370. What Guilt?

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Sir Walter Scott

Guilt:  a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offence, crime, wrong, etc. whether real or imagined.

In my business, since I work with human beings, I hear a lot about the subject of guilt, that nagging feeling of self loathing that convicts you when you have done something wrong or failed to do something right, assuming you were consciously choosing one outcome or another.  Growing up as a Catholic kid, I learned a lot about guilt and sin. You don’t even have to sin to be guilty if you believe in Original Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve that is attached to the human race. Then there are venial and mortal sins. Venial sins are lesser than mortal, as  you might guess. Mortal sins, unrepented of, lead to eternal damnation. Game over. Venial sins just put you in purgatory, which is like a moral rehab hospital in Catholic cosmology. You do your time and get cleaned up, purged, so you can be reunited with God. In the Middle Ages you could pay off your sins by paying church officials indulgences. I don’t think that program is still in effect these days.

Back in my St. Louis Catholic Elementary School days in the 1960’s I tried to be good or at least tried not to get caught being bad. A daunting task when you have three brothers and 150 boisterous neighbor boys trying to be heathens. The trouble was that the teachers and priests at St. Louis were excellent guilt peddlers to their young and not so innocent charges. All their work paid off on Fridays when Confession was held behind the secret curtain in a booth at the back of the fairly modern church, architecturally speaking it was modern. We would line up in two lines per booth. Little boys in crew cuts and flattop haircuts, white shirts, navy blue pants and a navy blue bow tie. Girls in white blouses and navy jumpers with white socks and saddle shoes. Quaking in anticipation of God’s justice uttered by an invisible priest on the other side of the purple curtain.

The confessional booths in our architecturally modern church were wired with sensor pads in the kneelers.  As you knelt down, a little light turned red outside to indicate “busy”. As you stood up, a light on the outside turned green, indicating “Go”, maybe to Hell if you had the wrong stuff to share. Now if you shifted your weight back and forth as fourth grade boys liked to do in order to have blinking lights bragging rights, the lights would blink strobosocopically into a blur of brownish orange. The goal was to run up more blinks than the guy before you had managed, without getting caught by the teacher monitoring you outside or the priest listening to kids confess sins inside behind the yellow lit sliding screen that smelled of incense and holiness.

John Digeorgi and James LaFrankie are the only boys’ names I can recall from those diabolical days. I’m sure one of us was pulled up by our ears in the midst of setting the blinking confessional light land record.  You see, it was a given condition that justice would be swift and harsh in those parochial school days. One legendary story came from the eighth grade class where Sister Josephine Stalin was striding toward a wayward bad boy with a paddle in her hand. The boy was trapped, away from the classroom door, so he jumped out the first floor window to save his fleshly behind. I don’t know if he ever came back. It doesn’t matter; the legend lives.

Anyway, I wanted to share the three guilts: True, False and Imposed Guilt. I defined true guilt above. It’s that awful, nauseating feeling that comes over you if you have a conscience, that motivates you to make the wrong you committed right again. E.g. you broke the neighbor’s window while hitting golf balls off a tee in your back yard. Hey, it happens. You feel fear, then some sadness, then maybe you try to think of who else can be blamed for the broken window, but there are ten other boys waiting to tee off or tell on you so you decide to expiate your guilt by knocking on the Coopers’ door and confessing your sin. Later you pay for the damage, thus ending the material and spiritual conflict.

False guilt, on the other hand, feels just like true guilt, but it is based on false information or incorrect thinking. For instance, when your unlicensed sheltie dog comes home in a blizzard with a frozen baby pig in his mouth… well, you know right away that Coco had run over to the Hades’ adjacent pig farm because we (yes, it was my dog) had no fence, no leash, and no sense. Okay? We lived like freakin’ hippies back then.

Well, because I knew the neighbor and had his two sons in school, I did the honorable thing based on limited information. I got my checkbook, bundled up against the blowing snow, and trudged over to their house, about a quarter mile away. I rang the bell, wondering what a pig cost ($200? maybe) and Mr. Hade answered.

“What in the world are you doing out?” he inquired.

