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Albert Einstein was puzzled by the mystery of his own fame.  He was forever pondering with friends and associates why he – a physicist whose work was a mystery to most non-scientists – should have become the recipient of full-blown Hollywood-style celebrity.  For whatever reason, Einstein chose not to discuss this issue with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, either when they met in person in 1927, or in their later correspondence.  As one of Einstein’s biographers, Denis Brian, put it:

Einstein…missed the chance for a Freudian explanation of why hordes of people incapable of understanding his ideas threated the quiet contemplation he craved to pursue his work by chasing after him.  Are they crazy or am I?  he wondered.

I suspect Einstein never asked Freud why people hounded him as a celebrity because it seemed a silly and self-indulgent question.  Most of Freud and Einstein’s correspondence concerned serious politics – the Nazi threat, Zionism and the like.  It was also a pretty obvious question.  People flocked to Einstein for the same reason they flock to any celebrity – because they want to be that celebrity. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be Einstein – by popular acclaim, the smartest person in the world – and have everyone associate your name with the very definition of genius?

Einstein might have been loathe to admit it, but he was rich and famous – and we all want to be rich and famous.  In fact, if you were asked what you wanted to be right now, more than anything else – and you didn’t stop to reflect – you might just answer “rich and famous.”

Why?  Because that’s what most people assume they want, until they stop and think, and maybe come up with an answer that’s a little more meaningful.

Even if they do stop and think about it, they still might want wealth and fame, without realizing it – like Einstein.

No one was more consciously self-effacing or less interested in money than Albert Einstein.  He was constantly reminding people that he was only one of many talented physicists, including many great predecessors who laid the groundwork for his theories.  He was also fiercely determined to live unostentatiously – giving much of his money away and using a good deal of it to help others, including fellow Jews who needed to be sponsored financially in order to escape Nazi persecution.

Deep down, though, Einstein sensed something was going on with his relationship to fame and fortune.  As Brian puts it:

Einstein half-seriously speculated that he himself was to blame;  that elements in his makeup of the charlatan, the hypnotist, or even the clown inadvertently attracted attention….He suspected that he might unconsciously be inviting the hunt…

Well, of course he was inviting the hunt.  That’s because, while Einstein’s adult self disdained wealth and fame, his child, given the chance, drank it up.

Your child craves it, too.

To understand why, let’s take a look at what “rich and famous” really means.

Rich means loved.  Famous means paid attention to.  The same things you have craved since the day you were born.

Money, in psychotherapy terms, is a surrogate for security in love.  A patient once told me if he won the lottery he would build a brick house that needed no maintenance and would stand for five hundred years, then he’d create a fund to guarantee that the taxes and every other possible expense would be paid for in perpetuity.  He’d have a place, a safe place, forever, that no one could ever take away.  He could finally feel safe and breathe free.

Of course, that’s a dream.  First, because you’re going to die, eventually, even if you’re hiding inside a brick house.  And second, because sitting alone in a house isn’t a satisfying way to spend your life.  Feeling secure boils down to more than money or a big house – it’s about feeling safe in someone’s affection, and it starts with learning to love yourself.

As a child, you can gauge your parents’ investment in you – their love – by whether they are paying attention.  You learn to do everything you can to keep their eyes on you as much as possible – like a kid at the playground, calling to his mother, making sure she watches each and every trick he performs on the jungle gym.  Attention is like food for a young child.

There’s evolutionary history behind our desire to be rich and famous.  It traces back to the fact that humans, with their gigantic brains, take a long time to reach maturity. An orangutan reaches adolescence at about age four.  He’s in contact with his mother’s skin almost without break for much of that time, then soon becomes independent.  A human doesn’t reach adolescence until thirteen.  He requires more than a decade of childcare – too many years to rely solely on the care of parents.  The human child senses instinctively that his life might depend upon summoning care and attention from others.

No wonder you work hard to become rich and famous.

The problem with chasing wealth and fame is that it’s a child’s mission, not an adult’s.  At some point you must step out of childhood – that long, helpless period of your life – and move onto the independence of maturity.  Instead of needing reassurance that you are loved, you can achieve independence by learning to love yourself.  That big step into adulthood is an affirmation that you deserve love, and deserve to receive it from those you call friends or partners.

You needn’t crave attention as an adult, either.  It feels nice, now and then, to receive praise for your work.  But if you have your own attention – you’ve done the job of living consciously as your best self and winning your own respect – you no longer have to cry for mommy to watch you perform on the jungle gym.  You can learn to feel safe and secure in your own abilities and achievements.

Security within yourself is worth more than being rich and famous.  The ultimate goal is security in the knowledge that you have friends who deserve you and care about you, meaningful work that you enjoy and a partner who is a true friend and ally.

That beats wealth and fame any day.

It’s interesting that one of the most famous photos of Albert Einstein features him sticking his tongue out.  You’ve probably seen it a million times on postcards or posters on dorm room walls.  It seems to speak volumes about Einstein’s naturalness and lack of pretension – his being in touch with his child. Perhaps that’s true.  It was photos like that – and his crazy hairdo – that helped make Einstein an icon of approachable, lovable brilliance.

On the other hand, that photo, which was taken in December 1948, captures Einstein shortly after he was operated on at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for a large and potentially life-threatening aneurysm of the abdominal aorta.  Brian describes the circumstances of the photo:

After overhearing a doctor say that the hospital was short of private rooms, Einstein insisted he was “getting much better” and asked to be moved to the ward.  That way, his room could go to someone who needed it more.  He was talked out of it when told he would be more trouble in the ward.  Helen Dukas [his private secretary] came to collect him a few days later, and they left by the back entrance through a gauntlet of reporters, newsreel cameramen, and almost the entire hospital staff, who were there to wish him well.  On the way home, pestered by photographers, he was snapped by one of them, sticking his tongue out at him.

