Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

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Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

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Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

◊◊◊

I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

◊◊◊

A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

◊◊◊

It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

 ◊◊◊

A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

◊◊◊

It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.

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!

Vacilando: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”

(About a 7 minute read)

In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all.  If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.   — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Traveling can sometimes be a straightforward, grim business of getting from one place to another as efficiently as possible.  The goal looms large then, it becomes the lens through which everything else is seen.

Is the airport crowded?  The goal sees the throngs of people as nothing more than an obstacle to it, certainly not an opportunity for people watching.  The flight is delayed?  The goal is annoyed, irritated, and in no mood to fully enjoy the chance to finish reading a novel.  At the hotel, there’s just enough time to shower, change, and then for one last time prepare for the business meeting.  The goal doesn’t even think of exploring a nearby restaurant.

As a rule, the more efficiently one pursues a goal, the more ruthlessly one turns chance opportunities into distractions, annoyances, obstacles, or into things ignored, completely unseen.  In the end, one whittles down traveling to the point its only reward is attaining the goal.

Vacilando is almost the opposite of straightforward, grimly efficient travel.  It still has a goal, but the goal does not dominate the journey, it is not the lens through which everything along the way is single-mindlessly seen.  Vacilando, so to speak, is travel with a sense of humor.  The chance opportunities are not the obstacles of straightforward traveling, but rather the punch lines of vacilando.

It seems to me that vacilando, as a concept, should not be confined to merely labeling one kind of traveling.  For I believe the concept is more broadly applicable to life itself.  When we vacilando through life, we have some destination in mind, but we are in no efficient rush to reach it.  We are open to chance opportunities, detours, explorations, adventures.  And why shouldn’t we be?

In a discussion of vacilando over on the blog, Singledust, Frank Hubeny remarks:

It seems to me best to be more concerned [in life] about the means rather than the ends which we may not understand and which may turn out differently (both better or worse from some perspective) than we anticipated.  [bracketed material mine]

Indeed, no matter how firmly we believe in our life’s goals,  no matter how fixed an idea we have of them, life all so often plays with our expectations, throws back at us something that is not quite what we had in mind.

I remember a friend of mine, Al, who in his sixties perfectly reconciled himself to ending his life as a single man.  Then at 66 or 67, he had a heart attack.  That landed him in the hospital where a much younger 34 year old nurse took notice of him.  The two ended up moving in together.   And I’ll wager there’s not a person on earth over the age of 15 who doesn’t have dozens of such stories.  Stories of our firm and solid expectations knocked to pieces by life’s apparently endless fascination with messing with us.

To attempt to journey through life as straightforward as a bullet shot at a target is perhaps a species of insanity.  It certainly sets one up for disappointment, which if not entirely inevitable, is surely the odds on favorite bet of the gods.  But worse than any disappointment at not reaching one’s goals, might be the missed opportunities for exploration, discovery, growth, and unexpected fulfillment.

I have read of psychological studies that find people towards the end of their lives value the experiences they’ve had far more than the possessions they owned.  If they have regrets they are usually not for failing to own a bigger house, a faster boat, more jewelry, or finer clothes; their regrets are for missing their kid’s performance in Arsenic and Old Lace, failing to take that trip down the Amazon, so seldom eating as a family, forever putting off the dance lessons, making excuses not to attend the family reunions.

But those are merely regrets for what one knows one missed.  Whole new worlds can be closed off to us when we wear the blinders of too efficiently  pursuing a narrow goal in life.  It is both tragic that today’s economy forces so many of us to almost single-mindlessly live as if enslaved to financial goals.  We work longer and longer hours to meet the obligations of our mortgage, our kid’s higher education, our retirement fund, and so forth, taking fewer and shorter vacations, spending less and less time with our family and friends, ruling out so many life enhancing things that we no longer have the time for.  For far too many of us, the journey through life is becoming an unending business trip.

That’s unlikely to change unless and until enough people rise up to demand a more equitable share of the world’s wealth — for we live in an ironic age:  The world economy is the richest in the history of humanity, and grows leaps and bounds by the minute, yet because those riches are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the average person in most developed countries now struggles harder than his or her parents and grandparents did forty or fifty years ago, when the global economy was a fraction of what it is today.

Is vacilando still possible?  Surely to some extent it is, but I wonder whether it is a realistic option on a large scale.  I spent five and half years at university, taking courses not only in my major and two minors, but in nearly every major field of science with a little English literature thrown in for the fun of it.   Yet, tuition was low back then and I graduated virtually debt free, and with an education that has endlessly enriched the quality of my life.  Today’s graduates, however, must “rush” through university in four years, least they rack up too big of a bill, and yet, they still graduate with an average student debt of $37,172 .  Vacilando on a large scale might be all but dead.