“I’m sorry to tell you that my dog killed one of your piglets.”

He laughed a deep belly laugh and stepped back a few paces. “Come on in out of the snow. Your dog did no such thing.”

“Mr. Hade, Coco came home with a baby pig in his mouth. It had to be from your herd.”

He laughed again. “Not possible. Your dog could not get into my barn. It’s hotwired to keep predators out. He probably just got one off the pile.”

“The pile?” I asked, stunned at this turn of events.

“Yeah, when the sow rolls over on her young’uns, sometimes she smothers them. We just throw the dead ones on the pile out back.”

“Oh… I feel foolish. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“Oh, no, no problem.”

At least the wind was at my back on the way home. “The pile!!!” I was ready to write a check for big money. Stupid assumption! False guilt.Image result for i'm stupid face picturesImage result for math equations pictures

Finally we have imposed guilt. It’s also false guilt. The difference is that someone else imposes guilt onto you, usually with the words should or should not. E.g. your mother tells you, “You should have gone to law school, you little schmuck! Now look at ya. You’re a nothing, nobody, Georgie Costanza.”

The reverse is also used. “You shouldn’t have gone to Atlantic City, but you did, Mr. Bigshot. Now you’re broke and you suck!!”

The shoulding business is so common I have called its use, Suck Math. It goes like this–

You should do x.

–You didn’t do x.

Therefore, you suck.

The final product of suck math is “you suck”.  Oh, guilt mongers. I don’t have enough time to give you full treatment. See, I’m way over 1,000 words and feeling a little guilty that I stretched the attention span of my three faithful followers. And with their medication load, that’s just too much. So I’m just going to stop here.Guilty as charged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

325. Going through the Motions

At dance class Colonel Frank tells us over and over that we have to keep going through the motions of new dance steps in order to develop muscle memory. I understand that. It’s just awkward to do something wrong over and over. It seems like we are practicing the incorrect moves and committing errors to muscle memory instead of perfected dance code. He reassures us that we are repeating near approximations of the desired goal. Our imperfect dancing is getting closer to the target, he says. I hope so. I know that the few dances my eternally youthful bride and I have learned were not there, and not there, and then inexplicably… there. Chick-a- chick-a-boom-boom!!  How’s does that work? One night at the winery I recognized that Santana’s song (actually all Santana songs) was a cha-cha. I just suddenly knew and my wife joined the cha-cha steps in open mouthed wonder at my Astaireness. I was a flaming comet musical dance genius for about 15 seconds.

My road to success went as follows.

1. I don’t know. I’m stupid. Duh.

2. I still don’t know. I’m still stupid. Duh, duh.

3. I know. I don’t know how I know, but I now know. I’m brilliant. Or maybe, I’m incrementally less stupid. Whazzup wiff dat?

It’s not a sexy mantra or a good high school cheer, but it’s true. I suppose I could funk it up and make it more rhythmic…

“I’m dumb, I’m dumb, I dance like a drunken bum.

Still pathetic, pathetic, I aint so copasetic.

I’m better, I’m better, I’m sharper than your cheddar.”

Maybe not. [Movie trailer voice] ‘In a world of reverse limbo dancing, you start with the quality limbo bar on the ground and dance over it until, suddenly,  it becomes embarrassing, criminal, or just anatomically impossible.’And yet we have mastered the Foxtrot, a dance that tied us in silken knots when we first tried to step, touch, feet together, step, touch, feet together. Now we can actually turn the girl and promenade like a pair of Austro-Hungarian royal milk chocolatiers, like trotting foxes come to think of it.

A gym teacher I once worked with used to say, “Fake it till you make it”. I always liked that expression. It simultaneously acknowledges the incompleteness of the now and gives hope for future competence.  It’s not a deceitful proposition. It’s encouraging instead. “Throw the horseshoes till you get a ringer.” “Roll up on that polena” ( in bocce). I like games where imperfection counts for something, i.e., getting near the target is acknowledged and encouraged.

