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Why Is Death So Shocking?

In Memorium: Bugsy 1996-2012Bugsy and Dave near Sandia

You would think after the supposed millions of years we have been “evolving” or adapting that we would be as surprised by death as we are by eating and elimination. You would think that if it were just another natural process that it would be as shocking as summer following spring, as stunning as another morning coffee. Why do we accept the brittle decay of maple leaves with such ease, yet when it comes to ourselves, to our friends, families, and pets, we are benumbed with grief, baffled by the finality of something that, by all scientific accounts, should be normal?

You would think after the supposed millions of years we have been “evolving” or adapting that we would be as surprised by death as we are by eating and elimination. You would think that if it were just another natural process that it would be as shocking as summer following spring, as stunning as another morning coffee. Why do we accept the brittle decay of maple leaves with such ease, yet when it comes to ourselves, to our friends, families, and pets, we are benumbed with grief, baffled by the finality of something that, by all scientific accounts, should be normal?

I have been told by very wise people that I have to make friends with Death. I believe they are right. But I have not yet been able.

Today, at 7:15 a.m., my husband’s dog, Bugsy, died after an old-fashioned Western, three year stand-off with cancer. Diagnosed with sarcoma in August of 2009, he was given about a month to live. Like the time he got his teeth wrapped around the edge of a flank steak, he took that to the track and he just kept going.

This is not an article about what we did to prolong his time with us or give him what we hoped was a beautiful quality of life. We did a lot of things—raw diet, classical homeopathy, at the very, very end steroids and antibiotics. We did whatever we could reasonably do without putting him through endless procedures or making him uncomfortable. We didn’t spend a lot of money. We didn’t go crazy. We took it one day at a time.

Which brings us to the point of this article: We had three years to prepare.

But as we knelt beside him and the doctor delivered the final injection, even though we knew exactly what was going to happen, we could not fathom it. When he took his last breath, we held ours, too. Were we waiting? To see if he would somehow defy the odds yet again?  Despite all our knowledge and all the obvious evidence, we could not believe he was gone. We stood looking at his little body and wondered where he went.

How is that?

How can we not believe it? How can I be in shock about Bugsy’s death any more than I’m in shock when the sun goes down or a breeze pushes back my hair? How can I say, “I can’t believe he’s not here!” when I’ve seen death in full frontal form with family members, friends and other pets.

But I was in shock. Again.

Maybe it has something to do with the kind of dog he was, with the kind of presence he had, with the way some people said, “He’s like a person.”

I thought if he had been a person, he would have been a Keystone Cop and he would not have been acting. He was cantankerous, funny, loving, protective, goofy, and he was my husband’s Guardian Angel. He was the dog that saved his life.

It was the night after Christmas. He’d been playing at a private party. At 4 a.m., he got a call from a friend saying they’d found a dog frozen to the street. He was about 4 to 6 weeks old, no more than that. His step-son, Stephen, had been asking for a dog for months, so he went to look at him. When he picked him up, he crawled up his chest. “I thought he was going to lick my face, but he jumped off my shoulder.” That was the beginning of a 16 year story of near-death adventures.

He had worms, a heart murmur, a gimpy leg from being frozen or possibly broken early on, he hadn’t been weaned and was not socialized. His was a slippery slope from the very beginning and raising him took work and attention but his crowning achievement was learning how to catch and crack pistachios, eat the meat, and spit out the shell.

Years passed and my husband suffered through several major disappointments—“rough times and hard drinking,” as he calls it. What saved him was knowing that Bugsy not only loved him, but needed him.  He had to stay alive, no matter how he felt. “He kept me coming home and he kept me waking up. He stared me down, waiting for me to wake up, some days, but I did, because he was there.”

When he was struggling with getting sober, he committed himself to a daily ritual with Bugsy: they would wrestle and play until they were both exhausted.

One day, he had given Bugsy a bath. It was his custom to dry him off with a towel then Bugsy would run through the house. But on this occasion, he jumped out completely wet, shook the suds off on the tile floor, and shot into the kitchen, where he waited behind a wall. Dave ran after him, flew up feet first, landed on his arse—hard—and Bugsy poked his head out, smiled (literally), and laughed, “HAH!”

He was a dog’s dog, a man’s dog, and eventually, he became a pack dog and a family dog when he became a part of our larger home life. He was the most adaptable dog I’ve ever encountered. There were incidents (one in which he was held by the nape of the neck by one of our bigger dogs until he squealed “uncle”), but he found his place and his peace.

When I told my mother about Bugsy’s passing, I started crying again. And as soon as I wept, she did, too. In between our sniffing and sobbing, I somehow managed to rail at the universe again, to be shocked again, to wonder again—how, why, what the heck was all this about, anyway? I told her, “I’m so sick of death.”

And she said to me, “You know, that’s the problem. You can’t stop it. You’re not eternal. No one’s eternal.”

And I remembered what Peter Kreeft had to say about that: Maybe the problem is the other way. Maybe we are eternal. Maybe we are continually shocked by death because it represents the antithesis to our highest natures, to our spirits. I may be wrong and if I am, I guess I won’t know it anyway. It’ll just all be gone and over, nothing. If I’m right, though, I’ll be kneeling down with Bugsy behind that wall, waiting to see Dave slide across a sudsy floor and we’ll both go, “HAH.”

 

The Luxury of Divorce

shadow-danceSince 2008, most of us have been walking budgetary tightropes—cutting a piece off of this, snipping some off of that. For a significant percentage, it’s been a steady slide into fiscal chaos, foreclosures, and fear. For some, it’s just the luxuries that have been eliminated: No more the extended vacation, the new car lease every year or two, or the $400 handbag spree. On all counts, it seems that we are a culture moving from decades of “Want It!” to the more realistic “Need It?” Coupon clipping is in again and most people are more worried about whether they’re going to have a roof over their heads than whether they’re sporting the latest Uggs. It has properly affected every aspect of our lifestyles and, hopefully, our values and priorities. But, inevitably, a change so vast has also affected our relationships.

There seem to be two trends at the same time:

On one hand, with less expendable income, there are less expendable marriages. Our new economic realities may be forcing yet another belt tightening—or heart tightening—process: People can no longer afford to get divorced.

