10 items or less sign in grocery store

Eshrink and Editor – Point/Counterpoint? | Everyday Irritations | The 10 Items or Less EXPRESS Lane

Hello Loyal Eshrinkblog readers!

This is Maggie, daughter and editor of Eshrink’s blog. We’ve been on hiatus with technical difficulties, both computer related (more detail in a future blog post I’m sure…here’s an oldie but a goodie about computer stuff) and health related. Since Eshrink has been using his hospital stay and convalescence as an excuse to slack off, I decided I better find a way to get us jump started before all of his loyal readers abandon him for YouTube! In his defense, he tells me he is working on a masterpiece (the one he already finished once, but the computer deleted it)…in an attempt to lighten the load and return to our Curmudgeon Roots (a.k.a., a safe place to complain about “first world problems” in hopes we can all find some common ground, deeper meaning, and comfort), I’ve taken on a point/counterpoint about the EXPRESS LANE…specifically, violation of the Express Lane/Line…whatever

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Today’s topic: The EXPRESS Lane (note EXPRESS in all caps). We’re talking about the 10 ITEMS or LESS lane at the grocery store. 

I was at the grocery store today on my lunch break when I had to face the ugly truth: I exhibit rule bias.

I race to the checkout lanes, five items in my hand, and when I turn the corner, the line of people stretches across the aisle into the produce section! I have my coat on, balancing my items in my hand because who would need a cart in the express lane? Apparently, people who can’t read; people who don’t think the rules apply to them; people who think their time is way more important than anybody else’s; and people who just don’t pay attention. Anyway…the non-express line is longer than the “express” so I evaluate the situation.

Side bar: the lesson I’ve learned to successfully navigate these “First World Irritations” is to conduct mental gymnastics in order to make me feel better about said irritation, excuse other people, and somehow make myself feel like a kind person who is helping the world. The mental gymnastics can be exhausting…more detail below.

Okay…back to the grocery store and the rule bias…or even “bigotry” I mentioned earlier. In front of me…WITH THEIR CART…was an elderly couple. I didn’t want to be too obvious as I stretched my neck to inventory their cart, but I counted at least 20 items. In the past, I would have simply said to the Express Line Delinquents, “Since I have less than 10 items, do you mind if I jump ahead to check out?”

Side bar: However, I waive that option if I’m not in a hurry and want to make myself feel like a good person by saying to myself, “I’m not in a hurry, I bet they have to pick up kids, get to work, are having a bad day, on their way to visit someone at the hospital…” it goes on and on.

I had a colleague who told me he viewed behavior above (in addition to politely telling loud talkers in a movie theater that their talking is making it hard to hear the movie) as me being confrontational. Really? Confrontational? I just feel it’s way more productive and actually nicer than muttering under my breath, “How rude! Who do you think you are holding up the express lane!” I find the annoyance leaves much quicker after I say something to the person in a polite/professional manner. I’ve had different responses in the past that range from “Oh my gosh…I’m so sorry…I didn’t see the sign” to “Sure…go for it” and only one or two snotty, “I’m in a hurry…I don’t have much more than 10” or the “What are you…the line-Nazi” look accompanied by an adolescent eye roll.

But during this “express line breach” the fact that I was in full hot flash, in a hurry, and irritated did NOT prompt me to correct these express-line violators. And that’s when I realized, I’m a bigot (if they wouldn’t have been a cute, elderly couple and it was a yuppie-looking GQ guy, or Escalade-driving stay-at-home mom, I would have felt obligated to enforce the 10 ITEMS or LESS RULE and “make a scene” as my dad used to threaten). Instead, I decided to ride it out…mentally telling myself that the cute elderly couple might feel awful if I pointed out they were breaking the rules, also…it’s a lot more difficult for them to stand in a long line than me, and finally it’s just not that important in the big scheme of things. Once I decided to accept the breach, I felt better and low and behold, a cashier opened a new line and waved me over…

DAMN…another dilemma! When a new line opens, you always send the people IN FRONT OF YOU WHO HAVE BEEN WAITING IN LINE LONGER THAN YOU to the new line…or at least give them the option. But I just didn’t have the time! I rationalized that the new line opened as my reward for the mental gymnastics I successfully completed to fully accept the Express Lane Rule Breakers with a good heart…but that’s how it starts…it’s a slippery slope as they say 🙂

Eshrink: I’m turning it over to you. Express Line Violators is the subject. What do you think is the best way to handle them? The rules are clear, the penalties are severe…treat them all the same? We are nothing if not a grocery store of rules? Maybe some passive aggressive tactics are warranted? Write below the line please.


ESHRINK EXPRESS LINE RESPONSE

On a planet of 7.7 billion inhabitants, it is clear there will be many different opinions as to what is acceptable behavior.  Amongst the animal kingdom, there appear to be unwritten rules which have evolved in the service of the survival of each species.  Since we humans with our big brains can find infinitely more ways to screw things up, we have developed millions of rules, most of which are ignored.  Nevertheless, there have been many examples of the serious consequences to a society when there is no enforcement of rules as we now see in Central America, and even worse when rule makers and enforcers are corrupt leading to all kinds of atrocities.  Our own country is now experiencing a crisis of sorts over the interpretation of rules.

