An invaluable (but it seems not widely recognized, probably because most people read superficially), occasional occurrence in reading is that one comes across observations that jostle the mind (suggest new ways of looking at things) and “surface” (which is to say bring to mind; elicit in one’s consciousness) “new” thoughts and formulations that one was not looking for, that come unexpectedly, that are “ancillary” to the subject or main topic of the book.
From William H. McNeill’s biography of Arnold J. Toynbee:
On her twenty-first birthday Gilbert Murray wrote to [his daughter, Rosalind Murray] as follows: “It is very strange to think of you being a grown up woman, though in a way you have been like a grown up companion to me since you were about eleven.” That, indeed, was why establishing real independence of her father was so hard. Gilbert Murray had shared literary interests with Rosalind which he could not share with his wife; and when she began to show precocious skill he undoubtedly transferred some of his own disappointed literary aspirations to his daughter. (Murray was related both to Rudyard Kipling and to W. S. Gilbert; and he once confessed that as a young man he had been jealous of Kipling’s literary success.) … Gilbert Murray … both wished to see his daughter become independent and hated to have her do so. “We used to be rather specially close and intimate,” he wrote to her in 1912, “and agree in our interests and ideas. Probably I caught you young and over influenced you. And now you are thinking for yourself in all sorts of ways and differing from me, not so much in views as in general feelings. That is all right. Only the process of breaking asunder is a necessarily painful one: it has been so for me and I imagine that it probably has for you. And I know I have sometimes been sarcastic and unkind …. And, dear, I am very sorry and won’t do it any more.” … [Gilbert Murray letter to his daughter Rosalind, June 29, 1912]
“It may be that . . . I am no longer any good to you. … I think about you constantly, I admire your work, and I love you. I think, in trying to readjust our relations from parent and child to friend and friend, we have both made a lot of blunders. It is a difficult job and we were sure to do so. But it would be rather humiliating if you and I had not enough brains and sensitiveness to avoid the most ordinary pitfalls of life.” [Gilbert Murray letter to his daughter Rosalind, December 14, 1912]
Yet, even though the family pattern meant that they were often separated, by far the most important person in Rosalind’s childhood was [her father] Gilbert Murray. When she was only one and half years old, Murray set out ”to teach her to talk by making her give me orders–‘Run’, ‘Stop’, etc.” “It is a great help she is so intelligent,” he informed her grandmother in 1893. He cultivated her (undoubtedly precocious) literary skills, asking her to write him poems when she went away to school and offering delicate, lighthearted criticism of the childish verses she sent back.
— William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 56, 58-59
Probably I caught you young and over influenced you.
Over-influence. Parental over-influence. At an early age (their children’s). During their children’s development years.
Has this been studied and written about by psychologists?
It is certainly worth thinking about.
One usually reads about the dangers of parental neglect, and the benefits (taken as a given) of parental involvement in their children’s lives. To foster and nurture (the latter) growth and wellness and the development of positive attributes. But is it possible that some parents become over involved? That a certain distance should be maintained?
This is tricky. But I thought of my own parents, who seemed to do a good job in this respect. They could at times — often, in fact — be overly critical. But many of my pursuits, interests, and achievements — while fostered by them to an extent (for example, my mother had a lot to do with instilling in me a love of reading) — were carried on by me largely independent of them: my thoughts in private, my activities (such as hanging out with, playing with, and learning from friends) not that closely supervised by them.
This makes me reflect on my own parenting style, possible faults of mine in this respect, and how no one ever seems to think about this.
Try to grow up for once and for all. … [Y]ou, who forever holds grudges even against childhood teachers and coaches, are totally unable to forgive or forget any perceived slights against you.
— email from a close relative, July 18, 2018
This essay is concerned with the need we all feel sometimes to overcome ill effects and resentments from long past experiences.
One example may serve to illustrate what I am thinking about: my lingering resentment and anger towards my high school Phys Ed teacher and baseball coach, Robert C. (Bob) Gibson.
Mr. Gibson was the chairman of the Physical Education Department at Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts. He was a very popular teacher and coach, but I can’t forgive him for the way he treated me when I went out for baseball in my junior year. He didn’t want me on the team and let me know it. It was really unfair.
I think he thought I was a scholar who had no aptitude for baseball, and maybe the fact that I wore thick glasses had something to do with it. But at least one teammate, my classmate Warren Kelson, did wear glasses, and that didn’t seem to bother Mr. Gibson.
He kicked me off the varsity team. I was deeply hurt but was resolved not to show it.
I can never forgive or forget the way he treated me. I never got over it.
My older brother (not the same person as the relative quoted above) has commented on this and similar resentments I have from the past. He feels that I should be able to leave them in the past and move beyond them.
I am of two minds about holding past grudges.
By remembering past slights, I believe, and refusing to forget out about them, by stubbornly holding on to them, one is, in a way, protecting oneself against the possibility of future hurt. I am convinced that my good memory, if I may compliment myself on having one, comes from a strong desire to not forget what has happened to me, both good and bad, so that I can defend myself in the future against further hurt and emotional pain.
On the other hand, there does seem to be validity to what some mental health experts seem to say about trauma, that you need to be able to overcome it and let go, put it in the past.
I have recently read two books: Getting Unstuck: Unraveling the Knot of Depression, Attention, and Trauma by Dr. Don Kerson; and Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann.
Neither book is the sort that I would ordinarily take interest in. But I finished both.
Both authors make good points and also lapse, in parts of their books, into New Age psychobabble. But, some of the stuff they say seems to have validity. They talk about the need to be able to overcome the effects of trauma. Apparently, a lot of people don’t even know that it is something one has to learn to deal with.
Apparently, it’s a left brain-right brain sort of thing. You have to be able to call up the painful memories, get them out of your left brain, which is critical and unforgiving, and from there into your right brain — sort of upload and dump them there — which can deal with them emotionally, and then be able to let go, become whole and healed once again.