One attorney in White Plains, N.Y., Joy Joseph, Esq., has been a specialist in matrimonial law for many years. In the last six years she has seen a very clear downward trend in the number of divorces:

“For people of moderate means, the economy has had a big impact. It is very expensive to get divorced. Only a part of it is attorney’s fees. The bigger part is that the assets are split or devalued in the process. Usually that’s the house, in which they have very little equity. Plus there’s the risk of losing the partner’s health benefits. They’re afraid to live uninsured. So, they cling to an unhappy marriage because they can’t afford to leave.”

The statistics support her observations: A new paper in the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy (*1) shows that as unemployment rises, the divorce rate goes down: For every 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate, the divorce rate goes down by 1 percent.

On the other hand:

The NPR-Kaiser Family Foundation survey (*2) suggests that while divorce is down, discord is up. They reported that high unemployment has contributed to ruptures in many families around the country. They state that more than 20% of all Americans who have been without work for more than a year claim that their close relationships have suffered. More than 30% say their financial difficulties have had a profound negative impact on their partners’ health/well-being.

What does this mean for marriages?

Unfortunately for the truly horrible ones it will mean a forced choice between one hardship and another. I know one woman who has no money, three children, no extended family, and no friends because her violent husband has sequestered her. He has gained control of everything, including the children, through both stealth and steady emotional manipulation. He has made her afraid of leaving even though staying will eventually mean her death. She has begun investigating shelters for her and her children and a life she will have to recreate from the very fundamentals, knowing he may still hunt her down. She stands at this crossroads and trembles.

For others in less dire circumstances, it gets complicated by other matters—both material and immaterial. Another woman I know says it’s about money but as it turns out she has about $30,000 in a bank account, a good getaway car, jewelry, and a small, discrete dog she can easily take with her in a carrying case. She knows people in other states. So, why does she stay with a man who hates her, berates her, and beats her? I asked her point blank and she said it was because she likes her furniture. She’s attached to her stuff. While I know that can be true, I think it’s more.

In my experience, a lot of people, men and women, who suffer in abusive relationships do so because they don’t know anything else and have no vista for hope. Often they were so painfully damaged by earlier relationships, they were made to feel as if they deserved no better. I think in her case, it is that she truly feels unworthy and doesn’t trust her own ability to step away, make new friends, get work, and survive in the world on her own. The stuff is little more than a ready excuse.

Another couple, two women who have lived together for fifteen years but have nothing between them but a mortgage, stay because they can’t sell their home. It has been on the market for two years and they have lived utterly separate lives during that entire time.

Some experts say that this may be a situation that bodes well for couples whose marriages are in the borderland between functional and finished. Necessity is the mother of invention and, they suggest, the necessity of living together can force people to find ways to do so companionably, work out issues, and perhaps find it in their hearts to love one another in ways they had not imagined before.

I think of the few moments I was angry and fleetingly considered baling on my marriage—probably the same time my husband considered a similar solution. What made us stand still and work it through? Admittedly, besides occasional pride and obstinacy, our marriage is very stable. Was it just love, then? Surely love was a good part of it, but I don’t believe it was all of it. I believe the commitment and the difficulty of feathering apart two completely interwoven lives overrode the momentary instability. In being faced with staying, we had to work at it. Easy? Far from it. Humbling. Frustrating. Wearisome. Not easy.

But eminently worth it for us. The process brought us to an entirely new level of intimacy, validating everything the optimists hope for and all that clergy argue: that most of us take the easy way out far too easily and leave before the miracle happens.

However, the data does not support the optimism when it comes to marriages that are fundamentally unstable or violent. To the contrary—the current situation should make advocates of domestic violence prevention quite concerned.

If the Great Depression was any indicator, the divorce rate went down, but incidence of violence in the home went up. According to Stephanie Coontz(*3), a historian and professor of women’s studies at Evergreen State College, when states began to permit no-fault divorces, domestic violence dropped by 20 to 30% and the rate at which husbands were murdered by their wives was significantly lowered. According to her, divorce provides a very necessary “safety valve.”

Joy Joseph stated that her experience supported Coontz’s conclusion: “As a result of their inability to afford full divorces, people are going to mediation, which can be good if there’s something to be saved. But a lot of women get hurt in the bargain because they don’t hire their own attorney. They’ve often stayed home to take care of the kids and the husband is generally the main provider and wields the most power. Despite the social changes of the last 50 years, there’s still a great deal of disparity.

“It’s not good,” she adds. “Financial stressors are one of the biggest reasons people split up. Then couple that with the bad relationship and you’ve got a real problem.”

Coontz and others predict that as the downturn resolves, divorce rates will quickly go back up again, which make some people hopeful.

That statistical prediction strikes me as sad, even if it is necessary or inevitable.

Is it wrong to hope that collectively we can learn something terribly important from this recession? Is it wrong to pray that we begin to realize we are not the things we own, rather the relationships we have and the love we give? While I am certainly not in favor of someone staying in a marriage that puts him/her (or children, especially) at risk, I think it might do us all a bit of good to slow down, to take a bit more time between the fight and the time we scream, “I’m outa here.”

 

1)     http://www.npr.org/2011/12/20/144021297/marriage-economy-i-couldnt-afford-to-get-divorced

2)     Ibid.

3)     http://googlinggod.com/2011/12/21/how-to-stay-married-in-the-economic-downturn/

Can We Just Call it Homesickness?

refugee tornadoSince 1935, when Dupont adopted the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry,” we have been a culture pummeled by polymers and overly impressed by the new and shiny. Their advertising not only changed how we thought about the rush of chemicals being delivered to us (through medicine, in our water, in our foods), but reflected a new age of humanity in which biochemistry became a cruel and indifferent king. No longer were people thought of as “heartbroken.” They were thought of as chemically imbalanced.

Most people don’t know that diagnoses vary and move along social currents. Because of the authority with which words like “clinical depression” or “bipolar” are used in modern conversation, they are given the impression that those words have a permanence and solidity they do not actually have.

For instance, what we now commonly call PTSD has only been recognized as a formal disorder since 1980. During the American Civil War, soldiers returning from battle with inexplicable symptoms were said to have “Soldier’s Heart.” In World War I it was referred to as “War Malaise” or “Shell Shock,” in World War II, “Combat Fatigue,” in Korea “Gross Stress Reaction” and after Vietnam, it was cleverly called “Post-Vietnam Syndrome.”

Does it matter what we call it?