 

As a matter of fact, for many, the reason for rules has been long forgotten, and some seem to enjoy circumventing them whether by robbing a bank or cheating at the check out line.  I must admit there is something satisfying about “getting away” with something and there are instances when civil disobedience is honorable.

 

Although I consider myself to be a follow-the-rules kind of guy and would never consider violating the 10 items or less rule, I do recall  pleasurable feelings regarding my violation of the “though shalt not steal” rule about 75 years ago.  My friend Bill and I with malice aforethought carefully planned a midnight raid on the cider press In Jake Davis’s apple orchard.  Although our presence was announced by Jake’s coon hounds, we managed to escape with a gallon jug of freshly squeezed cider which we proceeded to drink under cover of a near by haymow*.  It was one of those clear crisp October nights when the grandeur of that night sky with its limitless canopy of stars was overwhelming, and one could hardly doubt the existence of a God.  Nevertheless, we wallowed in our sinfulness without thought of retribution and quibbled over who was drinking the most cider.  Now , I can attest to the fact that a half gallon or so of fresh apple cider can have a dramatic effect on an adolescent colon.  This can  be especially disconcerting when said adolescent spends much of a cold autumn night perched over a privy* hole.

 

You may be wondering what this has to do with the question at hand and the answer is probably nothing. However, I do remember thinking that I would never ever steal anything again.  Could it be that by extension, that mantra includes other forms of ethical behaviors, leaving me stuck with the compulsion to heed the 10 or less item sign?

 

Regarding Maggie’s query as to how to handle the problem, I have no answers, but as usual can offer a complaint.  Rules are made to be if not broken as some would have it, at least to be tested (a la the Trump response to congressional queries); consequently if there are no penalties rules are unenforceable and therefore worthless.  If a store makes a rule, they should be prepared to enforce it otherwise, as Maggie points out, they are complicit.  As for confrontation of the offender- probably not a good idea in the era of concealed carry permits.

 

LONELINESS

Many years ago I treated a patient who was suffering from a near fatal case of loneliness.

 

No, I am not exaggerating for this person would later confess that she had come to me in a last-ditch attempt to resolve her problems while promising herself that if I couldn’t help she would hang herself. She was a 20-something attractive and very modestly dressed woman who did indeed look very despondent with the psychomotor retardation and furrowed brow characteristics of clinical depression. When I asked her why she was there to see me, she hung her head, stared at the floor, and tearfully responded that she had been shunned.

 

She went on to tell of how her infraction of the church’s rules (one that most of us would consider a minor infraction) had resulted in her being officially designated as one with whom the entire church should have no contact whatsoever. You may be thinking: “Big deal go find another church.” But her story was more complicated. She had grown up attending this church. It was the center of not only her spiritual, but also her social and family life. Since the church doctrine insisted that only members of their church were true Christians, the members were warned about the dangers of consorting with people outside the church, apparently convinced that sin was contagious. Thus, when alienated from the congregation, which to make matters worse, included her entire family, she found herself totally alone.

 

Such stories are not new as evidenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tear-jerker, THE SCARLET LETTER, but give witness to the importance of relationships and the pain of loneliness. Many religions have used banishment of varying degrees of severity to punish wayward members. The Catholic Church’s policy of excommunication appears to be less stringent and is viewed by the church as a means to save souls whereby one can return to the fold and regain salvation by repenting. Such tools are powerful and their use can have long lasting effects. For example, I recently discovered that my Great, Great, Great Grandfather was shunned and ejected from the Quaker church. It occurred to me that if he had toed the line, I might be a Quaker.

 

AND YOU THOUGHT SMOKING WAS BAD

Solitary confinement has long been used as a means to enhance the discomfort of imprisonment, and is agreed by many to be a form of torture. In a previous blog, WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? I contended that our need for relationships is encoded in our DNA, having evolved long ago as a major contributor to the survival of our species. If one were to accept that premise, it would be logical to assume that loneliness could be a major problem for us. Indeed, according to Vivek Murthy, M.D., the former Surgeon General of the U.S., loneliness has become “a growing public health crisis.” He has said that loneliness is a more effective agent in reducing longevity than obesity, and that its toxic effects are worse than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Recent research into the prevalence and effects of loneliness tends to confirm Murthy’s assessment. Last year Cigna released a report on a study of 20,000 people age 18 and over as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale.

 

Nearly half reported loneliness as a problem, but even more concerning was that 27% felt no one understood them, and 43% admitted they felt their relationships were not meaningful. One in five felt they rarely or never felt close to others or that there was anyone they could talk to. It was also noted that Generation Z (those born after 1996) were the loneliest of all the generations measured.

There have been a number of studies which confirm the effects of loneliness on physical and mental health. It is not surprising that it could result in affective disorders such as depression, and may help explain the increase incidence of suicide as mentioned in my previous blog, but there is also evidence that loneliness can cause or aggravate innumerable maladies including: hypertension, coronary artery disease, dementia, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, impairment of immune systems, and even some malignancies to name a few.
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine sponsored by the National Institute of Health followed 1604 people over the age of 60 (average age 70) for 6 years and measured their physical decline and mortality rate. Their stark conclusion was: “Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.” Need I say more about our need to engage with our fellow man?