Something like that.
These things don’t exactly work for me, and I feel that I never want to let go of my anger at Coach Gibson. But I can see the validity of the point that these writers make: about getting over the ill effects of past mistreatment and saying, that was long ago, it’s time to move on, to move beyond them.
I will probably — undoubtedly? — be accused of overstatement, but consider the cases of child abuse that surface years later. For example, the scandal of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. And similar case of abuse.
For years, I kind of buried any thoughts of Coach Gibson’s treatment of me. The memory was painful. My immediate reaction, such as it was — when it occurred during my adolescence — was embarrassment and feelings of inadequacy.
I never could understand why Mr. Gibson did not want me on the team. It certainly wasn’t because of any misbehavior or non-compliance with protocol or rules on my part. My best guess is that he thought I wasn’t an athlete or was a pointy-headed nerd not suited for the baseball team — I was usually thought of as the bookish, scholarly type. But I had been on sports teams throughout high school. I was not a good baseball player, but I had been on a Little League team and was always playing ball with my friends.
Regardless of such considerations, what he did was a clear injustice and sheer negligence on his part. A teacher, coach, or recreation or youth group leader is supposed to encourage participation in sports and diverse activities by young people. To encourage them to join and participate, and certainly not the opposite — and under no circumstances to denigrate them for incompetence. Not everyone can be a first stringer or starter (I wasn’t expecting that) or the lead in the school play. That goes without saying. I would have been happy to be able to practice with the team and to sit on the bench as an onlooker and vicarious participant in games.
We were encouraged in high school to participate in sports, because it would supposedly make us well rounded (and also, looked good on college applications). It was believed that sports contributed to psychological health and mental acuity. (Mens sana in corpore sano.)
My insensitive relatives can’t see that this supposedly petty grudge of mine arose from what was patently abusive behavior towards me by an authority figure who shouldn’t have been employed to work with adolescents, and that the problem lay with Coach Gibson, not me.
I was thinking today, for no particular reason, about this post, and I feel that I never should forget or forgive my coach’s treatment of me.
To others, the incident may seem negligible. To me, it wasn’t. Some hurts are shrugged off. Others, occurring at a particular time — say, in one’s youth, when one can be particularly vulnerable — can’t be. Persons lacking empathy (such as the relative quoted above) can’t see how a seemingly trivial thing can be a big deal, psychologically speaking.
And, of course, some major abuses or atrocities inflicted upon groups of people should not be forgotten and should be preserved in their collective consciousness.
A distant relative of mine posted a comment about this post on Facebook. His comment and my response are below.
Sometimes the best way to leave resentment behind is to realize that the offender is dead and no one else remembers the incident(s).
Roger’s Smith’s reply:
But, your “offender is dead” point seems beside the point.
Does this mean that all past offenses committed in human history and experienced in one’s personal life get wiped off the slate after — and by virtue of — the fact that the “offender” has died?
Secondly, you make the point that “no one else remembers”? The incident I wrote about would, naturally, be remembered by hardly anyone besides me. Again, this is beside the point. It was a minor incident in the grand scale of things, but I was deeply hurt by it.
I told almost no one, besides confiding it to my older brother years later. (I did so because he and I were talking about the coach, whom we both knew from high school.)
Have not you suffered hurts and indignities in your own life that have festered but which you may have rarely talked with others about, which you perhaps had a hard time dealing with, and which linger?
Those were the words of my late friend Bill Dalzell, spoken some fifty years ago not long after we had become friends. We met in New York City, where I had recently moved.
I remember many conversations I have had during the entire course of my life more or less verbatim. Not every word, of course, but many important, significant remarks I do remember verbatim.
“You are the politest person I ever met,” he said to me.
I recently wrote, in a eulogy for Bill I wrote last year for posting on this blog, that “He [was] …. in many respects totally unconventional. Was a nonconformist. Yet he was one of the kindest, politest, most civil persons you could hope to meet. He was a true gentleman.”
In writing this, I was not (at that moment) thinking of what Bill said about me.
At the risk being called a purveyor of racial stereotypes, I think it is worth considering that Bill and I both came from similar ethnic/cultural backgrounds: English, Scotch. The civility and good manners of English people struck me on a couple of trips to England. Teaching true courtesy was something important to my parents when I was growing up. For example, the importance of saying please and thank you. Not just words, but showing gratitude and appreciation. Not making importunate or arrogant requests or demands.
Or, to give another example, politeness to strangers and people of all ages, older and younger. And, when greeted by someone you passed on the street, always returning the greeting. I still can’t comprehend why in New York some people don’t bother to do this or neglect to do so intentionally. In the New England of my childhood, one would invariably respond with a “Good morning. How are you today?”
I have close relatives who were brought up the same way. They have either forgotten these principles or can’t see them when manifested in others. They certainly don’t appreciate them.
I have news for them. I haven’t changed. They have. They have become mean, churlish, and uncharitable.
They can’t credit me as Bill once did. They say, incredibly, that I am an inconsiderate, self-centered, boorish person. What we seem to have in this case is an example of psychological projection, where people vent their own frustrations and failings by finding fault with others. They enjoy making me into a sort of Donald Trump caricature and, having built up this false picture in their minds — and, in their view, having “validated” it by sharing stories among themselves in which I am always doing something boorish or offensive (they delight in telling one another such “horror stories”) — they feel validated. It’s a perfect example of people trying to elevate themselves by denigrating others, using stereotypes that have no basis in reality.
Beware of the narrow minded, petty people who think and judge like this; who can’t see or appreciate people as individuals; who have no respect or appreciation for a person’s intrinsic qualities, for their true nature; and who instead try to tar and feather them by ascribing to the object of their hatred and scorn behaviors and opinions that they have made up.
