometimes something as broad as life itself.  But each way of loving is a way of affirming, and each way of affirming has the potential to — to one extent or another  — renew us.  I would suggest, if you are weary, seeking some kind of rebirth, great or small, then find something or someone to love.

◊◊◊

Do all forms of abuse have any one thing in common?  I think if they do, it may very well be this:  They are all behaviors that risk unnecessarily alienating us from ourselves.  That is, they tend to derail us from being true to ourselves, from being authentic.

◊◊◊

The most often way I write a poem is to sound it out loud, again and again again, as I go through the process of composing it.  I think a lot of poets must do that.  It has its advantages too.

When you’re stuck, blocked, and can’t think of how to get the creativity going again, it sometimes is sufficient to simply start sounding words and phrases in new voices.  That is, pick a persona — perhaps the way a friend talks — then sound out whatever words come to mind in her tone and rhythm of voice.

I once met a woman who was traveling the country.  For reasons I’ll never know, I imagined she was some kind of hero wandering ancient lands who’d brought tales from afar to my pathetically small village of thatched huts.  She had a way of speaking, that woman, and I tried to capture her voice in a poem.

Who Comes by Far

The horizon from the highest hill is the useless
Edge Of The World when you don’t travel.

You meet people who come by far,
So they must be heroes; so I believe you’re a Rider
Passing to the Sun’s Door…though you tell me,
You once knew so cold a land the clouds froze
And fell from the sky, and the People
Wore heavy skins.

Still, I look at your hands
Warm and dark with the candle,
And can barely imagine
What I’d think their color by Dragon’s Fire,
Leave alone the morning sun.

Then you turn in our shadows as if to say,
You’ve begun your liking of me,
So tonight you’ll stay.

Be Yourself! A Guide From Why to How

(About a 30 minute read)

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:  “Zusya, what’s the matter?”

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché.  They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express.  I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.

It is also easy to ridicule clichés.  I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous.  “Be true to yourself” is no exception.  “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life!  If you’re like me, you have wondered at times:  Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference?  Well, you’re in luck!  Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95!  Simply call…”.   Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.

For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves.  Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”.  Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied.  Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent.  For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.

It runs deeper than that, though.  Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self.  For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self.   “Mommie,  I’m not like that!”

During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies.  The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self.  At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.

Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own.  It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.

During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums.  So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves.  These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying.  Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret of all.  When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.

Why be true to oneself?

But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age?  As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.  That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.

In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others.  And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills.  In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”

Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.

Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people.  I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around.  And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se.  I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.

Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.

What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?

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

As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so.  One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves.  Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are.  I have written extensively on that issue here.  A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.

“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things.  Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things.  Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”.  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves.  If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.  ― Jim Morrison

Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others.  I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person.  Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself.  Then you start changing.  That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front.  In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.

Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge.  Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of.  We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth.  But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth.  If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!

Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest.  There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see.  Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage.  This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable.  (Consequently, I have mentioned them.  You can trust me to do things like that.)   I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.

What is the self?

It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to?   “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”

Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives.  In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person.  In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.  The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it.  It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.

In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion.  You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness.  The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese).  And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self.  As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”.  And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

The self,  simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.

But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves.  Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent  multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.

Is it possible to discern in all that mess a core or true self?

I think so.  What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.

A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth.  Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life.  The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.

Another example might be how consciousness basically works.  Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness.  For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority.  It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently.  On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”

The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie.  What?  I don’t rank a Brad Pitt?  There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works.  Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.

A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt.  Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives.  They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.

To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves.  That only seems to make sense to me.  We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us.  That are not traits of us.

What does it mean to be true to ourselves?

Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart

When I recall the appearance of various people in my life,  I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on.   But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.

It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it.  As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself.  “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!”  Shrug.  His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.

Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room.  We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it.   As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes.  Especially adult fakes.

We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car.  It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves.  Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul 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.  Anything but contrary.

There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic.  But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them.  True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.

Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.

What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity?  For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself,  or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.

The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity.    Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:

  1. Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
  2. Unbiased processing:  Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
  3. Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
  4. Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.

There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic.  The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.

First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.

That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves.  I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves.  A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.

Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable.  For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact.  Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.

If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so.  Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be.  Then review the journal each evening.  You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided.  Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).

Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.

Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships.  This is more important than it might sound at first.  For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship.  Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile.  In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you.  You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.

Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.

  The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse

The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible.  Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity.  I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself.  Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”.  But I have  written more about that here.

Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves.  I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything.  At least not yet.  You are so lucky!

Fancy Summary

Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you.  However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.

That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed:  When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”.  This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love.  And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity.  When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.

In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self,  the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.

Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one.   Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here.  I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.

Thank you for reading!  Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post!  I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!