On the other hand there is the self defeating pirate message, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”  The smart aleck in me likes that impossible situation, at least the dark humor in it. Cyclical dilemmas are fascinating– “We’ll have fun when the work is done…but the work is never done.”

“You’ll be released from prison when you have a fixed address on the outside. But you can’t get a fixed address on the outside till you’re out of prison.”

“You can have credit as soon as you prove you are credit worthy by paying off a loan, for which you need credit.”

“You can have a puppy as soon as you can prove you can raise a dog. But you can’t have a dog unless you start with a puppy. How about a kitten?”

These are no motion processes.  The game is over before it starts. In this world of dilemmas you have to hit the bull’s eye the first and only time you throw with your arms duct taped behind your back. It’s about being perfect. “Hey, just grab the bull by the horns and wrestle him into submission.”

To continue going through the motions of a no motion game is mind numbing. It can break the human mind and spirit, like digging holes and moving dirt only to move the dirt back to fill the original hole for no apparent reason. A one piece checker game, a stalemate, kickball with no ball, frozen mimes– what’s the point?  Humans demand meaning and purpose somewhere after oxygen, water and food, shelter and safety, security and love. Often times suicides are driven by perceived purposelessness and meaningless in one’s life. (Especially troubling is the suicide rate of mimes and circus clowns, estimated at 53%.)

Without water I am thirsty. Without food I am hungry. Without oxygen I’m getting pretty jacked up for my next breath. But all these needs drive me toward survival, the mad thrashing and grasping for life. Without meaning, however, it’s easier for thinking people to let go, to override the survival instinct because they can’t keep simply going through the motions, i.e., the near approximation of life. Just ask a mime, but you’ll never get an answer. He’ll take it to the grave.

Freud said there was a life urge and a death urge, Eros and Thanatos, and I believe this is true. The life urge pulls us to sex and creativity and heaven; the death urge pulls us to depression, defeat, and finally the grave. Sometimes, I guess, the tires of life get deflated and we can hit a flat spot in self esteem, marriage, career, family or faith. Going through the motions may help jumpstart the old energy for life’s zest. Going to the no motion one swing at the piñata mindset will corkscrew you into an early grave. It comes down to a choice of frames around life. Do you go with something hopeful and promising or something desperate and toxic? Imagine framing a baby picture with a thick black frame featuring gargoyles sneering. On the other hand, try framing dear departed Uncle Fred in a cheery pink rosebud frame. The same holds true with how you frame your own life.

So here is the take away nugget: keep going through the motions with faith in the unseen goal. Fake it till you make it, Carlos. Believing in the no motion option is deader than a dead mime.

280. Point less ?

I was reading a journal article today on mind wandering. The researchers somehow determined that mind wandering actually allows the same mind to focus; and conversely, the focusing mind allows the same mind to wander in a yinny-yangy way. (My words not theirs, trust me here.) I find this finding reassuring, which seems redundant to find a finding and assure again, i.e., “re-“. However, be this as it may, I am a big fan of mind wandering. I do it all the time, to which long time blog followers can all shout a throaty “Amen!” I am a proponent of associative thinking, trusting that there is a theme evolving as the associations build. The tight sphinctered scientists among us do a lot of crisp pointing, like tour guides who point out the most important buildings in Charleston or NYC. They point and point and point so you get the point. Helpful if you are on a tight schedule; tedious if you are not.

Mind wandering is not total abandonment of rational thinking; rather it is like letting a kite have its string, maybe a half mile of string on occasions. Allowing the breezes and updrafts to have their way with a kite over the beach is a small effortless joy. Ahhh, good therapy for the string holder and spectators who are unwinding while watching their kites turn into tiny red dots out over the shipping channel. The kite can symbolize a lifted mood, a soul rising, a worry vaporized… or nothing at all.

What’s the point? Is this an experiment with a key and lightning? Is there a measurable and justifiable purpose here? Not really.

Decades ago I remember my friend Jack flying a kite off the sand of Kitty Hawk, N.C. It was a perfect kite flying day. We added fishing line to the original string when it was exhausted. To elevate the kite’s altitude, we tied shoes and fishing weights to the new line. It became an engineering marvel after a few hours. Only as early evening approached did we take turns winding in the various lines and weights until we retrieved the flimsy kite itself. I was left with a memory, a wonder, a smile thirty years later.