Some think it matters a great deal because names often determine approach or treatment. It makes sense. If someone is called “Your Highness” we are sure to approach him or her quite differently than if he or she were called “dear.” Similarly, if we call a state of mind a chemical imbalance, than we are very likely to approach (or treat) that state with chemicals, often many. If, on the other hand, we call it a broken heart or loneliness or arrogance or self-pity, we take a rather different tack.

This comes up because of something a patient said to me the other day. She also recently moved east from New Mexico when her husband was made a corporate offer he couldn’t refuse. She came from an old family in Santa Fe with a history that went back almost 400 years to the Spanish Conquest. She had grown up with open vistas, nearly eternally clear skies, and a community in which everyone knew one another. To say hers was a shocking uprooting would be an understatement.

She came in complaining of inexplicable and free-floating anxiety, lethargy, a tendency to weepiness over trifles, an inability to sleep through the night because of dreams and restlessness. Her first question after she elaborated on her symptom picture was: “Do you think I’m depressed?” The as yet unspoken question underneath was: Did she need medication?

Instead of answering either of those questions, I asked her about her dreams, when these symptoms started, what she’d been doing since she moved here and how well (or poorly) she was getting acclimated to a new environment and culture.

As it turned out, her symptoms began about a month after arriving, shortly after the last box had been unpacked and recycled. Suddenly, there was nothing to do. Her husband was going to his new job. Her two young children were in school. She was at home, sans friends, sans work, sans family. In New Mexico, she had not only been working, she had an extended family that occupied a great deal of her time with social engagements and care-taking elderly members. People stopped into one another’s homes fairly regularly. She had a church she loved. Here, she was alone. Worse, she was lonely.

Could someone call that depression? I imagine they could find support for it in the diagnostics and standards manual. But I’d rather call it homesickness. Not only because it is more precise, but because it gives her a way out.

Of course she misses her home. Of course she feels lonely. Of course she’s bored and restless. Of course she longs for friends and relatives. Who wouldn’t in her situation? There’s no pathology in that.

What needed to be changed were not those feelings, but what she was doing all day with them. First prescription: Volunteer. Second prescription: Find a church with her husband. Third prescription: Join a club (in her case she agreed to a yoga class).

It took about a month for her symptoms to abate.  While she still missed friends and family (and bright, endless blue skies), she was no longer as lonely, bored or restless. She slept better because her energy was redirected and expended during the day. She began to make new friends and feel a part of something bigger than her own heartbeat in a large, empty house.

The more I think about her case, the more I am inclined to think of PTSD as Soldier’s Heart. I think it more clearly sums up what we are looking at: A wound of war that breaks a heart, not a chemistry problem.

 

The Answer Within: Shmuck.

authorityIn our Modern Age, we’ve all been told that to find the real answers, we need to look “within.” It’s a message we see in magazines, hear over and over on television, and, of course, have thrust into our consciousness with the endless torrent of self-help books published every year. Even that concept–self-help–is an idea all the generations before us would have found both bizarre and blasphemous.

But culture manifests all over, even at the deli counter. I was waiting to place an order when I heard a painful whine behind me. A little girl didn’t know what she wanted for lunch. A well-meaning mother asked her in a dozen different ways what her preference was. Would she like this? Would she like that? Remember when you had it before? Do you remember what you liked about it? What you didn’t like about it? The sweet thing just didn’t know and soon she was crying. The woman knelt down near her daughter (she was quite little) and talked to her in a gentle way about finding the answer within her heart and tummy.

I thought that was simultaneously sweet, amusing, and intriguing, also impossibly patient. Of course, I think the mother was trying to teach her child a valuable skill, one well worth learning. And she probably did a lot of other things that were kind, reassuring, and nurturing for her daughter.

But that child became so frustrated and tired trying to figure it out by herself that she screamed, “I DON’T KNOW!” loud enough to wake up the cashiers in the front of the store. Poor little thing just wanted someone to tell her, “here’s your lunch, honey…” and it made me wonder if perhaps we were overdoing it a bit. Maybe within isn’t the only way to go?

Were there always answers within? Indeed, are there any there for any of us? And if there were real answers, would we really want to hear them?

I thought of all the times I tried to figure things out for myself and wound up in ditches double my reach. I can still remember at least a couple of times looking entirely to myself–the Deeper Within–with important questions, and the Deeper Within shouting the answer back up to me: “Shmuck!”  The answers I’ve received that have been of enduring value have mostly come from others with greater experience, wisdom, or grace.

On the other hand, I can also remember having moments of utter certainty in the face of chaotic circumstances, times when I absolutely knew what was the right thing to do. I may have been scared or intimidated or concerned, but I somehow knew.

So, what our loving mother was doing at the deli counter was, in my mind, at least theoretically sound. It is good to teach a child how to rely on himself to some degree. But is it always right? Isn’t it also necessary to teach that child what is right and wrong, what is expectable, and how the world works so he or she can make proper choices, can function socially, can be healthy? Isn’t it necessary to have some leadership, even if it’s as simple as pointing out which mushrooms to avoid in the woods? Or which foods to pick out at the deli counter?

As usual, I mentioned it to my husband and I asked him if he thought we could find the answers within ourselves. And, also as usual, my pithy Montanan said, “‘pends what you mean by ‘answers.’”

I thought about that for days. When people are looking for answers are they actually seeking out the truth? Or are they looking for corroboration for their impulses or desires?

The need to go to oneself may be in fact the way one satisfies the need to get one’s own desires met. Often that leads us down the road to perdition, hence the old proverb–”A physician who treats himself has a fool for a doctor.”

I asked another Montanan friend, Ed Johnson, a really bright fellow who’s worked in higher education for more than 20 years, whether he thought it was possible to rely on oneself for the answers and whether looking within was all one needed.

At first he said, “I’ll have to dig deep within myself for that one…” And then he referenced a National Geographic article he recently read on the teenage brain.

“It turns out,” he smiled, “that they’re not nuts. They have a different risk-reward equation. The teenager understands consequences, but they choose the potential-perceived reward and ignore the risks.”

Because of this and other anomalies–genetic issues, early childhood difficulties–he felt that looking within could be unreliable until there was full neurologic development.

I had to agree with him but I take it one step further. Without real health and a full emotional, psychological, and physical maturity, we’re looking for complex answers from an abacus when we require far more advanced equipment. Over the years of working with individuals in crisis of one kind or another, I have found that those who relied entirely on their own “feelings” or “inner voice” wound up in pain, confused, and rudderless because they had never received (or, later on, looked for) the kind of guidance, nurturing, or education (moral or emotional) that would have given them a proper reservoir of answers instead of a headache from feedback.

