Erica Jong, Woody Allen, and the Human Condition

My book club recently read and discussed Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, which elicited a lively conversation about the human condition. Having read her earlier book, Fear of Flying, as a psychology class assignment in the 70s, I was somewhat prepared for the author’s style, but I wondered if her latest book was going to be about sex in her sixties. It was marginally about sex, but it was more about acting out. While dealing with aging and dying parents and an ailing husband, the author tempers her existential angst by fantasizing about perfect, uncommitted sex and goes about seeking this distraction to her troubles by searching dating web sites. While some of the women in my group were horrified at the stupidity and danger of her attempts at hookups, I was merely amused at her pitiful efforts to immerse herself in something exciting as a replacement to her difficult life challenges. After all, it was just fiction! But this is what Woody Allen has mastered in all of his films, the ability to portray us with mocking absurdity and absolute frailty in our efforts to overcome our angst. To obscure our angst, we often find ourselves acting out, just like Vanessa Wonderman in Fear of Dying or like any of Woody Allen’s protagonists. The question to consider then, is what do you do when faced with an existential dilemma? Do you act out? In what way? Are you aware of it? Are there other options? Do you use other defense mechanisms? How do you escape the human condition?

I was just wondering……………

The existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the human condition and our difficulties in facing it. The Theatre of the Absurd also spawned from this movement and Eugene Lonesco portrayed us as helpless and farcical in our efforts to deal with our existence. Artist Edvard Munch portrayed his concept of this problem in his rendering of his famous painting, “The Scream.” Sigmund Freud added to the concept when he defined angst as inner turmoil often felt as intense apprehension and anxiety. Kierkegaard introduced the concept of anxiety as a feeling of dread, a deep seated condition arising from our freedom of choice. Arising from our decisions comes the concept of guilt, creating further anxiety related to whether or not we have made the correct choices. The human condition includes the concepts of birth, growth, emotions, conflict, death and all the ramifications of these issues. Existential angst haunts us in particular with such unanswerable questions as why are we here, what is death, is there a God, why are relationships exasperating, how do we get along? The human condition is that which occurs as a result of these dilemmas, which like the painting ”The Scream,” leaves us suspended in a frightening void.

As a therapist, I have come to view the human condition much like these existentialists, especially those who see the humor in our efforts to deal with our existential angst and the human condition. While there is always a time for sadness and human connectedness and empathy, I cannot help but feel amusement at times, even with myself at some of my pitiful efforts to deal with life. To me, it is bittersweet to observe the play between the difficulties that arise and our sometimes pathetic attempts to cope. But in a way, bittersweet describes the whole picture. It is not all bad and it is not all good. Some of our best stories about our lives are the ones we tell together with friends and family about when we did something absurd, crazy, but we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I think this is a healthy way of coping, to forgive ourselves, see the humor, and never take ourselves too seriously. The people who cope the best with this whole angst issue are the ones who can make fun of themselves, understanding that no one is perfect and that after all, we are just human.

There are many other ways to deal with angst that are more functional than acting out. Concentration camp survivors endured by remembering their families, things that were meaningful to them. Others use their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to bolster them during trying times and religions also provide answers to many of our unknowns. Some find meaning in their life work, and that provides peace. While the larger question is how to find a sense of meaning, we still remained plagued by the day to day challenges that beset us like, why the one we love doesn’t love us back, why can’t we get ahead, why can’t we love ourselves, why do we feel so guilty, and so on.

My challenge to you today is to think about how you deal with some of these issues. Become more self-aware. Do you choose functional ways of coping, or do you act out like Vanessa Wonderman? Do you withdraw or rationalize your behaviors? Do you intellectualize? My best advice is to not be so hard on yourself! Do your best and if it’s a bit crazy for a while, that’s okay. We all have this frailty. See the humor in it! After all, we are only human. Can you forgive your errors of judgement ? Can you accept yourself as perfectly imperfect?

I was just wondering—————————.

 

 

Painting Your Life

One of my very favorite activities is my weekly acrylic painting class. Besides the fact that it is a perfect zone-out event that keeps me totally focused in the now, it is populated with other lovely like-minded artists. And because it is a class, it is also educational. We learn techniques to better express ourselves through our paint. The most fascinating aspect, however, is the tremendous differences in the way each painting turns out. Despite the fact the we each paint the very same picture, our finished products are remarkably different. Each unique painting is the product of the painter’s view of the world, and in particular, that one little snippet of it within the assigned picture. No one sets out to create a different painting, but our creations are influenced by our own unique visions of what we each perceive. These very differences are most fascinating to me and are clearly an expression of our individuality and how we interpret what we see. I realized that this exercise in painting is a metaphor of how we paint our lives. I began to think about how we color our lives, how we see and interpret what is around us, how we judge it to create an idea or belief and so on. So I began to ponder, how do we paint our lives?   I was just wondering…………..