It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.
You are often harping about how great your writing is and how unappreciated it is and how jealous people are of your writing. You seem to have some illusions of grandeur and seek to dazzle whatever readers you have with your continued brilliance.
Are you the only judge of your writing? Recently there have been a number of posts in which you highly praise your own writing and intellect. Shouldn’t this be something that other people (your readers generally) evaluate?
Several relatives of mine have been critical of what they feel is my undue desire to be admired for my writing. (See comments above.)
Like many people who themselves do not engage in creative activity, they are quick to find fault with others who do.
I can not help thinking of my father. He lived a life in the arts. He was a musician.
He loved the life of a musician. He was proud of his skills, which he exhibited at an early age and then developed and honed throughout his lifetime. He was well trained and well educated in music. Along with natural gifts, he was completely dedicated to music and highly motivated. A natural interest and innate ability drew him to music, yet he could have, at some point in his life, given it up and chosen a different, perhaps more common or pedestrian occupation, which is what many who showed promise in, say, the arts or athletics in their youth often do. At some point, they give up study or pursuit leading to a professional career.
My father loved being able to earn a living doing what he loved most: playing the piano. It was, in a sense, hard work for him. He worked long hours and odd hours, usually for low pay. He never became wealthy. I would observe intense concentration on his face, as if the rest of the world had been blocked out (which is not to say that he was oblivious to there being an audience), and, although he usually seemed at his happiest at the piano, I would sometimes see him grimace and scold himself if he hit a wrong key.
A key thing to understand about my father — and people like him — was that his identity was piano player, and piano player was his identity. Not solely. He was also a husband, a father, and a family man. If someone asked him who he was, I am certain, he would have said, I am the husband of … (my mother), the father of … (four children), and a pianist. (Or, perhaps, a pianist, a husband, and a father, in that order.)
His ego was coterminous, so to speak, with his music making. Take that away from him, and he wouldn’t have been the Alan Smith we and the admirers of his playing knew and loved.
Being able to perform music for emotional satisfaction — knowing it gave others pleasure — and for profit gave me father a sense of being (to use a clumsy phrase) emotionally validated, of being affirmed.
Yet, he was not a narcissist. He had a quiet confidence in his abilities, a not bashful — but not boastful either — sense of them. Only occasionally did he speak to me, in confidence, of his own assessment of his skills. He quite realistically appraised them, once telling me, for example, about his ability to transpose music on demand and on the spot. And, on another occasion, saying, “You know, I never really mastered the organ. I can get by, but I never fully learned the organ, I never learned all the stops.” (Or words to that effect.)
My father loved to be admired for his playing He loved to give pleasure to listeners. To be told how much they enjoyed his music. He was motivated as a professional by the love of his craft, the love of music, and, also, love of the attention and praise it brought him. By the ego gratification he got.
It’s the same with my writing. I have a quiet confidence, or self-assurance, in my ability as a writer. I feel that I am very good, but I can make realistic appraisals of my own work. I am a perfectionist and am probably my own best critic.
Which leads me to my main point. There is difference in the desire for ego gratification and praise or admiration on the part of creative person and narcissism or self-promotion.
Speaking from a psychological perspective, I would aver that it is normal to desire to receive and enjoy praise and admiration when it has been earned and one knows that one deserves it.
This is not a sign of overweening, all-consuming egoism or vanity.
A soloist or actor performs. They enjoy the applause and plaudits. They have worked for it. They know when they have met their own demanding expectations and deserve credit.
There is nothing psychologically wrong, unhealthy, or abnormal about this. It fact, it would be abnormal to find a person in the arts who did not feel this way. It’s a healthy exercise of one’s selfhood, of exerting oneself, in which one seeks affirmation and validation of one’s industry and talents.
One does not create in a void or a vacuum. Affirmation is crucial. It’s like saying, one can’t love in a vacuum. There must be reciprocity. One seeks someone to love (a love object), and to be loved in return. One loves others reciprocally. Narcissism is something else.
Similarly, “public” acts of creativity are an act of unselfishness, a kind of selflessness, wherein the ego both asserts itself and gives or vouchsafes the productions of one’s self, an individual, to others, expecting to receive appreciation and admiration in return. When affirmation or recognition does not come, one must accept it; it can be frustrating, disappointing, depressing, and worse, the worst case being that of the creative artist who never gets recognition.
But lack of appreciation, or not getting enough or as much as one feels one should, does not mean one should give up. Because creative activity is a fundamentally good thing, like doing other types of productive work, engaging in sports, or being physically active. And wanting others to take pleasure in it is the opposite of selfishness.
I am constantly trying to interest other people in my writing. I often get a response along the lines of how interested they would be reading it, and then, they never mention my writing again — in most cases, they probably never did get around to reading it.
I take this in stride.
But when I do get a reader, when someone tells me how much they thought of a piece and makes complimentary remarks about my writing, it is very gratifying.
I am slaving over a major piece of writing now. I have been working on it for months. I am certain it will be good when I finally finish it.
I can’t wait to make it public, in the hope and expectation that people will read and praise it. What in part motivates me is the desire and thought of wanting to make it good so that it and I will be praised.
If one didn’t feel this way, we would have a case of de facto solipsism.
posted on Facebook by Nancy Jordan Ables (a former piano student of my father)
February 8, 2019
I am thinking that a writer of any kind needs to have confidence in their abilities, especially when they publish it for all to see, and I see nothing wrong with saying “I think I did a good job.” Musicians, politicians, actors, or anyone who has their work available to the public make similar statements all the time.
a comment via email
February 8, 2019
Thank you for your post. It was interesting. The comments you are getting are upsetting and unconscionable. I totally understand how you feel. I’ve also been doing all kinds of art throughout the years. Compliments are always appreciated because it’s art! It’s the highest form of communication with the world one can achieve. It’s not about the grandiose.
