Archive for January 17th, 2010

One of my patients came to me last week looking like he’d just been through a war.

He plopped down in a chair and began to weep.

It didn’t take me long to realize he’d been “dumped.”  At least, that’s how he characterized it.

But I don’t believe getting “dumped” exists.  Here’s why:

First, the obvious reason – you don’t want to go out with anyone who doesn’t want to go out with you.  It doesn’t make any sense, and even if you could go out with someone who doesn’t want to go out with you, it wouldn’t be fair to the other person to to you – you both deserve better.

Second, a partnership is a system of two.  Nothing is unilateral in a partnership.  If your partner “dumped” you, and you’re surprised, that means you’ve been ignoring signals and your partner has been colluding with you in not bringing you his honest feelings.  You’ve been in a conspiracy together to avoid something you both have to face – the organic reality of what you have, where your relationship really is.

Why do people do this?  Because they are acting like children – regressing, under stress, into the child they still are inside and relating to their partner the way a child relates to a parent instead of as an equal, another adult.

A partnership must have balance – the balance that comes from two whole people – not two half-people – coming together to share a walk down the path of life.  You share a common goal – that shining city far away down the path – and you choose to walk there together, and to enjoy one another’s company along the way.

To exist in a successful partnership, you must first learn to love yourself.  A child cannot love himself because he doesn’t know himself – he looks to his parent to tell him who he is, that he is good, that he is worthy of love.  If a child is rejected, he feels he has failed in his evolutionary mission to survive by pleasing his parent, and so he places the fault within himself and concludes he must be bad, unloveable.  But an adult is different – he is self-sufficient, and he can be his own parent – tell himself he is worthy of love.

We all wear a price tag around our neck – and we assign the price.  That price tag shouldn’t say “best offer accepted” – it should say “one millions dollars.”  Otherwise you will be giving yourself away for too low a price to someone who doesn’t deserve you.

That’s why you need to love yourself in order to parent yourself.  And you need to parent yourself in order to separate from the child and become an adult.

You must be an adult in order to join forces with another adult and share experience together, as equal partners.

An equal partner in a balanced relationship cannot “dump” another equal partner.  That would violate the laws of physics.

So no – my patient wasn’t “dumped.”  No one ever gets dumped.  You just find out you have some work to do on yourself before you enter another relationship.

Most of that work is learning to love the child you once were – and still are.

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The clip at the bottom of this post is a performance of an excerpt from the Art of the Fugue, by Johann Sebastian Bach.

There are a few reasons why this music opens emotional floodgates.

This piece was written under astonishing circumstances that speak to the essence of what it means to work and to be human.

Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue at the very end of his life as the culmination of his greatest achievement, which was perfecting the art of contrapuntal music.  A fugue (the word means “flight”) is a musical work in which parts are assigned to different “voices” which weave in and out of the piece in “counterpoint” to one another.

The Art of the Fugue is the longest and most complex collection of fugues every attempted, written by the greatest genius of contrapuntal music who ever lived.

Bach didn’t write this work because anyone asked him to, or because there was any particular demand for fugues or counterpoint at the time.  In fact, fugues were out of fashion.

The Art of the Fugue was written because Bach loved his work, and sought to create an expression of his best self – the most authentic self, the person he could be when fully conscious and expressing what was best in him.

How do I know that?

Consider the fact that this fugue, like several in the Art of the Fugue, is based on a four-note theme that spells out Bach’s name:   B♭–A–C–B♮ (‘H’ in German letter notation.)  Yes – he literally wrote himself into it.

Another point to consider:  If you’ve listened to the clip below, you’ll notice this final fugue of a long, involved series is not only astonishingly complex – the highest mastery achieved in the art of counterpoint – it is also unfinished.

That’s because Bach died while he was writing it.

Bach’s son, the composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, scribbled a note in the original autograph of this final fugue:

“Über dieser Fuge, wo der Nahme B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.”

(“At the point where the composer introduces the name BACH (which in English notation is B♭-A-C-B♮) in the countersubject to this fugue, the composer died.”)

Yes – Johann Sebastian Bach turned his name into music, then he put down his pen and died.

This is that music.

There is some controversy over this story.  It is possible that Bach lived on a few more days, and worked a bit more, dictating or correcting fragments of other pieces.  Musicologists and historians have debated these matters.  But there can be no doubt of Bach’s intention. He wanted to die working, and to leave this intricate, haunting series of notes as his last will and testament.  This is Bach’s soul, translated into music – a fugue, the musical creation he mastered above all others.

The music itself?  It moves the way a mind moves when deep in purest thought.

To create, to DO SOMETHING, is to assign meaning to our time on this Earth.  We are human – we chase dreams.  Dreams of creation.  That is our work.  That is what our work represents.