 

WE ARE NOT THE ONLY LONELY

It turns out that we are not the only nation where loneliness has become a problem, both from a public health and productivity perspective. Great Britain’s parliament has recently appointed a commissioner to investigate remedies for what has been called a silent epidemic after a study showed that 20% of Brits reported they were lonely most or all of the time. It appears there are similar studies in progress in other European countries. It would be helpful to know if loneliness is a worldwide problem or peculiar to our culture.

NOTHING ELSE TO DO

If one accepts the premise that loneliness is a significant problem, the question arises as to how did we get this way and what can we do about it. Prior to the industrial revolution, multi-generational families provided a sense of belonging. Relatives galore, including parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles usually lived in close proximity. With the switch from an agrarian to an industrial society, there had been a migration to cities where houses were built close together, which resulted in the development of neighborhoods usually composed of people with common interests. There was the inevitable clustering of children who interacted with only minimal adult supervision, and stay-at-home moms who could relate to each other in a very personal way. Neighbors were evaluated based on certain standards including friendliness and mutual respect. The lack of air conditioning and television made front porches very popular especially on hot evenings, and provided an opportunity for informal socializing. The only taboo subjects were sex, religion, and politics.

 

BETTER THINGS TO DO?

Soon after World War II ended, front porches began to disappear from neighborhoods, and there was a wild rush to the suburbs where large green lawns were treasured and families had fewer opportunities to be “neighborly.” On hot summer nights, it became more comfortable to be inside the house (with air conditioning) than outside. There were also new-found entertainment devices available – first radio, then TV, movies in the VCR and then DVD Player, video games, and then the internet which gave us social media and streaming. One could go for months or longer without ever having face-to- face contact with one’s neighbors. There was no longer danger of an errant foul tip sending a baseball through someone’s window. Privacy became important, and it was no longer considered a snub to build a fence between houses.  There were no kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalks, as a matter of fact, there often were no sidewalks in these new neighborhoods.

Competing Schedules and Activities

As more mothers joined the workforce and children were exposed to more structured extra-curricular activities, long-held family traditions changed. There was concern about the “latch key children” so named because they would come home to an empty house. The evening meal, often the only time in which the entire family came together, was often disrupted due to conflicting schedules. This led to the so-called crock pot families where the family meal was available to all who passed by…making it easy to just grab a bite and be on your way without any hassle (or conversation).

Forced Socialization in the Pew

Another effective defense against loneliness was the weekly church service. Traditionally, religious institutions encouraged socializing (and in some cases, demanded it). However, attendance at religious institutions has declined in recent years (one study says church membership in the U.S. has declined from 70% in 1999 to 50% in 2018).

 

WHY SO MUCH LONELINESS?

It is ironic that in this digital age when we have vastly improved modes of communication, that we would identify loneliness as a problem. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, insists that he saw his invention as a tool by which relationships could be fostered throughout the world and help dispel feelings of loneliness and dissention, but it appears that it has done more to promote divisiveness and distrust.

 

With the invention of the telephone we gave up non-verbal cues in our conversations, and the trade-off for its convenience seemed like a good deal. Now kids have largely given up talking on their cell phones in favor of texting. Voices from the internet, news media and politicians all conspire to promote divisiveness and paranoia to the point that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about many of the issues of the day.

 
Today people are marrying later and living longer. As reflected in the census figures of 2012, 32 million or 27% of Americans lived alone which was up from 17% in 1970. As you might expect, widowhood is likely responsible for many single occupant households, and in another study it was found that 47% of women over the age of 75 lived alone. With aging, comes the inevitable debilities and limitations. The National Institute on Aging reports that nearly half of all people over the age of 75 have hearing loss, which can be a major impediment to any meaningful social interaction resulting in withdrawal from friends and family.

 

It has been said that Americans are losing faith in our institutions, and our political leanings are often shaped by who we hate rather than who we like. Political discourse has hit a new low. Muck raking is no longer good enough, and has been replaced by personal insults a la grade school rants. Respect for contrary opinions has now gone out of fashion. Divide and conquer is the new strategy, and a tactic that seems to have even been adopted by the news media (Matt Taibbi has written an entire book about it, called “Hate Inc.”). We lack heroes. We frequently hear the term “disenfranchised” these days, a synonym for “left out” and to be an outsider is lonely for any herd critter.

ALL IS NOT LOST (stay with me…a little break from “downer” time)

There is some evidence that there may be some efforts underway to deal with the loneliness issue. I was pleased to see a recent article in Psychiatric News suggesting that psychiatrists are focusing more on loneliness as an underlying psychiatric problem (don’t know why it took so long to figure that out). A former president of the American Psychiatric Association has suggested that assessment for loneliness be part of any evaluation or perhaps become a diagnostic category in the DSM 5 (the shrink bible). There is also a growing awareness of a worldwide suicide epidemic which most would agree loneliness all too often plays a part.  Lonely lifestyles also frequently seem to be common with mass murderers.
lonely quote

LONELINESS VS. BEING ALONE

Proximity to other people is not necessarily a solution for loneliness, for it is not unusual to feel lonely in the midst of a crowd. Obviously, some type of emotional engagement is necessary to dispel lonely feelings. Ordinary discourse involves much more than words. Unfortunately, in our digital world many of the nuances of communication are lost. Not only are the tone, rhythm, volume, and timbre involved, but there are multiple non-verbal cues which can modify or even completely change a communication. As a matter of fact, some very significant interactions may occur without any words spoken. In that vein a text hardly measures up to a face to face encounter as a means to communicate feelings.