“We are more apt to feel depressed by the perpetually smiling individual than the one who is honestly sad. If we admit our depression openly and freely, those around us get from it an experience of freedom rather than the depression itself.”
— Rollo May, Paulus: Reminiscence of a Friendship (1973)
These thoughts, this post, are occasioned by a film I saw about beleaguered people in a foreign country.
I was transfixed — totally engrossed in the people’s stories and the picture the film gave of their daily lives.
I shared my enthusiasm for the film with someone close to me and suggested that she see it with me.
She said no, she had no interest (despite my strong recommendation) in seeing the film.
“Why?” I asked.
She answered (perhaps she was looking for excuses), “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”
This struck me as patently ridiculous. Since when has it been imperative to avoid things — in life, in art — with the potential to make oneself sad?
It should be obvious that true art mixes joy and beauty with pathos.
In his Poetics, Aristotle developed the theory of catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις, catharsis, meaning “purification” or “cleansing” — the purification and purgation of emotions — especially pity and fear — through art”; as explained on Wikipedia). Note that, as explained in the online encyclopedia article, catharsis represents an “extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration” (italics added).
The film which I saw was a documentary about North Korea entitled Under the Sun. More about this below.
So much for theory. Let’s consider some examples. But first, a digression about happiness in PEOPLE.
To what extent is happiness a desideratum? Can we expect it? Is there even such a thing — is it real? How should we regard others who are, seem to be, or claim to be, happy?
My father, Alan W. Smith, thoroughly enjoyed life, on many levels: an interest in things (including the delight he took in little things, such as observing what happened once to dry ice when he threw a chunk of it over the side of a ship into the water; he wanted us to see it), including intellectual curiosity; a love of music (chiefly as a performer); a delight in people and their company; a delight in little amusements; pleasures such as eating, drinking, and the outdoors (experienced as an everyday citizen, not as a woodsman; e.g., raking leaves in the fall, a walk with his wife or the dog on the seashore, a blizzard). He had a keen appetite for life.
Unlike a lot of adults, he loved his work. He never begrudged, never complained about anything. Welcomed everything and anyone who came his way.
He could loosen and cheer up a group simply by being himself and by virtue of his presence. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous, making fun of himself (or being made fun of), or being regarded as extravagant or incautious.
Oftentimes, he would enter a parlor with people leaning forward in their chairs — tight lipped, looking uncomfortable.
“What’s everybody looking so glum for?” he would say. The complexion of the group would change just like that and people would begin talking and joking. In the words of Louisa May Alcott*, he “pervaded the rooms like a genial atmosphere, using the welcome of eye and hand which needs no language to interpret it, … making their [his guests’] enjoyment his own.”
He took the weather with equanimity, be it a blizzard, a hurricane, or an earthquake.
My father happened to be in the Bay Area, visiting my older brother in the late 1980’s, shortly before the former died, when an earthquake struck. “I’ve always wanted to be able to experience what an earthquake feels like,” he told me afterward. As my former therapist pointed out, such an attitude showed an appetite for life and an eagerness to experience it.
A hot summer’s day? A great excuse for setting off a few fireworks in our back yard, or for a lobster cookout (which both my parents loved) in the front yard of our rented summer house on Cape Cod.
I remember a blizzard in my home town of Canton, Massachusetts when I was in high school. Everything was shut down. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. An idea came to my father. Wouldn’t it be great to toast marshmallows and cook hot dogs in our living room fireplace? There was a problem, however — we didn’t have the ingredients. Such niggling problems never seemed to stand in the way of the fun planned by my father. Come to think of it, how about a walk? We walked, tramped about two miles each way through snowdrifts, found a store that was open, and bought marshmallows, hot dogs, and buns.
There was, of course, another side to him. He could be pensive and gloomy. He could be irascible and had a bad temper. His cheerfulness was only one side of the coin.
When something untoward happened to him — an argument with his second wife, for example — he would say to himself through gritted teeth (as she used to tell me), “I’m not going to let it ruin my day.”
*In Alcott’s novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).
There was a nice looking, perky girl in the class a year ahead of me in college: Marie E______.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say this. It will sound petty and perhaps mean spirited. But Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness grated on me.
A friend of mine, who lacked emotional depth and (often) insight into human relationships, was eager to get to know Marie and had several tennis dates with her. The relationship went no further.
“The thing I like most about her,” he told me, “is that she’s always cheerful.” This comment seemed obtuse and fatuous. It nettled me. I would be willing to bet that Marie’s perpetual cheerfulness was her way of dealing with insecurities that she probably felt.
Happiness in a person without an admixture of sadness seems to be inimical to the human condition. One wants to get to know both sides of a person — to hear about their highs and lows from him or herself.
What about my father? you might ask. Didn’t I just wax rhapsodic over his cheerfulness and capacity to enjoy life?
I noted that he had another side that, while it was less often seen, would suddenly be displayed in bursts of anger. And, my father knew profound grief from family tragedies for which he did not bear responsibility but in which he was the chief mourner and suffered the most.
A capacity for joy does not preclude an awareness of sadness, does not obviate sadness.
Who wrote the Ode to Joy? The same composer who in his late quartets, beautifully, incomparably, expresses pathos, sadness.
The film mentioned above is Under the Sun (2015), a documentary about North Korea. It was directed by the Russian documentary filmmaker Vitaly Mansky.
It is beautifully done and tugs and pulls at the viewer emotionally on many levels. The central person in the film, who is unforgettable, is an adorable eight-year-old North Korean girl named Zin-mi. The plot is ostensibly about Zin-mi going through steps, including school, as she prepares to join the Korean Children’s Union. At the film’s conclusion, she breaks down and cries upon being admitted to the children’s union. She is perhaps crying from relief that the stress of achieving the goal is over and, it seems, from what one would call joy mixed with sadness.