Acrylic is very forgiving, which is probably why I like it so much. If you make a mistake, you can just paint over it. We can paint with the same acrylic in our lives, I mused. We can learn forgiveness, we can learn to move on, we can learn new techniques from our errors and use them the next time. We don’t have to stay stuck in a bad picture. We can just paint over it!

As I mentioned, painting is the best thing I know to keep me in the now. There are many other things in life to keep us focused on the now, so that we can enjoy each moment as it occurs, rather than missing things because our focus is elsewhere.   Do you paint your life with focus, or is your life filled with distraction, chaos, hurriedness? There are paintings that depict these unpleasant experiences as well. Which kind of painting do you create for yourself?

What is the mood of your life painting? Is it filled with color, beauty, pleasantry, serenity?   Or does your life depict a painting filled with angst, despair, resentment, full of darkness, with cold murky corners, secrets, hidden meanings? Is your life painting orderly or is it filled with confusion, untidiness, chaos? Do you enjoy viewing your painting of your life, or do you shudder at the sight of it?

Does your painting have integrity, honesty, virtue? Or is it blackened by shame, disgrace, disrespect? Can you look at it with pride and feel satisfaction about how you behave and handle problems as they arise? If you don’t like it, how can you correct it? Perhaps you could add more color, remove the darkness, make it more honest, truer to the real picture.

What is the texture of your life painting? Is it bumpy, full of ups and downs? Or is it flat, too flat and boring, needing some added points of interest? Are there too many snags? Is it smooth sailing or is it a rocky sea for your “life” boat? Does it have too many rough edges?

What depth does your painting have? Is it demonstrated through your relationships? Are they loving, kind, supportive, nurturing? Or are they disengaged, unavailable, unloving? Sometimes if you look again they may seem different. Is there enough intimacy and fulfillment? Many paintings need to be studied, viewed with a keen eye. Sometimes we misinterpret and then have to paint over, or in the case of life, look again. Sometimes we miss love and support because we are not in a good place as we view it. If the fault is not in our vision, then it is time to connect to a better painting, drawing nurturing people into our lives.

What is the meaning of your life painting? Is this something you have thought about? If you have considered the meaning, then is it going in the direction you had intended? How can you change it so that the meaning becomes clearer and is experienced in your life as you would desire? What needs to be corrected and repainted?When I circle the room of my painting class, I get ideas from the other paintings I see. Sometimes these ideas help me to add or subtract something that makes my painting more interesting, more expressive, more unique. We are all stuck in our own vision of the world. It is very powerful to try to look again, see what you are viewing in another way. For your life painting, use some ideas from your admired friends to alter the parts of your life painting that you don’t like. Changing the picture is always possible. There are endless ways to depict the same thing, because it is different for every eye that views it. Readjust your sight! Paint over what you don’t like and try again. And don’t give up! You can achieve the same feeling of homeostasis that I have in my painting class when you make positive adjustments to your life painting!

After evaluating your life painting, are you happy with it? Are there changes that need to be made? Are you willing to start over and paint again in the areas that need touching up?

I was just wondering…………

The Splendor of September

I love the heat of summer but for some reason, September has always been my favorite month.

I am acutely aware of it now, having just come inside from my deck at my summer home on Cape Cod. The tourists have all departed now and there is a sweet serenity lingering in the air before the cold sets in. I don’t know if it’s the way the sun hits the earth at this time of year, but there appears to be a brilliant glow bathing the terrain that delivers a magical sensory bath of peace. I think it is a love affair I have with this month because for me, no other time quite captures the beauty of life so well. September somehow manages to enhance my sensory awareness so that if I take a moment to relax I can quickly lose myself in the wonder of it all.

Do others have this experience as well, I wondered?

Are you too caught up in your everyday matters that you miss the splendor of September?

I was just wondering……

Take a deep breath and join me in my reverie.

Back on my deck as I sat in the warm silky sun with closed eyes, I heard the comforting sound of the crickets, mingled with a few chirping birds and an occasional caw of a crow. Everything is in order, I mused. This was interrupted with the distant sound of my neighbor’s saw, followed by hammering, not the annoying kind, just the sounds of life on a nice day, when you feel that all is well. I opened my eyes to the clear blue sky to see the sun shimmering through the branches as a tiny green inchworm swung gracefully in the breeze, attached to a barely perceptible glistening strand anchored to the fir tree above. I became aware of the soft rustling of the breeze as the branches swayed softly to the rhythm of the earth below. I noticed the patterns created by their changing shadows and then looked above to see the beauty of the fractal pattern of the treetops against the September sky.