 

Emotional tone is less relevant, for even an argument can dispel lonely feelings.
Although, until recently, there have been few attempts to measure the extent of loneliness, there is definitely a consensus among sociologists and mental health professionals that there has been a definite increase. Employers have taken note of recent research which has shown that employees are more productive when they are encouraged to interact with each other. As a consequence, in many cases the traditional office cubical arrangement has been scrapped in favor of a more open environment, teamwork is encouraged, and brief chats at the water fountain are less likely to result in a dirty look from the boss. Since most workers spend nearly half of their waking hours in the workplace such changes could be very beneficial for large segments of society.

 

GO TEAM

The needs for engagement with other humans has long been addressed by the formation of millions of organizations that bring groups of people together with myriad goals, but which also provide an opportunity to relate to others. The sense of belonging to a group is a powerful antidote to loneliness. Young people who feel neglected or alienated are more likely to join street gangs (easier to radicalize for terrorism and/or recruit for “religious” cults*). Athletic events and concerts attract millions, most of whom “show their colors” and cheer as one. One of my all-time favorite TV shows was Cheers which identified the locus of the show as the place “where everybody knows your name.” Organizations of all kinds including sports teams, military, and political groups or for that matter any group of people with a common goal make use of the need to belong which at the end of the day is an antidote to loneliness.

THEY NEED EACH OTHER

AARP sponsors a very interesting and apparently successful program called “Experience Corps” in which volunteer over 50 are enrolled in a program where they are trained to help children develop literacy skills. They spend 6 to 15 hours per week working with K-3 students with spectacular results including as much as 60% improvement in reading skills, fewer behavior problems, improved attendance, and increased graduation rates  The AARP foundation at last report had 2,000 volunteers throughout the country serving over 30,000 students. However; it appears the volunteers may be benefiting more than the kids from the program. A University of Michigan study reported a statistical decrease in depressive symptoms and functional limitations among the volunteers after two years involvement in the Experience Corps. There may also be a secondary benefit in that some kids may learn to venerate rather than denigrate us old folks. (Score 1 for the Old Farts!)

 

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

None of this should be interpreted as an attempt to diminish the value of solitude. Certainly, this need to relate can be overdone, and in some cases become pathological. In many cases of marital therapy, for example, too much togetherness can be identified as the problem. In testimony before Congress, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad defined loneliness as ” the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection.”  She explained that some people who are socially isolated don’t necessarily feel lonely, and some people who are lonely are surrounded by people who make them feel more alienated.

 

One’s work may require so much contact with others that it can become oppressive, and some personalities may cause anal pain of the worst kind!  Nevertheless; before you make plans to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island or join an order of non-verbal monks, be careful what you wish for. Time-alone can be refreshing, relaxing and creative, but as with most things in life, it can be overdone. Alone can be good, but lonely can be very bad. In this time in which we are all mutually dependent, it has become even more necessary to have relationships than we did in those days when we needed help to bring down a woolly mammoth. It is difficult nowadays to survive in this world as a loner. We face enormous problems including an increased global population, competition for resources, and degradation of our environment. It is once again time for us to hang together or hang separately.

WHAT MAKES THEM TICK?

The ability of the human race to relate to each other has allowed us to survive and to thrive.  We need to exercise that talent now more than ever.  As I finished writing this, once again two hate-filled young people described as loners committed horrible atrocities within hours of each other. It goes without saying that we need to take logical steps to limit access to those instruments designed to kill people, but the prevalence of these kinds of behaviors also require us to learn more about the milieu in which they occur.  For example: are there genetic influences involved, does our society in some way generate such hatred, are certain personalities more easily recruited to violent organizations, is shyness a precursor, and finally does the hatred cause the loneliness or vice versa?  We need to understand more about how these people end up the way they are if we are to have any success at solving the problem.

The Way It Was | Part 2

Note from the editor: Click here to read Part 1 of “The Way It Was”

Conversations Overheard

There was a fringe benefit for me from the depression in that I received my first indoctrination into the ways of the world which included comprehensive discussions of politics, economics, world affairs, and morality but with a special focus on means of survival in difficult times.  My education occurred while lying on our living room floor listening to Dad and friends (not to be confused with Fox and Friends) debate all kinds of issues while they focused on possible work sites.  The men were regular visitors to our house where they met and planned strategy to find work.  It is likely that they were attracted to our house as a meeting place by Dad’s famed home brew.  Although he was not a bootlegger per se, he was known to have occasionally traded a bottle or two for some needed commodity.    I was an accomplice in the enterprise as I took great delight in placing a cap on each bottle and watching Dad press it in place. 

There must have been a robust feeling of camaraderie amongst those guys who were all in the same sinking boat.  There was laughter in spite of their dire circumstances, and there were frequently told colorful stories which without benefit of Dad’s home brew would not likely have reached my tender ears.  The coarse language was not lost on me, and was quickly incorporated into my vocabulary, the use of which would often get me in trouble.   One particularly memorable event occurred when Dad took the guys down to our cellar to show them his success of the day.  He had received a feisty old rooster in return for a day’s work, and the rooster was confined to the cellar, a small space with a dirt floor cool enough to render the beer palatable.  Someone stumbled over the pan of water left for the rooster and Dad filled it with beer.  Surprisingly, the old guy imbibed with gusto and was soon stumbling, flapping his wings, and attempting to crow in a falsetto voice.  If he was hung over in the morning it was short-lived as a few hours later he would be on a platter sharing space with some drop dumplings.