Dead or not, it still strikes me as a worthy ideal, and it still seems obtainable on smaller scales — How one spends a weekend, or even a single day.  Even, if one has the time, how one approaches an activity, such as a hobby.  Are you planning out what you wish to accomplish as if your hobby were a military campaign, or are you meandering through it, exploring as much as progressing?  On a small scale, vacilando still seems possible.

D. H. Lawrence somewhere in The Virgin and the Gypsy writes that the challenge for youth is to find the “unexpected and undiscovered door” to their future fulfillment in life.  An implication is that that door is different for different people, for it cannot be found once, it’s location marked, and then maps to it distributed to others.   Yet, discovering it, and then passing through it, is essential to living a fulfilling life.  Lawrence’s door, I think, represents the juncture where our talents meet the needs of society, for it is there that we find our bliss in life.  And I believe, based on my experience, that life has a way of leading us to that door when we respond sensitively and inquisitively to the chance opportunities life offers us.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a discussion of vacilando going on over at Gina’s blog, which can be found here.   Or you are more than welcome to comment on it on this blog.  Either way, please let me know what you make of the concept!

Last, J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us that, “Not all who wander are lost”.  That seems to me to capture something of the core spirit of vacilando.  To wander, but with a sense of direction.


Hat Tip to Aayush, who’s explanation for the name of his blog, The Vacilando, got this whole thing started.  Aayush is an admirable 16 year old blogger whose clear, easy-to-read prose could be that of a 32 year old.

Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

(About 7 minutes to read) 

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

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.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.

How to Make Positive Thinking Work for You

(About a 9 minute read)

When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy.  That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me.  I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.

I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics,  improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again.  I’d let my mind wander imagining her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied.  That was the positive thinking part of it.

Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen.  How could I overcome those problems and challenges?  Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics).  Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.

That was and is my version of positive thinking.  It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me.   It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.

Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things.  Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:

While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.

In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.

In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.  I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes.  At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place.  The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri.  I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics.  In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time.  It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.

Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful.  I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique.  But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals.  This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales.  I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees.  One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach.  An excellent coach, as it turned out.

Within about year, I’d turned myself around.  But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined.  The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation.  “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you?  I needs me fishing time!”

I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart.  Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all.  The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things.  You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times.  It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.”  I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.

I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me.  It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context.  The second thing, though, is pertinent.

Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”.  I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me.  Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.

By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal.  You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything.  Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”.  If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.

Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity.  I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities.  In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.

Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession.  That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day.   I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers.  I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment.  An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green.  Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn.  Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!

So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession,  you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it.   But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.

Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it.   I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try.  Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!

I Didn’t Learn the Truth Until I was Twenty-Two

During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only.  To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.

I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil  — that could move her to tears.  When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing.  Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions.  Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.

Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty.  But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance.  That is, I didn’t deny it had happened.  But I denied it was important or meaningful.

That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her.  I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.

Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.

One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four.  My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers.  My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.

Women back then had few job opportunities.  In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries.  Exceedingly few were in management.  Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.

After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in.  Her move was a strategic decision:  She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.

Her decision paid off.

When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom.  That’s how things are so often done in a small town.  Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.

The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.

By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.

Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival.  In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57.  Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less  than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.

One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken.   Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak.  One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know.  His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.

Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family.  I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours.  Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books.  For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.

Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes.  Few toys for Christmas?  That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary.  No family vacations?  Another frivolous thing.  No expensive foods?  Mom has no appetite for them.  And so forth.

Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned.  To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me.  I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.

The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts.  In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line.  But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.

I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members.  One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house.  The next morning, she made breakfast for us.

I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did.  Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.

Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning.  But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life.   What follows is part recollection and part re-creation.  However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.

Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.

“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it.  You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster.   She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up.  She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.”  I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on:  “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”

Someone asked why.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded.  Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice:  “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”

I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church.  Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.

Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves.  Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.

Still, I was confused.  What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this?  In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board.  In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her.  He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.

My older brother broke the silence.  “What did Bachmann do?”

“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied.  “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing.  But mostly he was one of those men.  What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays?  Male something…chauvinists!  I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.

“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse.  He was hot-tempered.  It didn’t take a lot to set him off.  And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained.  Arrogant, too.  But mostly he was a bastard.  A pure bastard.

“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”

“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”

“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job.  It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better.  And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.

“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job.  Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families.  It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started.  With talk.  Did you boys ever know any of this?”

We shook our heads.

“I know.  Your mother never told you.  She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.

“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job.  Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job.  But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board.  The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.

“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman.  Not even once.  Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”

I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief.  My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!”  And I’m pretty sure I  stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.

“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother.   And that was Bachmann’s greed.

“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother.  Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers.  You’d have been in serious trouble.  All four of you.”

After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”

“At least a few times each year!  But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town?  There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them.  Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”

Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today.  She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.”  We responded with our promises.

Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job.  But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones.  Mom was just as rational as she was stoic.  Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.

As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town.  That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.

But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people.  I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic.  Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.