The original, un-cropped version of the photo gives a slightly different impression from the familiar cropped version.  The original includes the people around Einstein, who are trying to hurry a sick man home through a crowd of reporters.  Perhaps, when he stuck out his tongue, Einstein the adult was simply annoyed and exasperated at a mob harassing an aging, unwell physicist whose work none of them could even understand.

On the other hand, maybe Einstein’s child was having a bit of fun and enjoying the attention.

Probably both were true.  Einstein might not have been certain himself of exactly how he was feeling at that moment, or why. But however much he unconsciously basked in the glow of wealth and fame – or fled from it – the father of relativity devoted the majority of his later life to ignoring his wealth and avoiding attention while working hard to achieve nuclear disarmament and world peace.  Being rich and famous wasn’t enough.  Einstein the adult needed a more meaningful dream.

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My patient was upset.  Another girl had dumped him when everything seemed to be going well.

“What is it about me?  They always disappear like that.  I try to be a nice person, but something I’m doing chases them away.”

This patient was making a fundamental scientific error – he was imposing a narrative onto his data.

If Albert Einstein had done that, he never would have come up with E= mc squared.

When Einstein began pondering what would become his Special Theory of Relativity, physics was grounded in basic assumptions from everyday existence.  Scientists looked at the world around them and tried to translate what they saw into mathematics.  For people like Galileo and Newton, that led to breakthroughs.  They saw something drop – and discovered gravity.  They saw something speed up and hit something else – and discovered acceleration and force.

Einstein’s breakthrough was different.  To come to it, he had to stop imposing the narrative of the quotidian, human world onto the behavior of tiny particles and waves of energy.

On Earth, as a human, you can always go faster.  Just press the pedal and accelerate.  Or jump in an airplane.  Speed is a variable.

Einstein’s breakthrough with Special Relativity was to stop imposing that narrative onto physics.  The speed of light, he theorized, might be a constant.  That would mean you couldn’t go any faster than the speed of light.  It’s simply as fast as you can move.

That makes sense, if you think about it, because if you’re moving at the speed of light, you are going so fast that you can no longer exist as matter – you become pure energy – in other words, light.  That’s why it’s called ‘the speed of light.’

And that’s what E=mc squared means.  Matter at the speed of light becomes pure energy.  (Apologies to my  physicist older brother, Dr. David D. Meyerhofer, if this isn’t exactly, precisely absolutely correct – but I think he’ll agree it’s pretty close.)

If you make speed a constant in a physics equation, then measurements we think of as constants in everyday life – like how big something is, or how fast time goes by – suddenly become variables.  Everything gets very strange, new and interesting.  Here on Earth, living at a human scale, we have always expected a foot to measure a foot and a minute to last a minute, but a speeding photon doesn’t care how big it is, or how fast time is moving.  Fundamental assumptions about our world cannot be imposed upon the reality experienced by a wave or a particle.  It would give you the wrong answer.

Enough physics.  Back to my patient.

He assumed every girl he met liked him at first, then rejected him after perceiving some fatal flaw.

This reality could be traced back to his early years.

This man was a “change of life” baby, born when his parents were older and his siblings already in their late teens.  Initially, the entire family doted upon the new baby.

But as my patient grew up, he challenged his parents’ view of the world.  His older siblings had been born in Africa, and shared with their parents a fundamentally African, immigrant viewpoint.  They put schoolwork above all other priorities, married traditional African spouses and – like their parents – pursued medicine as a career.

My client, on the other hand, had an artistic bent, and grew up like an American teenager.  He loved pop music, spent most of his time making pottery, displayed no talent for medicine – and still hadn’t decided what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Sensing that something was wrong, his parents expressed disapproval by withdrawing attention.  They weren’t sure what to make of this final child, so they frowned and walked away, leaving him with a lingering sense of rejection and failure.

Now, with the girls he was dating, he imposed that same familiar narrative.  Each woman was cast in the role of his parents – initially adoring him, then spotting some flaw, some change in him they couldn’t handle, and turning away without an explanation.

I suggested to my patient that he think more like Einstein.  Maybe he was a constant in this equation – not a variable.

Maybe he was a perfectly nice guy – kind, considerate and perhaps a bit shy, but thoughtful and respectful with everyone he dated.

Maybe the girls he was dating were the variables.  Maybe each one of them had her own issues – and her own reasons for rejecting him, which had nothing to do with him, or with the other women.

I asked a few key questions:

“That first woman – wasn’t she the one who had just broken up a long-term relationship and talked about her ex ad nauseam?”

He admitted that might be the case.

“And the other one.  Wasn’t she fighting a cocaine addiction?”

He nodded.

“And then there was the one you never really seemed to like, at least until she disappeared.  Isn’t it possible she was picking up on your hesitancy, and walking away to spare herself the grief of being rejected?”

He had to admit that might be true as well.

I made my closing argument:  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep looking for a woman who is actually right for you, instead of wasting time getting upset and blaming yourself each time it doesn’t work out with someone?”

From the way he looked at me, I knew I’d made my point.

Instead of imposing the narrative of his parents’ rejection on every single relationship in his life, he was beginning to grasp that alternative – and more convincing – narratives might exist.

Maybe the speed of light is as fast as you can go.  Maybe a ruler can stretch or shrink and time can run faster and slower, depending on how fast you’re moving.

Maybe each and every rejection isn’t about your issues – it’s about other people, and what might be going on in their heads.

Try thinking like Einstein – outside the box, where everything might not be a reflection of you, or the world you grew up in.

It will give you a more interesting – and more accurate – picture of the world.

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