Work

In spite of the bravado most of the conversations had to do with work or rather the lack of it.  The meetings were unscheduled and men would drop in at various times during the evening with comments like “I thought I would drop in to shoot the shit.”  There were always rumors of things to come both good and bad… this place was laying off, another was going to be hiring, another business was in trouble and about to go under, etc.   In 1933 the unemployment rate is said to have been 25%, but that number does not tell the whole story.  Many who were said to be employed were actually able to work only part time.  For example, Barb recalls her Father listed as an employee at a local steel mill, but usually actually working only one day a week and sometimes sent home early even for those days.  He avoided eviction by painting houses owned by his landlord. 

One conversation in particular stands out in which one of the men who was employed at a local glass container factory said he had just come from his workplace and had been turned away.  He reported that at every shift change there were huge crowds of employees at the entrance hoping to be chosen to work that day, but few would be chosen.  He loudly and profanely complained that the foremen “suck asses” and relatives were always the first chosen to work.  Some jobs or professions previously considered ordinary were highly prized.  Postal workers, school teachers, and local government jobs were highly prized for their stability.  The lack of available cash led to a great deal of bartering, especially with farmers who had no one to whom to sell their crops.  Conversely, professionals such as doctors and lawyers along with day laborers were often paid with food (e.g. the story of the inebriated rooster).   

Civics (Yesterday’s Term for Politics)

No education is complete without lessons in civics and the down-but-not-outers were not shy about expressing their opinions in such matters which was probably enhanced by the tongue loosening effects of Dad’s beer.  There was considerable disagreement amongst the group with almost everything.  In our home Dad was registered as a Republican and Mom was a lifelong Democrat.  I have the opinion that in those days one usually belonged to the party with which they had grown up much as with they do with religion.  Dad in spite of his upbringing had experienced an epiphany: he blamed Hoover for the depression and lauded FDR’s efforts to restore the economy. 

Those on the negative side of the debate were equally vociferous in their ridicule of FDR’s “make work programs” and “socialist stuff.” There were all kinds of jokes referring to the WPA and their workers having a penchant to be seen leaning on their shovels.  With the establishment of social security in the mid- thirties the idea of government taking money out of his check (if he had one) and giving it to someone just because he got to be 65 years old did not sit well with the naysayers.  A typical analysis might go something like this: “What ever happened to the idea of saving for old age” or “If they can’t take care of themselves, they should go to the poor house” (large forbidding appearing buildings euphemistically referred to as county homes).  Families were expected to care for their elderly or infirm parents consequently; they shared in the disgrace, and were denigrated for forcing their parents to “suck on the public tit.”

The most often discussed and vilified make work program was the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  The average wage was $52 per month yet one of my uncles worked in the program until it was disbanded in the early 1940s.  During that time, he managed to raise two children with the help of his wife who was able to find work cleaning the house of an affluent neighbor.  Although largely removed from most employment opportunities, wives did find ways to contribute.  For example, Barb’s Mother did laundry in her home in spite of a childhood injury that left her crippled.  The WPA worked on infrastructure projects while the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) focused on environmental projects.  It was an organization for young men who were housed in barracks throughout the nation and paid even less.  They were best known for planting millions of trees, often in areas where logging had left a desolate landscape.  Roosevelt in announcing its formation said; “forests are the lungs of our nation.”  They also fought forest fires, worked in national parks and landmarks building roads, trails and camping facilities.  Many such projects remain in use to this day.

Philosophy 101

While listening in on those conversations from my vantage point on the living room floor I was also privy to discussions of moral issues some of which have bedeviled philosophers for eons.  For example, one evening one of the guys reported that he knew of a place where it was possible to steal casing head gas.  Although gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, he did not have 18 cents, his car was out of gas, and he couldn’t look for work. (For the unenlightened of my readership: casing head gas is formed by compression of natural gas by functioning oil wells.  It is a very low quality fuel and can cause significant damage to automobile engines.)  Since he was without the means to get there, he was attempting to recruit an accomplice.  This provoked a heated debate.  Not only was his proposal illegal there was that “thou shalt not steal” thing in the Bible for which some thought there were no exceptions.  This brought up oft delivered hypotheticals one of which was very relevant to their situation which was “would you steal food if your children were starving?”   

Keep Walking or Go to Jail

Vagrancy laws made homelessness even a greater problem than it is today for one could go to jail for “having no physical means of support.” When I looked up the origin of such laws, I was surprised to find they were written after the Civil War as as a means to get freed slaves off the street and into the chain gangs which could be rented out, a process some called a new form of slavery.  These laws were found to be useful during The Depression as a means to rid the parks and other public facilities of the homeless.  I had always wondered where all those men I used to see walking along the highways were going.  Later it became obvious that they must stay on the move or go to jail.

