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“If I don’t pass this test, I’m going to lose it.”

My client was a nursing student, who had to pass an important math test before she could receive her degree.  She failed her first attempt, and her second was coming up.  She was getting the jitters.

I pointed out that her approach to this situation – all or nothing – didn’t make sense.  That’s because the likely outcome of this set of circumstances – like most everything in life – lay along the contours of a bell curve.

If you look out into the future, you are confronted with an array of foreseeable outcomes, some good and some bad.

My client, for example, might fail her last two tries at this exam, and be delayed in her attempt to finish her nursing program.  That seems a remote possibility, because in past years only 8% of the class failed all three times, and to date she has scored near the top of her class.  That bad outcome, while possible, exists on a narrow tail of the curve.

Out on the other tail, amid the unlikely positive outcomes, she might discover the school mis-graded her first test, and she already passed.  That would be nice, but it’s a slim possibility.

The big, fat center of the bell curve, where the most likely outcomes reside, predicts she’ll pass during her second or third try.

As things turned out, she passed on the second try – with flying colors.

People tend to ignore the bell curve.  You prefer to see yourself as the hero of your own adventure – the blessed, untouchable protagonist who sails into success.  Or you go too far the other way, towards powerlessness, and go martyr, seeing yourself as the unlucky recipient of a cruel fate, singled out for suffering at the hands of the gods.

Neither is true.  The future is a set of foreseeable outcomes that lie on a bell curve.  You can look into the future right now, from where you stand in the present, and forecast the most likely outcome, and the less likely best and worst outcomes.

If you look at things realistically, there’s no reason to “lose it” if the actual outcome isn’t what you’d wish for.  You merely fell onto a different place on the curve – but you’re still on the bell, and it’s still a foreseeable outcome.

Treating the future as foreseeable can be empowering.  You are not all-powerful, and you are not helpless – you are doing your best in a world where you metaphorically roll the dice each and every day. (more…)

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There is a curious passage in a recent book by Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” in which Sacks discusses whether Sigmund Freud liked music.

There are contemporary accounts of Freud that mention he rarely listened to music, and only permitted himself to be “dragged” to opera on rare occasion – and then only if it was Mozart.  And there is a quote from a not-terribly-reliable memoir by Freud’s nephew, Harry, in which he claimed Freud “despised” music.

Freud wrote about his own response to music in the introduction to “The Moses of Michelangelo”:

I am no connoisseur in art…nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting…[I] spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to.  Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure.  Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.

This is a fascinating observation.  Freud is essentially saying that, because music is such an abstract art form and he cannot analyze the source of music’s effects upon his emotions, he doesn’t trust those effects and so avoids music as an art form.  That might explain why Freud wrote so seldom about music, although he wrote at length about works of fiction or theatre or painting or sculpture.

It is not the last word, however, on whether Freud actually enjoyed music.  His friend, Theodor Reik, wrote that he’d gone out to hear music on at least two occasions with Freud, and that it wasn’t only the mystery of music’s effects on the emotions that troubled Freud, but a fear of actually giving himself over to those mysterious effects. Reik felt that Freud’s resistance to music amounted to:

[a] turning-away…[an] act of will in the interest of self-defense…[and the] more energetic and violent, the more the emotional effects of music appeared undesirable to him.  He became more and more convinced that he had to keep his reason unclouded and his emotions in abeyance.  He developed an increasing reluctance to surrendering to the dark power of music.  Such an avoidance of the emotional effect of melodies can sometimes be seen in people who feel endangered by the intensity of their feelings.

What draws me to this discussion in Sacks’ book is that it reveals the “hidden” Freud, the struggle between the serious, scholarly author of countless books, the “father of psychoanalysis” – and the man who, like everyone else, was filled with secret, overwhelming emotions – perhaps triggered by something as innocent as a beautiful work of music – that he could only struggle to comprehend.

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