The compelling thing about the film is that you come away caring about the people and touched by the film’s PATHOS — despite the fact that one is aware that the people live incredibly hard, regimented lives in a totalitarian state where they have been effectively brainwashed and reduced almost to automatons (or so it often seems).
The film features beautiful, elegiac music composed by a Latvian composer, Karlis Auzans. It captures the pathos musically, for example, in a scene where you see North Koreans having family photos taken in a sort of assembly line fashion. A couple stands proudly in front of an automatic camera with their children. The photo is taken and another couple poses. And so on. As they stare into the camera, one sees expressions of pride but also feels a great sadness. The music rises to an emotional pitch and captures this. One feels empathy with the people posing, with the North Koreans! One feels that they are people, just like us. That, despite very hard lives, they experience feelings like ours. One feels like crying oneself, but one, at the same time, experiences a kind of joy in contemplating the miracle of human existence, and how this elemental reality links us all, regardless of circumstances.
This got me thinking about pathos in literature and music. About the comment “I don’t want to see something that will make me sad.”
Anna Karenina ends sadly. Does that make one any less desirous of reading it? It seems that in most operas the plot involves a tragic love affair, often with someone committing suicide, dying of grief. Art (in the broad sense of the word) is full of grief, so to speak, as well as happiness — as depicted by the artist drawing upon a profound knowledge of human life. Would one wish all art to be reduced to the level of a situation comedy?
What about music? Ever hear stirrings of pathos? In Beethoven’s late quartets, in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, and so forth?
I have seen it, depressingly, in my own life. Where the hatred is or was directed at me.
It is a fire which smolders and then rages, out of control. It is fueled of and by itself, from an inner demon or demons in the hater. (“The jealous are possessed by a mad devil and a dull spirit at the same time,” says Lavater.)
Nothing can seem to bring it under control. It can only be dimly foreseen and will take you by surprise by its ferocity. The only thing the object of the hatred can do is to try and stay away from the fire. No remonstrances will do any good.
Rational thought is not applicable here. Thee, O Victim, should not feel and should not think for a moment that you deserve it. It has nothing to do with you — it is all manufactured in their petty, jealous minds — and there is no basis for it. You will be called all sorts of names and subject to the wildest unfounded allegations. Try to ignore them, hurtful as they may be. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Their frustrations, regrets, jealousy, all projected upon you.
“In confederations that hold but by one end, we are only to provide against the imperfections that particularly concern that end. It can be of no importance to me of what religion my physician or my lawyer is; this consideration has nothing in common with the offices of friendship which they owe me; and I am of the same indifference in the domestic acquaintance my servants must necessarily contract with me. I never inquire, when I am to take a footman, if he be chaste, but if he be diligent; and am not solicitous if my muleteer be given to gaming, as if he be strong and able; or if my cook be a swearer, if he be a good cook. I do not take upon me to direct what other men should do in the government of their families, there are plenty that eddle enough with that, but only give an account of my method in my own.”
— Michel de Montaigne, “Of Friendship,” Essays, Chapter XXVII
“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
As John Stuart Mill says, one should be able to feel that one is entitled to live one’s life as one sees fit without “the moral coercion of public opinion.” It could be a matter of “big issues” of morality or overall behavior, or smaller issues such as behavior manifested in one’s family or personal relationships or personal matters such as appearance, dress, health, and the like.
And, often “public opinion” amounts to the thoughts (read presuppositions) of a narrow minded friend, neighbor, coworker, or relative.
Consider the following.
One of the best friends of my wife and myself is a married man with an adopted son; he has been a friend of ours forever.
I admire him greatly for his intellect and personal qualities.
He has a horrible family situation: great difficulties with his adopted son, such as the son refusing to attend school a few years ago and emotional outbursts.
The worst thing is his wife. She treats him horribly. He almost never complains (to us or from what we can observe), but we observe it all the time.
I often ask my wife, how can he put up with such treatment? (The adopted son takes cues from his mother and also treats his father, our friend, abusively.)
I always qualify what I say to her and add: It’s his family and marriage; he chooses to remain in it. It’s not for us to say.
We are very sympathetic about his situation but would never comment further unless he should ask for feedback; he is not a complainer.
It seems that situations often arise where someone whom one knows well is in a situation which you (i.e., the observer, the other party) would not approve of whatsoever if it were your life or situation. The reality may be complicated; the other party may be conflicted over the situation themselves and unsure about how to deal with it, but meddling by others (who usually have only a nodding acquaintance with the details) may increase their anxiety and make them even more uncomfortable.
Along these lines, I was thinking: Imagine a sort of inquiry board or truth commission before which all and sundry were required to appear, with everyone being subjected to the same questions:
the state of your marriage(s);
your performance in parenting;
the success or lack of it of your progeny; their adjustment and any developmental issues.
Think a few poor souls might be squirming under such scrutiny?
Constructive, helpful advice, originating with empathy, founded upon kindness, is one thing.
But beware meddlers posing as concerned do-gooders, who are intent upon proving their own moral superiority — their overall superiority to others whose lives they are critical of.
They can actually be some of the meanest people on the planet. They are usually worse morally than the people they pick on. They have zero capacity for compassion or empathy, and they don’t care in the least about other people.
Middle class morality … do-gooders … meddlers. Perhaps there is a place for them in the grand scheme.
Another problem, the bane of one’s existence (or at least some people’s), is health meddlers.
They enjoy inquiring about your health, without your having asked for advice; and then continually pestering you about it. Have you had a checkup for _______ (some condition or other)?
Often, they suffer from similar problems themselves. By focusing attention on you, they seem to be hoping to divert it from themselves and to somehow make themselves feel better. It doesn’t matter what your actual condition is, or whether or not you are worried about it, they will do the worrying for you. Did you know your weight is above normal for your height and your age? Are you monitoring your blood pressure? You may be at risk for a stroke.