Which leaves me with this understanding: Answers are not innate. In fact, we are not born knowing very much. Children (and young animals) left to their own devices are perfect examples of what happens when we do not have the benefit of what others have learned, of ancestral wisdom. Those kids (and critters) either die or become socially and morally irredeemable. The hard-wiring for relationships is simply never created.

Answers are learned; sometimes they are intuited based on both spiritual and emotional input, sometimes inspired. But we all need road maps to start with.

People with a good inner compass have almost always been taught how to find true north, where to go and then precisely what to do to and when they get there. We may be born with the capacity, but not the skill. That is an important distinction. Unless a person is given the resources fairly early in life, the only answer he or she will find when they look within is either a resounding silence or, worse, an echo.

Which brings us back to my husband’s point: Do we want answers or do we want truth? They are not always the same thing.

Ultimately this is about the search for truth. Unfortunately most people wind up in a search for what they want. Desire leads us down one road and often truth leads us down another.

The Necessary Death of Romance


fairy girlIn My Lost City, Fitzgerald wrote, “I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage.” He was referring to the life and the loves that he and so many others had enjoyed in New York when it truly roared in the 1920’s.

It was a giddy mirage, an imagined impression across the distance of a desert; a time of the swirling, singing nouveau, the sultry and seditious slipping off of Victorian repression, of skyscrapers and millionaires and railroads that seemed to be able to leap over mountains, of planes that hurled themselves through the air. It was the era that led to the consummate American hero in 1932 with the birth of Superman. It was an era of Romance that made people feel they could finally catch up to the horizon, and—better yet—go beyond it to a life never imagined before. The possibilities were limitless. They were limitless.

Until, as all great romance must eventually, it crashed.

And all the wild speculation encouraged by big business at the time came tumbling down like a torn party dress around the ankles of the people who could afford it the least. Farmers, small businesses, dreamers, and desperate immigrants were swindled into sinking their lives’ savings into high-risk real estate investments, even though it was plainly evident that the need for space was almost nil, production schemes, even though growth was slowing, and consumer gimmicks even though they were as shady as an unregulated economy had ever been.

Sound familiar? Seems we have neither changed nor learned much since then.

It was heartless scheming. It was ruthless capitalism. It was cronyism at its worst. All true. Yes. But it was the Romantic Vision that allowed and perpetuated it. It was the insistence on the impossible and the belief in the limitless self that made people easy prey.

When I speak of romance in this sense, it is not just a reference to that flurry of the heart when we are falling in love. It is there then, as well. But it is more than that.

When Romance Is Good

In The Four Loves (1960, Harcourt Brace), C.S. Lewis talks about Romance as Eros and distinguishes it from lust by defining it as the rapture of the divine, the emotional foreplay of the gods within us.

When we are moved by this sort of romance or Eros to “fall in love,” what we are actually doing, he says, is seeing the divine in the other. When that happens we are inevitably guided by the impression that “Love conquers all” or that “In love all is possible.” It was the guiding principle of the late 1800’s and has been, in one form or another, one of the American four basic philosophical food groups since then.

He says, rightly, I believe, that this willing self-deception is both necessary and good for meeting and wooing the Beloved.

“By Eros I mean of course that state which we call “being in love”; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are “in”…. 

“Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes). Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”

This state of heightened awareness and ecstasy is precisely what allows us to become blissfully unaware of the Beloved’s imperfections and to begin a relationship which we might otherwise too quickly dismiss. For a relationship in which perfection is no longer necessary, we must move past Eros into Friendship.

To the extent that romance allows us to struggle through obstacles, hold out hope when it is truly needed and helpful, and imbue our lives with both promise and purpose, it is good. Meaning, when it serves us—when it helps us to build relationships, conceive of such miracles as airplanes, anesthesia, or cell phones, or push through malevolent military blockades to rescue the innocent—it is a blessing.

When it leads us to see ourselves as somehow beyond the laws of nature, as capable of controlling what is not controllable, as immune to the inevitable draw of gravity, it is a curse.

When Romance Is Not So Good

All things must ripen or fall off the tree too early and die. It is the way of things. Often it brings terrible sadness to us. Sometimes, shock. It is never easy to see the sun come up after the revelry and delight of dancing gods and goddesses; even harder to see what the brighter light reveals about who we’ve been dancing with.

But for us to have the lives and loves we long for—both individually and collectively as a culture—it is absolutely necessary for Eros to be replaced by a more sanguine and subtle understanding. If it doesn’t, we wind up like Fitzgerald, lost in a lost city, besotted by booze and benumbed by grief. And our society winds up in the same position we found ourselves in ’29 and in ’08, bereft of our fortunes, throwing ourselves out of windows in despair and shame.

Eros cannot tolerate bright light. It must either die or flee or be reformed by a new reality.

If it is reformed, we will be transformed.

We will stand ready to see clearly and know the Other. We will stand ready to be seen. Not for who we might be, who we represent (Venus or Mars), but for who we are.

Easier said than done.

We are surrounded by forces—economic and cultural—that will do anything to keep us from making that transformation.

If you look carefully at what happened in the twenties, you may notice a profound connection between the rise in advertising as a broad medium of communication and the rise in a sort of cultural far-sightedness, in which we could only see that which was far away and nearly out of reach. (“You, too, can have this X, Y or Z when you just send us…”) We became in many ways the nation we are now—consumers and climbers, always waiting on line for the next version or the newest sensation that will somehow make our lives what they “should” be.

This is the romanticism that is sold on Madison Avenue, not the Romance of the gods.

And, I believe, it is the one that has shaped us as a country and kept us from that which we long for most: love, joy, gratitude, companionship, a sense of belonging, purpose. So long as we exist for the revelry of Eros, dance only in the dark, and shield ourselves from the morning’s truth by turning our faces inside out so we can only see our own ideas, we are trapped in a lie. We may become mortals without morals, but we cannot become humans without limits.

The irony is that we are so much more.

“It is a serious thing,” says Lewis, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

–C. S. Lewis, From The Weight of Glory.

 

 

Am I Mine?

[Currently appearing in Huffington Post, Religion section.]

Am I?

Yesterday I sat watching a storm tumble in as they can do only in this region of the country — catapulting, cranky and fast. There were spiny shards of lightning, whipping sheets of rain you could see approach from a distance of 30-40 miles, and a thunder roll that had three large dogs shaking behind my legs.