Jack is long dead now; however, the memory is bittersweet and alive. If I choose to focus all my Jack memories, I’d fill the sky with millions of kite strings and confetti. The nights in Georgetown; the weekend at UVA; the trip to Va. Tech; the dozens of dozens of parties and outings. The big red Oldsmobile convertible. The stupid red van. His wedding, wife and kids. Siblings, mom and dad, and friends network. His amnesia episode. It’s endless and yet invisibly attached to the single kite string that wandered up off the beach in 1980 something.

I always listen to Pandora when I write my blog posts. Pick Rolling Stones Radio and you get the entire milieu of rock and roll that surrounded their classic hit songs. Rather than drilling the Stones’ greatest hits into your brain, Pandora floats around the era, filling an aural shopping cart with nice choices from the same aisles and shelves where the Stones live. An atmosphere is suggested to hover in your memory and massage old thoughts and feelings you have not moved in years. “Time Is On My Side” is followed by Zepellin, CCR, Hendrix, a Beatles song, Cream, the Animals, etc. And there you go– 1970 all over again.

I’ve heard more than one tight lipped doctor dismiss dreams out of hand as mere defragmentations of the waking mind, a cleaning process the brain goes through each night, with no other significance. Some even mock the concept of the unconscious mind as an unprovable fantasy construct. These guys point, point, point to their trusty data points that measure something but require no faith. Anecdotal records are simply coincidences and not reproducible, so they would have you believe.  But allow me to disagree.

Years ago I had a boy client who had lost his father to a long battle with mouth and throat cancer. He longed for his father, an avid outdoorsman, to be in his life and teach him how to canoe, and fish, and hunt. He had a repetitive bear dream that disturbed him. In it he was running next to a bear in the woods. As I pushed for details he told me the bear was not scary at all. And they were actually running around a quarter mile track in the middle of a pine forest. He was disturbed by the “nonsense” of the dream. I sketched out the scene to his liking and he colored the bear a reddish brown. As an afterthought I asked, “What color are the bear’s eyes?”

Without any hesitation he responded, “Bright blue”.

Now that’s an odd detail, I thought.

Later on I was processing this dream with the boy’s mother. She told me about her deceased husband. “I used to sponge bathe him at the kitchen table after they took his tongue out. He’d sit in his underwear and make growling noises for yes and no. I understood him, but I think it scared the boys to see their dad that way.”

“What did your husband look like?”

“Tall, six two or so, maybe two hundred and fifty pounds. Handsome, I thought.”

“What color was his hair?”

“Oh reddish brown. And he was hairy all over, not just on his head.”

“Really? Like a bear?” I asked.

“Uh-huh. I called him my big teddy bear.”

“And his eyes, what color were they?”

“Oh, my, the brightest blue you ever saw.”

“Well, how about that? I think we’ve found your son’s dream bear.”

Gasp. Tears. A billion kite strings filled the space around her and wet confetti maple leaves poured down all over her aching memory bank.

 Merely the brain defragmenting, kids. No need to panic. If you can’t prove it exists, then you can’t point to it.
So we point less.

 

 

 

192. Forgiveness and perfection

The guy across from me was telling of his false starts in life, his addictions, and his desperation to make it all right. I listened attentively, validating as he went along. Then I shared a thought, “Forgiveness is key to the redemption process, you know. Otherwise you are assuming that perfection is not only possible, but that it is the normal order of life.”

He paused. “That’s the most profound thought I’ve heard in years, Man. I’m gonna sit with that for a while. Cuz I don’t ever forgive myself; I loathe myself. Which makes me want to get morphine and numb out, but then I hate myself even more for being a deadbeat addict. I want to be a good man, a good husband and a good father.”

“Yeah, well those are  possible in our imperfect, broken world, but you can’t be a perfect anything. However, you can pursue excellence. ”

“Okay, wow. This means something strong for me.”