People love to give advice about doctors and treatments. One of the most boring things is to hear a detailed story about how they overcame a back condition that was preventing them from playing golf, or about the cancer treatment some friend of theirs whom you don’t know had, causing the cancer to go into remission, and “he’s been healthy for the past ten years.” You are wondering about how this relates to you, since, as far as you know (pray God), you don’t have cancer; and, it’s a heartwarming story, but you never met or have heard of the person before, so it’s hard to relate to. There are thousands of people dying from cancer every month.
This cohort can actually cause stress with their meddling, and, believe me, unless you happen to be looking for a recommendation from a friend of a doctor they know and like, their meddling will do you no good whatsoever.
I have had occasion because of an unpleasant experience with someone close to me to think of something I learned once.
In the interests of confidentiality, let’s just say that the situation was from my past. The “lesson” (with a different person than the one mentioned in the above paragraph) involved me and a “significant other.” It was a long time ago. It involved a relationship which began auspiciously and which endured.
I had previously had a horrible relationship with someone else which caused me great pain. It took me a long time to get over it; caused lasting damage to me emotionally; and prevented me for quite a while from being able to trust someone and get involved in a new relationship.
But then I met Miss Right. I learned from this newfound relationship something that I had hitherto not been able to see or recognize for myself, even dimly: namely, a sixth sense which she had about how to avoid emotional damage to oneself and how to protect oneself from it; an awareness of when it is advisable to step aside, get out of the way, and extricate oneself; an ability to know when conditions warrant this.
I learned, quickly, from my new partner that one doesn’t have to submit to being dumped on and abused.
Prior to this, my habitual way of dealing with emotional abuse — abuse of any kind — was to stand there, so to speak, and submit to it.
From my new significant other, I learned that there was another way.
If she felt (this was, as I said, early in our relationship) that our relationship was starting, in the least, to become abusive emotionally, or “trending” in that direction, if she got a hint that I was going to be mean to her, she was quite prepared to leave, to exit, right then and there. With no further discussion. Without having to plead with me to change my behavior. She had apparently done this in the past.
Her approach and instincts were that no relationship was worth the trouble of being disrespected and abused. Better to have no relationship than to have an abusive one.
I quickly picked up on this, and it cured me of any misogynist instincts or tendencies I may have had. I knew that if I mistreated her, froze her out emotionally, it would be sayonara. She would be gone fast.
A valuable lesson she taught me. It was a lesson that worked both ways. I learned not only the strategy of beating a fast exit whenever I got an inkling that someone was having fun being nasty at my expense. I learned that it works both ways, and that no one should have to put up with abusive behavior from me.
Please note: I don’t intend to imply that at the slightest hint of a disagreement, it is advisable to terminate a relationship. People in intimate relationships (e.g., married couples) or in close quarters quarrel all the time.
What I am thinking about in this post are situations where there is an ongoing pattern of hatred or emotional cruelty, or perhaps an intermittent pattern, but where, when it rears its head, one knows instinctively that it’s more than just a disagreement. It could be a situation where what seemed at first like a mere disagreement has led to festering anger, causing the other person to wish to hurt and degrade you. When you can sense hatred or vindictiveness, chronic surliness, and the like, then, it seems, it’s time to exit, so to speak, in order to protect oneself. This can happen with friends, lovers, and close relatives. I have experienced it.
To me, a good yardstick might be: are you and the other person inclined to bicker? Well, so what? It may or may not be serious; perhaps one or both of you are crotchety. But, be alert for cases when a person whom you were once close to and on good terms with (and more) — so you thought — suddenly seems to be looking constantly for ways to undermine you. That’s a bad sign. You seemed to be in their good graces. Now they are constantly finding fault and won’t cut you any slack. Their face is set in a continual glower; their demeanor towards you is one of outright anger, or barely concealed anger — chronic anger, that is — which consumes them. They are constantly looking for things about you to take offense at.
You can see this in people who are constantly looking for opportunities to attack. You make what seems to be an innocuous remark; they pounce on it. They enjoy finding fault with you in matters and using standards of measure large and small. (For example, they may say they find you obnoxious, a “big” measure; or, they noticed that your tie isn’t knotted properly or your shoelaces have come undone, a “small bore” measure.)
These are the kinds of situations I’m talking about.
In my opinion, such situations can occur with persons with whom one has been intimate or had a long time relationship. Things change, and suddenly they are inimical to you. Or, present you with something you can’t endure.
In such cases, no matter who it is, it may be advisable to completely cease communications. You may find that you feel better despite the pain of separation, and despite the thought: I can’t believe it’s come to this. Having no relationship is better than having an abusive relationship, than having one in which one finds oneself being attacked and degraded, no matter who the other party is. Perhaps a rule of thumb might be — I have found it helpful — is to ask oneself: Is damage control or damage repair possible? Is the other person willing to be reasonable and listen to you? When you realize that discussion will only lead to more attacks upon you or degradation, and continual “hostilities,” with no possibility of agreement, meeting of minds, or resolution foreseeable, then it’s time to get out with as much of you is still intact.
I have been doing some more thinking about emotional abuse. When and how does it occur? And why do people submit to it?
Based on my own experience, it seems that it is often the case that one person — or sometimes a group of persons — feels superior to someone. In the case of the latter, a group, it occurs when the group treats one person as an outcast or pariah, or not as good as the others, and gangs up on the target of their abuse. By so doing, they have a collective sense of being better than the lowly reject: more refined, knowledgeable, and sophisticated; and, on the right side when it comes to contentious issues or matters or dispute — they love to be in the majority.