I was mesmerized. I gathered up the dogs and went inside to watch. It was not a small storm. It brought hail, the noise of nightmares, darkness and ferocity.

And I had this unbidden, strange, delicious thought: I am created. I am a creation.

It seemed more like a letter addressed to me than a self-generated idea and what it appeared to be telling me was this simple and magnificent thing: I am not my own. I no more created myself than the thunderhead before me or the mountain with which it collided.

Now, to me — as much as to you — that is a very strange idea. It is almost a cultural betrayal. Like everyone else, I have told myself many times that I am very much my own. I have not only told myself, I have repeatedly taught that idea to others. I was told to believe in myself, so I cultivated that belief. I was told I am my thoughts, so I have aimed to think well. I was particularly told to think well of myself and have developed what is generally considered to be a healthy sense of self esteem. I own my home. I have a career. I build friendships. I am ME. I am MINE.

But then the storm said, “Well, not exactly…”

It went on to say that I was not my own, certainly not in the way I had thought. It said I was God’s. That, like the thunder, the lightning, the birds taking refuge in the trees, I was His creation and that it was all constantly unfolded, rolled into motion and kept in existence by an act of Will that was not by any means mine.

Given how I was raised, trained and educated, I would have more than expected that thought to be anathema to me. What do you mean I’m not my own??? It was an odd moment overall. But when I think back to other moments of great understanding or fragments of Grace, I think much of what has been shown to me has been odd. Some were real head tilters. I imagine they made me look like my dogs do when I start talking to them. And in some ways, those experiences weren’t much different. It was as though I was hearing a language I’d never heard before except that I could understand it — just not with my ears or my conscious mind. And this was no different. It was very strange and very big. Much bigger than my body, my mind, or anything else I considered proprietary.

Looking back I would’ve normally expected myself to be either a bit frightened or annoyed; it surprised me to find out that I was actually relieved. If I was created, my existence not only had meaning, it was personal.

I finally began to understand what “self-esteem” alluded to but never gave me: a sense of belonging. In that storm, a new truth was revealed; none of us — not me, not the dogs, not the mountains or the rain — stood solely for ourselves. All of us in unison pointed to Something Else, a Magic that was deeper than magic, a single Breath that filled the lungs of all life. And all of it inhaled, hoping for more. Self-esteem had never been enough.

Not for a moment in that reverie did I feel as though belonging to Another had stripped me of the ability to choose. The moment came with an invitation, not an ultimatum or a compulsion. I could continue to rely on myself — or not. I felt perfectly free to choose what I did next: ignore the message, dismiss it as unscientific, laugh at it, write about it, sit with it. The possibilities presented themselves and later that evening I chose (as you can see). And as I wrote, trying to sift through the sensation (because it was quite physical) of being actively, consciously and purposefully created, I found that it made me more than I was, rather than less.

Fear And Control

A bit of history might help you understand why this is such a great relief for me and why I chose to write to you instead of to ignore the experience.

Most of my life has been spent in fear, fighting fear or treating fear. Of what? Of everything. Of death, of life, of loving, of losing, of being well, of being sick. The why’s are too numerous to go into here (maybe another essay), but suffice it to say that it was exhausting, at times incapacitating. It’s been many years since then, but the body memory can be recalled with ease.

The natural result of all that fear was — for me — the futile attempt to control my circumstances. If I can “just” drive this way, or I can “just” get him to do it that way, or if I can “just” keep my schedule in “just” the right order, all will be well, I will be safe, I will be loved.

Needless to say — and you all surely know this from your own experience — it didn’t work. I just spent more and more time trying to ward off an army with a toothpick. Controlling didn’t bring love, never guaranteed safety (only the temporary illusion of it) and never made me well. If anything it called forth the opposite: It made me annoying, it put me in situations which I should have hastily avoided, and it weakened me so that I took sick.

As I watched the storm I began to understand that the fear had the power it did for so many years because I had felt utterly alone. Of course, I wasn’t alone — neither in the social sense, the psychological one, nor the spiritual one. But I felt alone, on my own the way a forsaken orphan does, one who mistakenly struggles against the world with the full load of survival on his way too narrow shoulders. And because of that I believed I had to manage everything. If I didn’t, who would? I was convinced that it was up to me.

That is the price of separateness. I was mine. But, then, with that, so was everything else.

I’d like to share with you a wonderful idea. It comes from a book entitled “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. In one segment, he talks about the Will that beckons us from behind every rock, breeze and berry tree, and how the perceived repetition of nature (the sun that rises again and again, the tides that rush in and out at the same time every year, the exchange of synaptic chemistry in predictable ways) is due not to a series of unimaginative scientific laws or a dull and insensate lifelessness but to a conscious vibrancy, “a rush of life.”

He likens it to the way children kick their legs back and forth, back and forth, enough to drive more sedated adults to distraction, not because of an absence of vitality but because they have so much of it. He recalls also (who hasn’t done this?) the way children will happily hear a story over and over and over, pulling on someone’s shirt sleeve, “Read it again!” The adult may be bored to tears, but the child is enthralled every time.

Because of a child’s unbridled enthusiasm for life, because they are still unfettered in spirit, everything they see bares the stamp of the Great Magician, all of living is an act of mystery, daring and surprise, every day is prefaced by the curtain being pulled up to reveal a new rabbit or an inexplicably empty box.

He says,

“It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. May be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy … our Father is younger than we are.”

He goes on to reveal that he has always seen life as a story, and “that if there is a story, there is a story teller.”

I saw at least a bit of that story in the dark clouds and torrents of rain yesterday and finally, finally got a sense of the Great Story Teller Himself as he wet his thumb and turned the page and asked me, “Would you like to see what happens next?”

And my heart leapt and my lips said “Yes!” glad beyond words that finally I did not have to know the ending, that I could be a part of something much grander and beloved than I ever could have if I had tried to do the writing myself.

Emotional Twinkies

As it appeared in Huffington Post this past week:

I know a woman struggling with having an affair. Not the actual “having”, but the idea of it. She ruminates about the man in question day and night. Should she, shouldn’t she. She is married, has a daughter and the man she is fantasizing about is also married, though apparently he has made it clear that he is more than interested in her. The attraction is mutual, and there are all sorts of innuendos and near-misses — a brush against the hand, a bump in the hallway — all day at work.