These were the same guys who would sometimes appear at my Grandmother’s back door offering to do work for food.  Of course, there was no expectation that work would be done.   Grandma would bring a plate out for them and after a brief repast they were on their way. Since farmers were those who were most likely to have food to spare and cops were scarce these backroads were fertile territory.   I heard stories of farmers who discovered “bums” asleep in their haymows especially during inclement weather.  Depending on the compassion of the farmer they might be awakened by the business end of a pitchfork or sent to the house for something to eat then on their way.

Many of these hoboes or bums as they were called in those days would become so enured to that lifestyle that they would spend the rest of their lives on the move never staying more that a few days in one place.  They became expert at hopping freight trains, knowing their schedules and where they slowed enough to get on them.  They often migrated with the birds following the seasons.  They eventually developed places where they could hide for a few days at a time usually close to a rail depot but far enough away to avoid the railroad police.  It is said they verbally catalogued places that were soft touches for hand-outs.  Thus, a nomadic subculture came into being demonstrating the remarkable change which can be brought about in an industrial society by an economic crisis.

An Early Exit Prevented

At some undetermined time during those preschool years I experienced life threatening incidents one of which would label my Father as an unlikely hero.  In what was probably an effort to provide food and recreation simultaneously, he had decided to take me, my brother and mother fishing probably with the hope of making a meal of our catch.  The site, called Pleasant Valley was a favorite of mine and was next to a small conclave of houses reached via a covered bridge over the Licking river.  Its only reason for existence was a Post Office situated next to a major rail line.  It was a mail distribution facility for a large part of the county, and its fascination for me was to be able to watch the train rush past at what seemed to me to be at least 100 mph, while a metal arm reached out from the mail car, dropping a bag of mail, while snatching a similar bag, and pulling it back into the car without even slowing.

Most likely, on that day I was preoccupied with the hope that the mail train would come by.  The river was high, and I recall staring at the water as it rushed by, then everything was suddenly brown.  Probably that memory remains so vivid due to fact that I would have a recurring dream of that incident for years although; such dreams were not frightening but consisted of the sensation of floating in that brown water.  I am told that Dad saw me fall into the swollen river and immediately jumped in although he could not swim.  I was told that my life was saved by a single button for I was wearing a light jacket with one button fastened and Dad reached out with one hand and was able to grasp the jacket with one hand.  He threw me upon the bank and as he was floating by, managed to grab a root growing out of the river bank and save himself.  Thanks be to God that the button held for had it not you would have been denied the joy of reading these blogs!

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3 of The Way It Was! 