It often seems to be the case that the feelings of superiority are not necessarily based on anything definitive, but that the supposedly inferior person plays along with the other’s (or others’) treatment of them as an inferior. The supposedly superior person, the dominant one, is used to telling the supposedly inferior person what to do and how to act, pointing out his or her faults, and so on. Often, there is some sphere of activity in which the “superior” person enjoys contemplating his or her supposed superiority to their “inferior,” or perhaps it is some mark of distinction or achievement. It seems to both parties that things have always been this way, and the “inferior” person doesn’t want to “rock the boat.” Perhaps he or she dimly senses that being “uppity” (contentious when it comes to submitting to authority) or questioning authority will cause the dominant person or group to come down hard on them.
Then something happens. The “inferior” person forms a relationship with someone new who appreciates them, doesn’t look down on them, or admires them, and helps to free them from “bondage.” Or the “inferior” party makes strides forward in life and begins to feel less inferior. Or the “inferior” person — usually by incremental steps at first not noticeable — begins to surpass the “superior” person in some field of endeavor in which the latter took for granted that he or she was superior or more knowledgeable. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does, because the “superior” person wants to prevail, or be dominant, in all respects.
What seems to often happen is that the “superior” person becomes jealous or can’t accept the “inferior” person’s newfound assertiveness. If the “inferior” person begins to question the authority of and things said by his “superior” — the latter’s edicts — the latter can become very angry. The “superior” person has been used to deference on the part of his or her “inferior” and has always secretly taken pleasure in having his or her pronouncements accepted and adhered to. He or she also enjoys giving advice and playing the role of mentor or boss.
The hardest thing to deal with is jealousy. Or, as the poet James Thomson wrote:
“Base Envy withers at another’s joy,
And hates that excellence it cannot reach.”
— The Seasons (1746)
I have observed this with former friends and relatives of mine and with friends of my wife. If they observe you moving ahead in areas they always thought were their domain, or perhaps just getting ahead in life — or forming new relationships which they are not a party to and in which your new partner doesn’t acknowledge their authority — they often become sullen and resentful. And lash out. Using a pretext to criticize you. Or dropping you altogether.
It usually behooves you, at this juncture, to cease relations with them.
me (R) and my Cambridge friend Eddie Rizzo (L), Provincetown, MA, mid-1950’s
“Even where the affections are not strongly moved by any superior excellence, the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds which hardly any later friend can obtain.”
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Chapter 24)
“The startling change in preadolescence is that egocentricity, [the] concentration on one’s own satisfactions and securities and the wonderful techniques at one’s disposal for obtaining them, now ceases to be the primary goal in living. The thing that seems most important now is the using of all these techniques to draw closer to another person. It is what matters to this other person, the chum, that is of the utmost importance. In other words, here is the first appearance of the need for intimacy–for living in great harmony with someone else. … When [the preadolescent] discovers that life cannot really be complete without an increasing closeness and harmony with someone else, he begins to develop quite rapidly a personal interest in the larger world.
Below, following some introductory remarks of my own, are excerpts from the writings of the psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan.
A gifted writer who is a pleasure to read. A psychiatrist with great acumen and insight.
I do not pretend to any particular or special knowledge. The reason for this post is that I find what Sullivan says hits home and conforms to my own recollections and impressions of my preadolescent years.
A word or two about my own experience of childhood, in terms of, and related to, what Sullivan says.
The preadolescent stage of development seems to have begun for me at around age nine or ten. Prior to that, I was very attached to my mother.
When my preadolescent phase began, without my being aware, consciously, of what was happening, I suddenly became very interested in “guy things,” which is to say things that boys are supposed to be interested in. Baseball, for example.
I hadn’t paid any attention to baseball before, didn’t even know the rules of the game. Suddenly, I was totally interested in it on every level, as a would be player and a zealous Boston Red Sox fan.
Where Sullivan’s writing strikes home for me is that he seems to be right on target when he talks about the importance of having a preadolescent friendship with a child of the same sex, a “chum.”
I actually had four chums, all of whom lived within a block of me in Cambridge, Massachusetts: four boys the same age as me. Three of them were of Irish ancestry; the fourth was of Italian ancestry.
They all came from Catholic families, whereas my parents were Protestant.
The friendships that we formed were very intense. They seemed to mean everything to me at the time — to rival and almost surpass the importance of my family relationships.
We had great freedom of intercourse, by which I mean discussion and sharing of ideas.
No topic was out of bounds. We were too young to be discussing sex or sexual topics. But we talked and argued about all sorts of things and nothing was considered to be out of bounds. This freedom to talk and share was very important to my mental development.
There were frequent arguments among us, about religion, for example. My friends all seemed convinced that I was going to go straight to Hell, eventually.
Once, we argued over whether a white man should be allowed to marry a black woman. I held liberal views, which — prior to getting into this argument — I barely knew I had. My friends ridiculed my views. A nice thing was — although we disagreed vehemently and although I was taken aback to see how contemptuous they were of my views — no grudges were held. The arguments of this nature which we had, constantly, were forgotten almost immediately and that was the end of it.
We debated about the 1956 election. My friends were all on the other side.
We shared all kinds of stories and information. Sports lore, snippets of knowledge about miscellaneous and sometimes arcane subjects, tall tales, baseball cards, comic books, and other hobbies and interests.
I was learning all the time, as an ongoing thing, to share with others, to care for others, to consider their views. (All of these are things Sullivan discusses.)
To value friends. To appreciate their strengths, their good points. To learn to put up with their shortcomings, pigheadedness, occasional stupidity, intellectual limitations, and prejudices.
Since this time, I have always greatly appreciated people, placed great value on friendship. Don’t forget friends, try not to neglect them. Make it a point not to overlook or underestimate them.
Try to be fair in evaluating them as persons, trying to see them in the round and not overlook their good points when something about them annoys me.
With longstanding friends, including those from the past, I tend to never forget what I owe them.