She tells me the only reason she has been struggling with turning the idea into reality is because she has been held back by her ethics. She had been raised to believe that her word was her honor and that commitments were to be held sacred. Her early home life was devout if not technically religious. She was torn between her desire to “let go” and have fun and an innate sense of right and wrong. She was also raised to be a perfectionist — which ultimately ruins a good sense of duty and honor — and made to feel that everything was her responsibility, even when it wasn’t. As a result, she feels internally twisted, pressured, as if there were knots all along her circulatory system. In truth, she enjoys very little unless her mood is enhanced by drugs and alcohol.

She asked me in near anguish, “Why can’t I just be selfish like everyone else? I just wanna have fun for one minute. I know I will feel awful later, but I need something now.”

I noticed two things in her question:

One, was that she seemed to be equating enjoyment with selfishness — that in order to be happy one had to become selfish. It would not be hard to make that assumption in our culture. Additionally, she seemed to have an underlying belief that selfishness — literally putting the “self” first — was something to aspire to, or worse, that there would be something worthwhile to gain by being selfish when everything in my personal and professional experience has taught me precisely the opposite. To my understanding, she was confusing self-care with self-centeredness.

The other thing I put in the form of a question:

“Do you know anything about addiction?”

She tilted her head, wondering why I asked something so seemingly irrelevant.

I said what she was saying reminded me so much of what addicts say when they need a fix. There is a moment in every addict’s life in which this very profound turmoil becomes a conscious battle: Do I do what I know is right — it coincides with my values, it reflects long-term gain and health — or do I do what I feel like doing for short-term gain even though I know it will go against my beliefs, cause me and others pain, and otherwise complicate my life emotionally, mentally and fiscally?

Do I choose a full course meal that requires some forethought and preparation, or do I pop open the emotional Twinkie? It may look like food, it may even taste like food for a moment, but it’s little more than an intra-psychic shot of dope that leaves us still hungry, empty and wondering what just happened. It makes me think of the first (and last) time I ate cotton candy. I remember so vividly the anticipation of all that pink sweetness only to find out that once I put it in my mouth it disappeared and made my teeth hurt.

This twinkie phenomenon has occurred more and more often in my office, so much so that I’m noticing a trend. I don’t know why, and I have no studies that indicate anything notable. I do know that heroin is making a monstrous comeback, though. Perhaps they are both indications of something more profound and pervasive.

A Fast-Food/Fast-Feel Culture

As usual, when I am presented with a situation like this in people I look to both the internal motivations and the cultural supports for those motivations. Without the supports, many of these fancies would remain nothing but fancies or whims. They would not have the social buttressing to stay in place or to so smoothly and easily perpetuate the imagined behavior, like having an affair as opposed to having a moment of fantasy.

The internal motivation is simple to identify in most cases. A person might need relief, sex, food, support, love or belonging.

What does our culture do with these basic needs?

Still reeling from the “if it feels good, do it” ethos of the ’60s, our social milieu says go get what you need — whatever it is, however you must. Who cares if you destroy your own life so long as you don’t really hurt anyone else? One problem here is that more often than not, hurting oneself does actually hurt others in so many ways, both hidden and obvious — the emotional toll on those who care about us, the societal cost required to pick up hospital bills, the price of divorce and custody battles, insurance, police involvement, etc. This has bred a self-indulgent, self-involved couple of generations that is hard for me to fathom.

I was raised to work and to value not only the result of that work, but also the effort and process itself. I loathed dependency. I liked having my own. So I started working as soon as I could. When I was thirteen I started with filing in an office where my mother worked. Throughout school, I took on what I could find for the summers or after classes: secretarial, camp counselor, cashier, bra salesperson at Macy’s 34th Street, waitress or whatever it took to pay my bills, get through school and have some cash to go to a movie. It was expected of me, both by my parents and by myself. And before I went to that movie or spent that cash, my own responsibilities were attended to. Period. Please understand, I was never deprived and had many blessings in my life, for which I’m eternally grateful. But there were no free rides.

A case in counterpoint:

Someone else I know whose judgment is usually fairly good forgot to use birth control, got his girlfriend pregnant, then got married before either of them had a job or career path. After the wedding he decided he needed a new car and a new home. Why not? That’s what people do when they start families, right? That’s what the people on TV do.

Would he be paying for it? Nope.

Did he want it? You bet. His plan? Get family members to take care of it. If I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock I would have had my head handed to me on a platter, not a spacious condo.

Worse, he is so good at making the situation look dire, it seems like the family is going to do exactly what he wants. So he will have his short-term needs — more space, sweeter transportation — met, while his more serious and long-term needs — individuation, maturity, responsibility and self-respect — are allowed to atrophy. He has substituted twinkies for food, quick satisfaction for nourishment, entitlement for autonomy.

My thoughts? Only one: Ye gads.

Toxic Venting!!

Another article on Huffington Post

Toxic Venting: When To Stop Listening

Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat, I’ll tell thee thou dost evil. — The Great Bard

An Orthodox priest I know and respect a great deal recently wrote to me about a meeting he’d had with some parishioners. They were upset about some personal issues and were soliciting his help, at least on the surface. As the conversation stretched on, it turned out that they were thoroughly uninterested in anything he thought, and even less in anything he had to say besides, “You poor thing.” “Perhaps,” he wrote with some bemusement, “sitting and venting your troubles is not as healthy as we think.”

He was curious about my clinical take on the matter. I wrote him, explaining that I have had more than a few patients (and friends and family members) who just want to “vent,” as we’ve come to call it. They want us to listen, but not to offer anything in the way of opinions, suggestions, advice, consolation or insight.

From time to time, this sort of gentle, non-judgmental listening is a good (even essential) part of friendship and therapy. We get hurt, we need a shoulder. We get scared, we need a hand. We get angry, we need an ear. We rant and rave for a few moments and we move on. Either we’ve seen the problem in a new light by virtue of our own expression, or we get bored with ourselves, or the listening itself has alleviated a great burden. This is especially true when a grief or loss is involved, and people need to talk about their loved ones or express the pain they feel. Sometimes the venting continues for a while, and the moving forward is difficult. That’s all as it should be.

Women have complained about men not “just listening” for eons. “Why do you always have to fix it? Why can’t you just listen?” That question opens another can of worms. But for the moment, suffice it to say that one of the really good reasons is that it’s not just a man’s problem — it’s a human problem that exists in relationships of all kinds. Listening well is hard. We’re not born knowing how to do it.