If you are not fulfilled by the work you do – if you are feeling lost, unsatisfied, uninspired – listen to Bach, and dream.

Find your inner voice, and express it through creation.  That is your best self making itself heard.

In the meantime – here is a fragment of beauty:  the work of a genius, left to ponder for the ages:

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Dr. King would have turned 81 this week – an excellent opportunity to discuss ageism, an insidious form of  discrimination.

The starting point in any discussion of discrimination is why difference is an issue at all.

Some of your discomfort with difference derives from sheer inexperience.  It has been proven that a witness in a courtroom will more  accurately identify a defendant of his own ethnic background.  Most of us are used to seeing faces that look like our own.  Faces that are different tend to blur into sameness.

Another basis for discrimination is what psychotherapists call “transference.”   That’s when you transfer an expectation based on an earlier encounter into a prediction about future encounters.  If you are used to seeing Asian men deliver restaurant food and spot an Asian man carrying a bag from a Chinese restaurant, you might assume he’s delivering it.  That happened to one of my patients last week when he showed up at a friend’s place with take-out.  The doorman called up a delivery.  My patient was a guest, not a delivery man – and he felt insulted.

Transferences can crop up anywhere.  If you grew up in a world where African-American people, or Jews, or Muslims, or any other group, were supposed to be dangerous, violent, money-grubbing, untrustworthy or whatever, you might carry an unconscious assumption from that early programming.

Some of the worst discrimination arises from what you fear in yourself.  Think of the “straight-appearing” gay man who disdains the effeminate gay man.  Or the “bourgeois” African-American who looks down on the “ghetto” African-American.

Seniors face all three sources of discrimination.  They are unfamiliar, since our society tends to shunt them aside, separating them from the mainstream of younger people.  There is also transference – the images of older people in the popular media are often misguided and condescending, leading you to make assumptions about older people you meet in the real world.  And finally, you fear old people because you fear growing old yourself.

A few years ago I introduced a new member to one of my psychotherapy groups.  She was 77 years old.  No one else was over 50. The new member’s arrival triggered discomfort, especially in the youngest members, who expressed it by becoming flustered and telling her over and over again how terrific it was to have her join us.  Their response felt out of place and condescending – like it was all about her age.  Instead of the bright, prickly, opinionated, vain, complicated person in front of them, they seemed to be seeing a small child.

Over time, the group confronted this issue and explored unconscious feelings.

But their initial – and bizarre – reaction was all too familiar to the 77 year-old.

She shared powerful examples with us of ageism in her daily life:

  • If she went to a restaurant with younger girlfriends, a waitress always seemed to ask “oh, is this your mother?”
  • If she went out to shop for clothes with younger friends, the clerk told the younger people they looked great in their outfits, then, if she even noticed her, added, “even you look great!”
  • When she went to President Obama’s inauguration, a man chased her down and insisted on asking her age, then exclaimed “You’re terrific!” for no apparent reason.  This was typical – people are always telling her they “love” her  for no apparent reason.

Enough.  Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man we’re honoring on his birthday.  I hope, if he were still with us, he would be treated at the age of 81 as the man he truly was – not some crazy stereotype about older people based on ignorance, misguided assumptions, and fears of death and dying.

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Sometimes a patient will stop during a session, mid-sentence, look abashed, and say:

I must sound ridiculous.  Here I am, prattling on about my problems.  And there are so many people who have it so much worse than I do.

Gerald Lucas, a psychotherapist I studied with years ago, had a useful response he employed at those moments:

It’s true, some people do have it worse, but then some people have it better, too.  So, please, keep talking.

The fact is we live in two different worlds at once:  the first, in which our petty cares are the center of everything, and a second universe in which we realize our place as a tiny piece of a larger whole, unimaginably fortunate to have a roof above our heads, enough to eat and clean water to drink.

We’re used to accepting this split as an element of the human condition:  it is the same existential dilemma we face in striving to achieve our dreams, fully aware that we are headed for the grave.  At some level, our efforts on this Earth are as pointless and egocentric as the tombstones erected over our meager remains once we’re gone.  It all ends in dust – just as it began.

The lesson here, if there is a lesson to be drawn from a tragedy like what’s happened in Haiti, is that life is an all-too-brief opportunity for joy, and it shouldn’t be wasted.  So let’s try to keep a sense of perspective, even when our own challenges threaten to overwhelm us. Perhaps it isn’t asking too much to stop and locate the abundance in our lives, and share a bit with others in need.

A good way to support the Haitian relief effort is via The Clinton Foundation’s website.  President Clinton is the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and has shown a long-standing dedication to addressing poverty and environmental degradation on the island.

Here’s the link:  http://www.clintonfoundation.org/haitiearthquake/

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