The September sun sprayed diamond encrusted sea awaits as we make our lasts visits to the beach for the season. There are few people there now, but this is my favorite time, devoid of the cacophony that exists in the summer. There are no loud voices, no announcements, no radios blaring, only the sound of the waves as they come crashing into the awaiting shoreline. There are a few dogs running around and my little guy Mocha dances excitedly in the sand as a band of seagulls lands nearby to scavenge for the crumbs someone left in the sand. The sand is cooler now and does not sting the bottom of your feet as in the summer, and we walk leisurely along the shore, basking in the sensations of our surroundings, the briny smell of the sea, the cool wind, the coarse damp sand.

A small plane glides above, and I wonder about the passengers and how they experience the breathtaking scene below. In the summer the ocean sky becomes a billboard for these planes carrying messages for their advertisers, but now the plane above is just a lofty purring passerby, minding its own business.

September is the whole deal. It brings an inviting sense of solitude unlike any other season. It is still part of what has been, but it is the best part, free of the hurry of vacationers and the accompanying chaos. It is also the promise of what is to come as glimpses of fall begin to intrude with nippy mornings, along with an emerging hint of the change of clothing soon to occur for the surrounding foliage as it prepares to dress itself in its brilliant display before retirement for the winter.

So I will spend every last moment indulging myself in the splendor of September as long as it lasts. I hope that you will not miss it. I will be leaving here soon but I will take my memories of sweet September to warm me through the winter.

Will you take the time to immerse yourself in this golden month before it is gone?

I was just wondering…..

These Feet Were Made For Walking

These feet were made for walking

            The other day my husband and I were sitting on the beach enjoying the beautiful day when he began to massage my foot.  He studied it pensively, looked up at me and said, “These feet have walked a long way since you were a little girl,” a simple statement that grew increasingly profound as I contemplated it.  “Yes,” I thought inwardly as I mentally skipped over my journey in life.  As my mind flooded with memories of where those feet had actually been I began to wonder how the journey of my feet had affected me.  Where had those feet taken me and where were they going next?

I was just wondering……..

There have been many metaphors about our feet and walking such as “walking the walk,” a statement about doing what we should be doing, or having someone “walk you through it” when they are showing you how to do something. Then there is “Don’t put your foot in your mouth,” meaning don’t say something you shouldn’t. Those of you who are old enough may recall the lyrics crooned by Nancy Sinatra about her “feet made for walking,”   in this case to “walk right out on you.” All of these metaphors relate our feet to our behavior, or more precisely, define our feet as the instrument of our actions.

So, back to the beach…..Encouraged by my response to his query about my feet, my husband continued to give me fodder for this column I was already writing in my head. “Think of the feet on the battlefields,” he said “and the feet that walk in the ghetto,” as I wondered how the bodies of those feet absorbed those experiences.  I returned to my own feet again, remembering how they used to feel in the freshly mown grass of my barefoot days as a child, how I screamed in pain when shocked by my first bee sting on my foot.  I remembered running with the speed of a bullet to my grandmother’s house when I got a new pair of sneakers, thoroughly convinced they made my feet run faster.  I recalled the gritty feel of the sand and the bumpy, painful rocks as I waded into the cold Lake Erie water and years later repeating that experience into the icy North Atlantic. I recalled with delight the memory of my father tickling those feet, much smaller then and much less worn.

I shifted then away from the physical sensations of my feet to the experiences those feet absorbed from their physical location back to my body. I remembered walking tentatively into my new high school at age 14 when my father’s job transferred us to a new town.  I remembered 4 years of 100 plus steps to reach the main campus from my dorm at Ohio University and many ”side”-walks  of college life throughout my tenure there. I remembered my first tremulous steps after the birth of my son and my years in Boston before his birth when my feet eagerly joined in the “love-ins” in Boston Common. I recalled the first step on the island of the Republic of Kiribati where the native children sat in wait, greeting us with a melodic, haunting melody that brought many of us to tears.  Those feet stood strong in St. Mark’s square in Venice as, surrounded by pigeons, I drank in the wonder of that awesome setting. Those feet climbed the hill of the Parthenon while I was flooded with feelings for those who had lived before me, those who built those marvelous structures that still stand today. These feet have risen from illness and walked me back to health. They have overcome many obstacles with firm determination. They just kept moving along. They have trudged the hills of Thailand to mingle with the people of the hills and they have draped the sides of an elephant while thrilling to the wonder of an elephant camp.  They have sailed the Amazon and walked the tiny villages with the rainforest natives on the rain soaked muddy shore, always to be grateful to be back home.