“I can see that. Sometimes there are light bulb moments in counseling. They are fun, cool, even holy.”

“Tell me some more on perfection cuz I’m messed up about it.”

“Let’s see, I used to say that perfection is a living room you can’t live in, a car you can’t drive, a coin you can’t spend or a stamp you can’t send.  It’s a museum not a life. On the other hand real life is  meticulously messy and thoroughly incomplete and wonderfully disappointing.”

“Man, this is news to me. I never thought these thoughts before. Where did you learn this stuff?”

“From life, you know, experience and interacting with suffering persons. From my faith. and my own failures. There’s a lot of overlap between Christian beliefs and what is good in psychology. Like forgiveness, it’s a fundamental piece of the New Covenant that is Christianity. It’s essential to resetting the brokenness and separation from God that results from our sin. But even secular forgiveness produces a similar outcome of relief and a resetting of relationship. Think about this:  if your wife forgives you, then the waters of your relationship can begin flowing again. You are not dammed up any longer. Your relationship can move and dance again. In Christianity it’s an even bigger thing… you are not damned any longer when you accept your sinfulness and repent of it, then accept Jesus as your savior. Your soul can dance forever, not because you are perfect but because you are forgiven by a perfect God.”

“Man! I went to church as a kid, but I never got that concept. How is that possible?”

“Hey, I sat through Algebra I and II in high school and Business Calculus in college, but I can’t tell you a thing about them. I passed them all, but I have not a single lasting memory.”

“Yeah, yeah, you weren’t invested in it; you didn’t apply it so it wasted away. I get that.”

“Pretty much. I couldn’t be a NASA engineer…not that I ever wanted to be one.”

“Hmmmm. I don’t have to be perfect, so I don’t have to be angry at my brokenness? I like that, it’s a relief already. How did I get to these beliefs, I wonder?”

“Well, I imagine your family modeled some of this to you… you know, all or nothing behavior where all equals perfect and nothing equals obliteration by shame.”

“My mom was like that, always doing and doing, and then she’d drink alone every night. Not drunk so much as  just unavailable. I think I’m a lot like her, sort of going through the motions but not really living in the moment or enjoying what I do. I’m always looking for the approval and endorsement of others. When it doesn’t come immediately, I get pissed. But I won’t show it to anyone. I put up my mask of ‘everything is fine’.”

“I guess it gets lonely behind such a mask.”

“Oh yeah, only my wife gets in behind it, and then I want her to fix my life, make it all better. But that’s my job. I get so twisted up  and confused that I want to use again to reduce the anxiety and self loathing. So I cycle around and around. See, in my family it was not the work you did that mattered; it was how much money you made. I got into my field cuz people said I could make a lot of money without much schooling, and I did.”

“Okay, but your soul dried up, right?”

“Something like that. It wasn’t rewarding to me even though I was good at it. I was impatient for more, something bigger.”

“And that’s what the morphine gave you?”

“Absolutely. It erased my daily anxieties and self loathing till the next day. But the next day I’d start lower, you know, like standing on the beach as the waves hit you and undermine the sand beneath you.”

“Yeah, you get shorter with each receding wave.”

“So I don’t have to feel this way any more? ”

“Yeah.”

“But what about when the anxiety hits the roof and I start coming unglued?”

“You get with a sponsor or mentor and sweat your way through it. The anxiety will subside when other trusted folks show up.”

“That’s something I’ve never done, ya know, shared my fear and self  hatred.”

“Well, that’s the way through it, Man, not around it or under it. THROUGH IT. You can do it. ”

“Whooooowwww. I hope so. I can’t wait any longer to start my life.”

“Hey, make no mistake:  you have started your life. These lessons are gonna be burned into your brain, tattooed on for the rest of  your days. This is not sleepy Algebra class. You will make use of this agony one day. Take that to the bank.”

“You make it sound simple but not easy.”

“Simple as sawing your leg off rather than dying of gangrene. Simple? Yeah. Easy? No way.”

“Okay, where’s the saw?”

“That’s next week, tough guy. Power or manual?”

“Definitely manual.”