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

rodney king

It has been 27 years since Rodney King, an alcoholic drug-addicted Los Angeles cab driver, tearfully uttered those words. Rodney was a troubled soul whose beating by police officers was filmed by a bystander and precipitated the L.A. race riots which resulted in the death of 63 people, hundreds of injuries and massive property damage. The answer to Rodney’s question remains moot, for we are still not getting along very well. Perhaps we need to spend more energy on learning why this is still true.
REAL CHANGE OR WINDOW DRESSING?
It is true there has been progress in race relations, the issue of police brutality is being seriously addressed, and the “metoo” movement has garnered some traction, but we continue to expend a great deal of energy in fruitless debate which never seems to find resolution. This is especially true in our current political scene where vituperative language has become the norm, and both democrats and republicans cling so rigidly to their positions that compromise is impossible. Disagreements have become personal. Name calling and character assassinations are routine.
A PERFECT STORM
Not since the civil war has there been so much divisiveness or tribalism as is the currently fashionable term. It appears to me that there are multiple reasons why we can’t “all just get along,” one of which is the nature of our political campaigns. Somewhere along the way experts in such matters determined that so-called negative campaigns are the most effective strategy, and that has become the modus operandi for all kinds of kinds of candidates from dog-catcher to president. With the candidates continually trading insults and accusations, there is little relevance paid to issues and the undecided voter is left to decide which of the candidates is worse. Since his vote is based largely on his disdain for the character of his hero’s opponent rather than issues he is likely to retain very negative feelings towards the one whom he voted against. Such feelings may be carried forward and make it more likely that when a discussion ensues between two on opposite sides of an election civility is less likely.
NEWS. ARE YOU KIDDING?
So-called cable TV news stations have also in my opinion contributed to this giant schism in our political discourse. I use the term so called for they can hardly be called news outlets, but are dominated by political commentary to be generous or perhaps more accurately political propaganda outlets. Fox News leads the pack with the most viewership and the most conservative commentary. Their current star Sean Hannity is said to be one of Trump’s most trusted political advisors yet they have the temerity to call themselves “Fair and Balanced.” At the other end of the political spectrum is MSNBC who no longer attempt to hide their pro democratic bias. Then comes CNN which makes a pretense of being neutral, but fails miserably. They do have some conservative consultants on their staff which they bring in on occasion for their group discussions.
WHERE IS THE MIDDLE?
One thing these networks have in common is their programming which consists mostly in bringing in groups of experts (there must be a lot of experts in Washington for they never seem to run out) and have a group discussion with participants representing more extreme positions on both sides of an issue. Consequently; a viewer is likely to choose a more radical position. The days of political reporting in which both sides of an issue are elaborated upon by a single person with no skin in the game seems to be long gone. Only PBS seems to follow that old-fashioned format of simply presenting the facts and allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions.
GROUP THINK
During my career as a Psychiatrist my patients taught me much about our desire or perhaps more accurately said our need for validation. As such we are inevitably drawn to those who share our beliefs and perceptions, and therein lies the effect of today’s dueling media outlets. Those of us who harbor conservative beliefs will be drawn to Fox while the more liberally oriented will stick with MSNBC or CNN, “and never the twain shall meet”. The same phenomenon is operant with “talk radio” and with the internet which is becoming a news source for increasing numbers of people. As we continue to be immersed in one particular viewpoint and converse only with people of like mind we find ourselves rigidly attached to one particular political philosophy having convinced ourselves that we are the only custodians of truth.
LOGIC BE DAMNED
An argument can be defined as a person or group attempting to convince others that they are wrong. It is also true that political issues can have serious consequences therefore; political arguments can and often do become emotional. I recall as a child hearing the admonition that one should avoid discussions of politics or religion in polite company, and indeed these are the two subjects about which people are likely to have the most intense feelings. Since I am a peace-loving man and something of a wimp to boot I must admit that I tend to shy away from raising the issue of politics with friends whom I know to be on the opposite side of the fence. I submit that this same phenomenon exists throughout society and deters us from discussions of the issue that divide us and hopefully learn to compromise or at least respect the opinions of those with whom we disagree.
Advertisers have long proven that repetition in TV ads will sell everything from Viagra to Tylenol, so why not politicians. The Washington Post reports that $6.5 billion dollars were spent on the 2016 election much of which undoubtedly went to television ads leaving us drowning in a sea of powerful messages describing how terrible are all those candidates for office. Little wonder that elected officials now share the worst favorability ratings ever, and that disgusted citizens are so sickened they don’t even bother to vote.
BAD GUYS EVERWHERE
Among the most powerful motivators are anger and fear, and those masters of propaganda who manage elections are adapt at using them as weapons. Naturally when one votes for a person because he is persuaded that the other candidate is a threat other issues will become irrelevant adding more fuel to that fire which inhibits reasonable discussion.
Our prevaricator in chief has proven himself to be a master at eliciting those feelings and continues to describe the press as “the enemy of the people” and members of the Democratic party as “evil”. There are also the warnings about immigrants characterizing them as criminals, rapists, murderers, drug dealers and subversives. His talent for instilling such feelings is well demonstrated by the behavior of some of the attendees at his rallies. History shows us that a very effective way to unite a group of people is to find a common enemy, and his followers revel in chanting “lock her up”.
THERE REALLY IS “FAKE NEWS”
Last but certainly not least is the effect of the internet and social media which held such promise in bringing people together has now become a powerful weapon to interfere in our elections primarily by propagating conspiracy theories and lies of all kinds so numerous that it is virtually impossible to rein them in. Artificial intelligence has further sharpened these tools so that individuals can be targeted with false information tailored to their own particular biases or prejudices, and can reach millions of people in short order with very little expense. Nearly everyone except Mr.Trump agree that the Russians were very involved in such shenanigans in our last election and although we are told the effects on the election cannot be determined there is little doubt that it has contributed to much confusion and misinformation designed to enhance our divisiveness.
WISHFUL THINKING
The other day when I began writing this I thought there were signs of at least some yearnings for a coming together to work out problems. Niki Haley in her retirement announcement appeared to break from her boss and indicate that she did not think political opponents to be enemies. There was commentary on our need to come together, but those hopes were soon dashed with the pipe bombs, and now the senseless shooting of 2 black people in Kentucky followed by the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburg.
SOME BEHAVIOR IS PREDICTABLE
With such horrors filling the headlines you might think they would provoke serious talk about bridging the now toxic divide that separates, but after expressing regrets and sympathies yesterday our fearless leader is back on track today blaming the news media for causing the tragedies. Apparently, the false flag theory which named the Democrats as the perpetrators didn’t fly so he was forced to go to his fall back strategy. Nevertheless, we once again hear talk of our need to come together in spite of our differences. Will we follow through this time?  Hope springs eternal!

Transitions

This title was chosen by my son for reasons which will soon be obvious. His youngest has just left home, this time for good, and he and Sue are now presiding over the proverbial empty nest. It is a frequently quoted truism that if you truly love someone you will let them go when it is in their best interest to leave. I was reminded of this last night as I watched Casablanca…one of my favorite movies in which that theme was paramount. Though it is a noble act to let go of those you love, separation is painful, and usually results in significant changes in our lives.
We experience multiple types of transitions during our lifetimes, but since we are at heart social beings, or to put it more crudely, tribal in nature, changes in our relationships are apt to generate the most intense feelings. It is something of a paradox that as the world gets smaller, we find so many people of whom we care to be geographically farther away. Yes, indeed we are able to communicate with ease yet Facebook is a rather poor substitute for a next-door neighbor, or a relative living in the neighborhood. Prior to the industrial revolution, one’s cadre of friends and relatives was unlikely to change very much, and most people were born and died in the same place, often even in the same house. Now neighborhoods are in a constant state of flux, and there is a lower expectation of lifelong relationships.