No, my feet have experienced neither a battlefield nor a ghetto, but they have had their share of challenges.  It has not been “a walk in the park,” but nevertheless, one I would never want to miss. Each misstep was only an opportunity for growth and each correct step has been a gift for appreciation. I would not take another path if I could.  You know what they say, most people would not want to walk in your shoes, but that’s okay with me, I’ll own my own, scuffs and all, as I plod on to my next adventure.  Where will it take me?  I don’t know, but I’m ready to learn more about life.  That’s where my feet have been, deep in the trenches of humanity.  They have affirmed to me that humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers’ quote, “What is most personal is most general,” is so true. No matter how different we may appear, we are basically all the same! Where have your feet been and what have you learned from your journey?  I was just wondering…….

Who Is Your Best Teacher?

customer-experience-theme (1)When you ask yourself the question, who is your best teacher, most of you will most likely recall someone from your school days, someone you liked who imparted knowledge to you in the form of facts or information. For me it brings to mind an English teacher I had in my senior year in high school who was very stern and strict but sure knew her stuff. Then there may be the teacher who you just liked so much because of their pleasing personality and helpful attitude. As you get older you may begin to think of a parent or role model or mentor who has influenced you and is your best teacher in life. These are the people who show you about life, who teach you how to basically deal with life, how to succeed, how to cope, etc. Perhaps religion is your guiding force or just simply your value system or philosophy. Maybe you learn best from reading books or attending classes. So think about it. Who is your best teacher? I was just wondering…..

More recently I have become aware of an incredibly powerful source of learning, one sometimes difficult to use, but one that will speed your growth dramatically if you are brave enough to learn from it. I call it bad behavior. How can you learn from bad behavior, you may be asking. Well, by not engaging in it yourself. The first time I became aware of this lesson was from a behavior of my mother’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my mother and I have learned lots and lots of good stuff from her, but her gift receiving behavior left a lot to be desired. As a child I would get very excited about getting her Christmas, birthday, or Mother’s Day present, but she, invariably would open it, look at it strangely, and then make some kind of comment about how it wouldn’t fit, or she didn’t use those, or she didn’t wear that color, or some such thing. Year after year we had to return those gifts and it soon became a family joke. We just accepted that she wouldn’t be satisfied with the gift. Eventually we got wise enough so that we all started to take her shopping before these celebrations so that she could pick out her own gifts, try them on, and then on the holiday she would exclaim with great pleasure and feigned surprise how pleased she was with her gift while the rest of us would roll our eyes and chuckle inwardly. It worked!

A few years ago I unwrapped a gift from my son and daughter-in-law, looked at it with puzzlement and asked, “Why did you get me this?” I immediately felt my mother’s words being channeled through my voice and I was horrified, stricken with feelings of shame and embarrassment. I quickly apologized, noted my bad behavior, and believe me I have NEVER done THAT again. I have also learned from a friend who beats a dead horse not to beat my dead horse so much, from students who talk too much in class not to raise my hand so often, and from chronic complainers to try to keep my woes to myself (still working on this!). I am also learning to become less reactive as I have had many teachers who have made me crazy while demonstrating their reactiveness to me. I have learned to be less judgmental from those who annoy me pouring out judgments of others. So for me at this stage of my life, my best teacher is my unpleasant response to someone’s bad behavior followed by an internal check for signs of it in myself. If I’m honest and I can find it within myself, then it goes on my to-do list for self-improvement.

So, who do you think is your best teacher? Is it someone who teaches you what to do or do you learn more or equally well from someone’s bad behavior, someone who teaches you what NOT to do? We are used to learning from those who teach us good things, but it takes a courageous person to learn from someone’s bad behavior. Maybe you don’t have to keep avoiding those people who make your skin crawl. Perhaps the next time you cringe because you can’t stand someone’s behavior it’s time to take a quick inventory to see if it echoes internally. Do you ever do this? Perhaps that is the real reason for the skin crawling cringe. Is personal growth important to you? Do you have the metal to face yourself? I was just wondering…….

I Was Just Wondering

I was just wondering………when did we forget how to think?

A friend of mine recently suggested I write a column.

I don’t know where the idea came from, because she didn’t even know about my lifetime of musings.

All of us have a period of time during our childhoods when we incessantly ask “Why?” “Why do we have to go to bed now?,” “Why do we have to brush our teeth?,” “Why do the leaves fall off the trees?” We never stop wondering about things then, but when does the WONDER stop?  Fortunately or unfortunately, as you would have it, no one I know has ever had a reprieve from that question from me!  My husband would love for me to “put a sock in it” just once in a while, but I just cannot put a plug into my incessant desire to see the many flavors, colors, ideas and ways of viewing things and the world.  After all, I am a Gemini but perhaps it is more a byproduct of my profession as a psychologist and life coach.

Anyway, after the friend put the idea of a column into my head it didn’t take me long to realize that this was my opportunity to get us all thinking again, thinking about our choices, our beliefs, our decisions, our values, and maybe even our morals. Read More