But offering an ear or a shoulder is just a small part of it. Good listening is an art form. It elicits not just release, but exploration. It is not passive, as some would imagine, calling to mind that banal and silent Freudian nod. Good listening seeks to understand. It asks questions. It ponders. It examines. It searches for both manifest and latent meanings. It requires openness and bonafide availability. It is fully present and interested. But it is not always silent, and it does not automatically dismiss accountability. And, as a result, it is decidedly not what some people are looking for: a toxic dump site.

There are people who are simply venting. My mother calls once every few days since my brother died to talk about him with someone who also knew and loved him, to say she misses him, and still finds it hard to believe he’s gone. It doesn’t last long. She is relieved by some gentle reassurances, until the next time she wakes up to the shock of the loss. This is truly what love demands. It is as far from toxic as venting can get. It is the purest of human need. I never feel put upon by her need to talk, and I understand the wave of confusion that comes over her. For a few minutes I stand still as her ground wire.

Then there are the people who are looking for something more. They are looking only to see themselves as they imagine themselves to be perfectly reflected by our approval and sympathy. They are what that same priest called “coalition builders,” and if you’re not with them, you’re against them.

An example: I knew a man who talked about almost nothing besides how much he hated his boss and how he was going to leave his job. He said it over and over, bemoaning his mistreatment (which was not nearly as bad as he claimed — I knew the situation), doing nothing either to change himself or his situation for the better. It had been going on for a year when one day he announced that his boss was a blanket-blank and he walked out.

When he called, instead of saying, “Bully for you!” as he must have expected, I asked him how he planned to support himself (he is not married and had no other prospects). His answer: He was moving in with his mother, who only had social security and was not at all happy about his decision. In fact, she was scared. Even though I never blamed or chastised, when I asked questions about how she might handle it, or wondered how he would change the hate he was holding since his boss was out of his life and clearly wasn’t going to change, or the cavalier slide into dependency and how that might be hard to reverse, he became irate. He said, “I thought you were my friend! I thought you supported me!” Then he hung up and refused to take my calls or speak to me any further.

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. I should have seen the pattern much earlier: the late night calls when he knew we woke up early, the interminable complaints, the total lack of interest in anything that was going on in our lives and the petulant indignation about every relationship he had. No one understood him. No one really appreciated him. No one supported him quite enough.

He was a whiner. I knew that from day one. But I thought it was benign. New Yorkers are used to some whining — it’s part of the cultural milieu. Besides, he had other qualities that distracted me from the central issues. He was charming, funny, self-deprecating at just the right moments, creative and bright. He was the star of almost every get-together.

In my mind, I was his friend. But when push came to shove and the whining became not only endless but destructive, I could support neither the decision he made nor the way he made it — self-righteously, thoughtlessly and hatefully. Does that make me less a friend? I don’t think so. If anything, it might be the other way around. Perhaps he was less of a friend than I had imagined, and the relationship was based only on my unwavering approval of whatever he did — right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish. He wanted a mirror with a smiley face slapped on top of it, not a separate person with thoughts and ideas and principles of her own.

There are points at which we all have to take stock of what is happening in a relationship. These reviews occur all the time, like anti-virus software running in the background, constantly assessing whether something is dangerous or not, whether it should be let in or not, whether something that has been let in should be escorted out. But occasionally, there are precipitants that make the examination more urgent, and we are red-flagged.Toxic venting is one of them.

The way we can tell we’re the object of a toxic vent is when we begin to get a sense that we are about as important in the relationship as the chair we’re sitting on, that there’s nothing personal about the conversation, and if our companion were not venting to us, she’d be venting to a stack of two-by-fours. We have been objectified. We can’t get a word in edgewise. We’re quickly dismissed if we do not become a part of the venter’s consensus. We might even find ourselves bored or subtly angered by the nature of the monologue. It’s usually not a pleasant sensation. Even if we’re not conscious it’s happening, we can feel something is wrong.

The people who are best at this sort of venting are narcissists. Not only are they good at it, but they use conversation very deftly to satisfy themselves, not to engage another mind, or to learn, or to understand or even to actually converse. They are not much interested in the reception of their ideas, unless it is their own reception of applause or commiseration that fuels their distorted self-image. And they may not even be interested in hearing the confirmation, “You’re right” because, Lord knows, they’re not worried about that. Their venting is self-centered, even idolatrous. In it they become their own tin gods and everything they do is righteous. It’s the rest of the world (us) that has the problem.

The priest who wrote to me mentioned what he called the “counter-point” to this toxic venting: reflective silence. He explained that when couples come to him either before marriage or with marital issues, he encourages silent communion between the two individuals. And I thought, “Now that’s a rare idea.”

How many times do we sit quietly after a fight, or a clash of wills, or a failure of performance or an injustice? How easy is it for us to be silent with ourselves, wait for wisdom, examine our consciences or our accountability for the way things sometimes turn out?

It’s barely within most of our repertoires. It’s certainly not my first inclination, and I don’t think I’m that different from most people in the country. Most of the time, we react. We talk too much, think too much, pace too much or drink too much. Sometimes, we fight. Sometimes, we do worse. And we do it all fast.

Narcissistic venting is the perfect opposite of reflective silence. It hides in its own verbose self-pity and anger. If we don’t join in the tirade, the claw of accusation gets turned against us. Our friendship, decency, attitude and compassion all get called into question.

Allowing ourselves to be used as emotional dumping grounds doesn’t do our friends much good, even if they think it does, even if they feel ever so much better after they’ve drained the sludge out of themselves and spilled it onto us. Ultimately, it makes us both worse — spiritually, psychologically and physically.

How to Stop Listening

At first I thought that would be the simplest part. After all, wouldn’t a simple to say, “Can we talk about something else?” or, “Enough,” or a blunt, “Be quiet and let me speak”? I thought that even a tersely phrased opinion would suffice: “Instead of complaining, what are you going to do?” To not listen, all we’d have to do is stand up (figuratively or literally), right? Eventually, they’d say, “Oh, so sorry I got carried away like that.” And then we’d sit back down, and all would be well.

Not so with narcissists. People who have so much secondary gain invested in their problems are not easily weaned off of them — even when a relationship is at stake, even when their own happiness and health are hanging in the balance. Sometimes, standing up can require that we also be ready to walk out.