These preadolescent friendships also gave me the opportunity to set up another, alternative “belief system” different from that of my parents, to be able to look at things differently, to perhaps overcome and reevaluate things that I needed to think over and evaluate for myself. (Sullivan comments briefly about this.)
Though I have long since lost contact, I have never forgotten these four core friends of mine.
All of these are things that Sullivan, with uncanny perception, knew and wrote about.
At the end of the juvenile era, another great developmental change appears. This may occur anywhere between the ages of eight and a half and ten, or even later. … The change which ends the juvenile era is rather startlingly abrupt–that is, it is a matter of weeks. … The change is this: One of those compeers of the same sex, who has been so useful in teaching the juvenile how to live among his fellows, begins to take on a peculiar importance. He is distinguished from others like him by the fact that his views, his needs, and his wishes seem to be really important: he begins to matter almost as much, or quite as much, as does the juvenile himself; and with this, the juvenile era ends and the phase of preadolescence begins. This person who becomes so important is ordinarily referred to as a chum, and he matters even when he isn’t there, which is quite unlike anything that happened in the juvenile era.
During preadolescence, certain dramatic developments, which are probably necessary to elevate the person to really human estate, move forward with simply astounding speed. During this brief period, which may precede puberty by a matter of only weeks, or, more commonly, months, there is an acceleration of development, which, if one likes to think physiologically, may reflect the oncoming puberty change. Be that as it may, in the new-found importance of another person, there is a simply revolutionary change in the person’s attitude toward the world. Thus far, regardless of his parents’ fond belief in his utter devotion to them, and regardless of his ability to get along with his compeers, it is measurably correct to say that the young human has been extraordinarily self-centered. The startling change in preadolescence is that this egocentricity, this concentration on one’s own satisfactions and securities and the wonderful techniques at one’s disposal for obtaining them, now ceases to be the primary goal in living. The thing that seems most important now is the using of all these techniques to draw closer to another person. It is what matters to this other person, the chum, that is of the utmost importance. In other words, here is the first appearance of the need for intimacy–for living in great harmony with someone else. Because the need for intimacy makes the other fellow and living in harmony with him of such importance, a great deal of attention is paid to how he thinks and “feels,” to what he likes and dislikes; and from this more careful observation of the other is gathered a great deal of data on the rest of the world. … When … he discovers that life cannot really be complete without an increasing closeness and harmony with someone else, he begins to develop quite rapidly a personal interest in the larger world.
I believe that the best grasp on the problems of life that some people ever manifest makes its appearance in these preadolescent two-groups. Such comprehension is often horribly unlettered and in woefully undocumented form, but it includes a remarkable awareness of another person and a quite astonishing ability to reveal oneself to that other. … [T]he brief epoch of preadolescence very often represents the maximum achievement of a particular person, as far as a constructive interest in the welfare of the world is concerned.
— Harry Stack Sullivan, The Psychiatric Interview, pp. 135-37
In the … phase of preadolescence, in the company of one’s chum, one finds oneself more and more able to talk about things which one had learned, during the juvenile era, not to talk about. This relatively brief phase of preadolescence, if it is experienced, is probably rather fantastically valuable in salvaging one from the effects of unfortunate accidents up to then.
Just as the juvenile era was marked by a significant change–the development of the need for compeers, for playmates rather like oneself–the beginning of preadolescence is equally spectacularly marked, in my scheme of development, by the appearance of a new type of interest in another person. These changes are the result of maturation and development, or experience. This new interest in the preadolescent era is not as general as the use of language toward others was in childhood, or the need of similar people as playmates was in the juvenile era. Instead, it is a specific new type of interest in a particular member of the same sex who becomes a chum or a close friend. This change represents the beginning of something very like full-blown, psychiatrically defined love. In other words, the other fellow takes on a perfectly novel relationship with the person concerned: he becomes of practically equal importance in all fields of value. Nothing remotely like that has ever appeared before. … [I]f you will look very closely at one of your children when he finally finds a chum-somewhere between eight-and-a-half and ten–you will discover something very different in the relationship–namely, that your child begins to develop a real sensitivity to what matters to another person. And this is not in the sense of “what should I do to get what I want,” but instead “what should I do to contribute to the happiness or to support the prestige and feeling of worth-whileness of my chum.” So far as I have ever been able to discover, nothing remotely like this appears before the age of, say, eight-and-a-half, and sometimes it appears decidedly later.
Thus the developmental epoch of preadolescence is marked by the coming of the integrating tendencies which, when they are completely developed, we call love, or, to say it another way, by the manifestation of the need for interpersonal intimacy. … Intimacy is that type of situation involving two people which permits validation of all components of personal worth. Validation of personal worth requires a type of relationship which I call collaboration, by which I mean clearly formulated adjustments of one’s behavior to the expressed needs of the other person in the pursuit of increasingly identical–that is, more and more nearly mutual-satisfactions, and in the maintenance of increasingly similar security operations. … In preadolescence not only do people occupy themselves in moving toward a common, more-or-less impersonal objective, such as the success of “our team,” or the discomfiture of “our teacher,”* as they might have done in the juvenile era, but they also, specifically and increasingly, move toward supplying each other with satisfactions and taking on each other’s successes in the maintenance of prestige, status, and all the things which represent freedom from anxiety, or the diminution of anxiety.
Because one draws so close to another, because one is newly capable of seeing oneself through the other’s eyes, the preadolescent phase of personality development is especially significant in correcting autistic, fantastic ideas about oneself or others. … [I]n preadolescence we come to the final component of the really intimidating experience of loneliness–the need for intimate exchange with a fellow being, whom we may describe or identify as a chum, a friend, or a loved one–that is, the need for the most intimate type of exchange with respect to satisfactions and security.
— Harry Stack Sullivan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, pp. 227, 245-62, 264-65, 268
* This is funny. — editorial comment. Roger W. Smith