Creativity and the Artist

a-guest-post-by-serafia-alhoNote to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

Serafia Alho is an amazing Finnish author and blogger who I have for some time wished would do a guest post for Café Philos.  Today, she has made my wish come true.  I am excited to post here a piece she’s written exclusively for this blog, and which explores in moving, almost poetic prose both the creative process as experienced by an artist, and the challenge to that creativity posed by the darkening clouds of our times. Please welcome her!

What does it mean to create?

To create is to experience pain: it’s a deep discontent with the world in its current state. To the artist, the only way to relieve that pain is to put everything aside and to focus all their skill and energy on mending it, either succeeding in their task or continuing to try until the magnitude of the task kills them. This is why many artists drink.

To them, every day is another wrestling match against the giant known as imperfection, and they’re constantly troubled by their inability to realize their vision — tormented by the feeling of muteness that comes with seeing something, but being unable to translate it to any other living being. Sometimes what they’re trying to achieve presents itself to them like a mirage in the middle of a desert — possibly attainable, but so intangible that only the foolhardy set out to seek it. Yet they do, because they have no other choice than to do so.

Art is fueled by emotion, and a member of the audience can catch a glimpse of that, however fleetingly, when being faced by an artwork. It is what we look forward to in art, and though the receiver only rarely gets to experience the full force of what the artist had to endure for the work to get completed, we always wait for it and when it happens, we call it Great Art and celebrate it long after the artist is already dead — often consequentially marring it in the process of doing so. True art does not rely on historians or tour guides to explain itself to us: it imposes itself on you, grabs hold of you, and speaks for itself. That ability to bypass our defenses is exactly where some of the struggle of the artist stems from. How can a single human expel all that emotion? What sort of exorcism is required to drive the artist’s passion into a form that fittingly represents the thing itself, in a similar fashion an idol represents the divine manifestation of a being — not becoming the spirit, but being of the spirit, inextricably linked yet completely separate?

Some artists are born with the genius of being able to capture the essence of a thing simply by looking at it. However, most artists are forced to spend years training their hands, their eyes, their mind to bend to the task of shaping the unwilling materials they work with: partly reality itself, partly the human psyche, partly their chosen mediums like clay and paper. One single brush stroke holds within a thousand hours; one book carries a lifetime. The craft allows no cutting corners: there is no deity handing down ready-made artworks, and the effortlessness we associate with inspiration is nothing but a lie, designed to cloak the ugly mundanity of the time the artist spent unskilled, unnoticed, and mocked. We prefer to see the divinity, and take joy in perceiving the artist as something of a mystic: not quite human — and somehow not quite deserving of being one.

We think of art as cheap, perhaps because emotion is a renewable resource, and so are artists. We’ve become so desensitized to the thought of creation as an act of destruction that we think nothing of it when an artist breaks. Neither does the act of creation have any inherent value to us — only a completed artwork has meaning. The artist him- or herself naturally never thinks like this, nor would it be possible for him or her to. They know that most of the emotion, the underlying value of experiencing art, the emotion that elevates great art to true art, is burned up in the very kiln that makes the artist. The audience only ever sees what comes out from the oven, and they have no interest in the shards and pieces making up the bulk of what’s needed to create single artwork.

What then is an artist to do when their source of creative fuel is suddenly overtaken by an even greater emotion, one that chokes or even cripples them with such a force that even creation itself suddenly loses all its meaning? It does happen — it has happened — it’s currently happening all over the world when millions of people have had to face the looming sense of doom that is the US presidential election.

Best-selling authors have had to ask their publishers to move their deadlines. Projects are stalled, professional creators drink themselves to sleep. All their motivations suddenly in ashes, the small insignificancies in life they’ve set out to express suddenly uprooted by the very real, and very visible, wrongs going on right under all our noses. To some, it’s felt like the destruction of the world as they’ve known it.

Art grows best at the edges of life, not in the rocky ugliness of unbending realism, and so it’s no wonder so many creators are grinding to a standstill. The conventional advice given to artists in times of hardship is to integrate it into their creation: to ingest it, stem and all, and to keep creating whatever happens. In that sense, artists are the shamans of the modern day: they take upon themselves the poison that others are unable or unwilling to face, and through doing so they bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and share it with the world.

But it’s a risky business, being a shaman. Although they alone are said to have the skills to travel to the Underworld, not all of them come back from there. It is a terrifying feeling when your work suddenly loses its meaning, especially if that work is only half complete. The feeling of importance is not a voluntary act, and it leaves us artists with only one of two options: to toss out the artwork out completely, or to change, to drink the poison despite knowing some of us are never coming back. Time and again the birth of new art movements have been in parallel with the turning points of history, and maybe this time will later be remembered as the starting point of a yet to be explored form of human expression, one that better reflects the sense of alarming immediacy now coursing through our social media.

Pain will always flow with and from creation. May some day, when time has passed, only the beauty be remembered.