On introspection, I saw that it was not all that simple for the same reasons it’s hard to tell a narcissist “no.” In order to do so, we have to let them go, including their opinions of us. We have to see them and the situation for what it really is. Sometimes that means seeing that they weren’t really in the same relationship we were. Or that we were at cross purposes the whole time. And that can be painful.

In a healthier relationship, it would be possible to say, “When you complain about things and aren’t willing to do anything about them, it frustrates me. I want to help you, but I only see you going around in circles.” Or, “I know he’s not the best boss (or husband or friend), but he doesn’t seem to be changing right now. So, is there something you can do differently?” The person may feel wounded or frustrated, but the relationship — being more flexible and adaptable — would survive, and some new limits would be drawn. Both people might even learn something. That’s never easy or comfortable, but it’s do-able.

With narcissists and toxic-venters, it’s different. When they are “wounded,” it’s always mortal, and we are always to blame. The only way out, unless you would rather make peace with the toxicity, is out.

(If the above link doesn’t work, paste into your browser:    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-acosta/toxic-venting_b_822505.html)

Endangered Ideas. Endangered Minds.

The minimizing of communication is no accident. It comes as a consequence of minimal thinking, lethargy, and indifference. To some this is the death knell of American and Western civilization, the end of democracy as we know it (which requires active and informed participation by all citizens), the end of the broadest literacy rate in the history of mankind, and the end of equality of opportunity (for this too, takes an active, watchful, and observant eye). If it is, it is hardly surprising. Before the fall of every civilization came a period of fattening, of loosening, and finally, of decay.

In response to my last blog, a clergyman I know wrote to tell me a story about an experience he had teaching a group of teenagers (ranging from 13 to 16) at summer camp.

They were all gathered at a round table discussion on the general concept of “Important Teen Issues.” Everyone had a chance to write down what was important to him or her. Someone had written the verboten theme: “Sexual Immorality.”

One of the counselors (a young woman in her early 20’s) immediately raised her hand and asked with all innocence: “What’s sexual immorality? I’ve never heard of it before.”

Mind you, this was at a summer camp sponsored by a local church.

The clergyman monitoring the group was at an honest loss for words. Where to start? He wrote to me that the saddest part from his point of view was that she had honestly never been taught anything whatsoever about it. Sex and morality were separated by a deep cultural chasm and, as she explained to him, “Whatever two consenting adults do is fine, right?”

He shared another similar story:  A teacher of middle-advanced years began working in a local school. Part of her routine was to ask her students to line up every morning, look her in the eye, greet her with manners and warmth, turn in their homework and finally take a seat.

The principal, who was young and new to the job, was alerted to this breach in standard protocol and confronted the teacher, demanding to know what made her do such an unusual thing.

The teacher simple explained, “To teach them respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability.”

The principal promptly and in no uncertain terms ordered the teacher to cease and desist. “We only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. And the time you’re taking on your ritual is taking time away from the school’s directives.”

The teacher stood motionless, disbelieving.

“We don’t teach respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability,” the principal added as she walked away. “We don’t have an approved curriculum for it and it is not in the government’s standard testing.”

Is it any wonder that our language is shrinking? It’s only a reflection of our thinking.

Endangered Words.

There are words that are rapidly slipping from common usage. Apparently, this happens all the time in language. Expressions, phrasing, and cultural emphases go the way of the Dodo every generation or two. No one says, “Golly” or “gee whiz” or “dagnabbit” anymore. We also don’t speak the Queen’s English even though many of the original settlers came from the Great Isle. Things change.

This is neither a good nor a bad thing in and of itself. It reflects changes in our culture and in our collective consciousness. It tells history what we hold to be of importance and what we disdain.

Texting, instant messaging, and cyber-signing communication has certainly had an effect on what we are willing to say, how much energy we are likely to expend in order to make sure we are understood and that our thoughts are clearly defined, and how much time we are willing to spend to make sure we understand others. Even though I have no empirical data to support me, I am sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the effect has not been good–that is, if you value understanding, accuracy, and resolution.

The underlying truth is this: what we say and how we say it is a reflection of what we value.

Let’s start some more modern definitions of the word “dating.” I have worked with clients who thought texting was what I meant by “dating.” Not only their understanding of the word has changed, but their values and expectations are almost unrecognizable to only one or two generations before them. To them, texting and exchanging some identifying data on facebook (favorite color, vacation spots, scantily clad pictures) was enough to warrant a “hook-up” on a Saturday night. To those who came before, dating meant a period of time in which two people spent enough time together to know if there was enough compatibility for a marriage or not.

I admit that the word has not yet changed…but it will. It’s only a matter of time because the value has already been altered.

Here’s another thing about this subtle alteration: Most of the people I know under 25 have less to say than Marcel Marceau. Not because they’re not bright or not thinking. In their cases, their certainly bright enough. It just takes too much out of them. Too much time, too much energy, and too much commitment.

So what this insta-code linguistic is reflecting is a lack of interest in face-to-face, mind-to-mind intimacy and a social-emotional lethargy that runs deep. After I asked one client who was “seeing” someone online how she expected to get to know him, she said, “What’s to get to know?” She was sincere. I was frightened for her.

If what I’m suggesting is true, then the words that become extinct  reflect a trend that should concern all of us.

When was the last time you heard the word “fidelity” in ordinary conversation outside of a music store? Or the last time someone spoke of “devotion” outside of a church? Or “honor” outside the military?

An example: A woman I know has spent twenty years or more with a man who is deeply disturbed. He cycles up and down, in and out of psychotic episodes and has been hospitalized more times than she can recall. When he’s stabilized by meds, she says he’s the most wonderful man she’s ever known. When he’s lost his way and his mind, he has put them into financial ruin, made her do the work of three people and then some, and live without sleep to keep an eye on him for days at a time.

She said the other day, “Everyone tells me to leave him. Even his mother said to me, ‘I don’t know why you stay.’” So I asked her, “Why do you?” And she said as clear and constant as a call to worship, “Because I love him. I’m devoted to him. He’s my husband.”

Imagine that.

In this day and age, when leaving is as easy as booking a flight and filing pro se divorce papers, when all the odds are stacked against marriage and devotion is called codependent, she stayed.

The other day, my sister sent me a message on Facebook. At the end she included a face with a “P” at the bottom. At least that was what it looked like to me. After two days I went back to it and finally “got” that she was sticking her tongue out at me!  It made me laugh until I realized that I am living in a world where I don’t speak the language anymore and I’m not sure whether to keep laughing or start crying.