STUCK WITH THEM
No wonder our children are among the very most important people of our lives. Since humans require nearly 2 decades to reach maturity and carry our DNA, we tend to form very strong bonds. We are often identified as “Johnny’s” father or mother. We live vicariously through them and share their triumphs, failures, joys, and sorrows. In many ways they are our second chance at life as we attempt to steer them away from repeating our mistakes. As the years go by our intimate involvement in their lives blurs with our own–they become part of us and in doing so shape our identity, i.e. who we are.
GRIEF WITHOUT A CORPSE
With all that in mind, it is not surprising that separation anxiety is a common affliction. When the kids grow up and leave, something more than their presence is missing. It is as if a part of ourselves is gone. Not only is the nest empty, but we feel an emptiness within ourselves, a kind of psychological amputation. In my experience, this emptiness is most profound when the youngest one leaves  for with it comes the realization that nothing will ever be the same. This time they are leaving to build their own nest.
THE FUN TIMES
Life is an ever-changing process. We begin as totally helpless and dependent creatures and experience a myriad of transitions during our lifetime all designed to produce an individual capable of building and presiding over that nest. Some of those changes are more dramatic than others. There are the first steps, the first words, the first solo bicycle ride, the first day of school, the first sleep over and a few thousand other adventures all with a goal of achieving sufficient independence to allow them to face the world on their own.
WHY DID I GET INTO THIS?
But it is not all sweetness and light. There is the messiness, the lack of discipline, the terrible twos, the out of bounds phase, the adolescent rebellion, the sleepless nights, and the continued testing of limits to name a few of the frustrations inherent in the child-rearing business. Those little buggers are also expensive. According to the USDA the average cost of rearing a child in 2016 was over $245,000 which does not include costs for higher education (but for the kids, I could have been a millionaire). Considering all the chaos they generate it is little wonder that we don’t occasionally wish them to be grown up however; one should keep in mind the maxim to “be careful what you wish for.”
BEGINNING AND END
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 67.3 % of high school graduates enrolled in college last year (2017). It seems safe to assume that most of these kids would leave home while in school, but retain a close connection to their old familiar environs. In many cases the college transition is a prelude and training for that final fly away. The days when we dumped kids and their gear off to a strange new environment were certainly memorable to Barb and me.
Our first experience with the off to college scenario was painful for all involved. Molly, our firstborn (now deceased), who suffered from serious medical and emotional problems was unable to complete that transition. Next in the line of succession was Peter, who was much too macho to display his feelings, but I was already missing him by the time we pulled away from his dorm. After a four-year hiatus, it was Trudy’s turn. Trudy, the adventurous one, was on the phone almost immediately, tearful and very upset to find beer being consumed at the sorority rush parties that she attended. We had no idea where this came from for temperance had never been emphasized at home. As you probably already suspect. her distress was short lived and as was her habit she soon became involved in everything.
THE LAST ONE STANDING
Of course, those separations were painful, but none so telling as Maggie’s departure for we were now returning to a house inhabited only by Barb, myself and Grover the dog. Maggie was one who had insisted on an out of state school, for she was eager to assert her independent status. She wanted distance from childhood connections. Her reaction to the college transition was a convincing testimonial for that “be careful what you wish for” thing. Permanently engraved in my memory is the sight of that sobbing, skinny little red-haired girl who stood there all alone in that huge empty parking lot making feeble attempts to wave goodbye as we pulled away. Barb wanted to go for one last hug, but I insisted she had already had several last hugs. We were later told that she cried for the next month and lost 20 pounds. [See an earlier blog post about Separation Anxiety + Mental Health}
NOT ALL SWEETNESS AND LIGHT
In case you are thinking this gang of mine is the Partridge family incarnate, think again. It is true that to date we have come through our transitions relatively unscathed, but not without trials and tribulations. In spite of their best efforts some families are overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. Barb and I are indeed fortunate that in spite of our screw-ups we have ended up with 2 generations of exceptional people, and the beat goes on.
STILL AT IT
It so happens that this month marks the beginning of significant transitions for every one of my Grandchildren which of course they will undoubtedly handle better than do their parents (or Grandparents for that matter). My three oldest grandchildren are already emancipated and starting new and more challenging jobs. Another is off to her first year in college, and our youngest is entering high school. As mentioned in my opening statement, Carter’s room is empty, and home is now in another city far away. Trudy’s is the only nest still occupied.
LIFE GOES ON
Whatever distress the kids may feel from leaving those years of memories behind is apt to be short lived compared to that of their parents. There is hope for Mom and Dad however. In return for enduring the vicissitudes of child rearing God has rewarded us with grandchildren. Thus, we have an opportunity to get all the goodies and none of the crappy stuff ,which leaves me wondering what it would be like to be a great grandparent. Stay tuned for the answer!

WHO CRITIQUES THE CRITICS?

The critics of the world are puzzling to me. I am puzzled not only by what they say, but how they become experts in the particular activities they critique. I have always seen myself as the possessor of normal intelligence and on good days think I may even belong on the plus side of that bell-shaped curve. But when I read some of the reviews of music, books, movies, art and even scientific articles, I realize how really stupid I must be. I often have no idea what they are talking about, and wonder if I am on the wrong page.
It reminds me of something one of my patients said when describing his former psychiatrist’s intelligence. His assessment was: “He was so smart that I could hardly understand a word he said.” I admit that I have used the big word tactic in the past hoping to impress people of my superior intellect, and with that in mind have accumulated several multi-syllabic ones which I keep in reserve for special occasions, but I could never compete with these guys in the weird word department.
Most of my exposure to critics comes from the several publications to which I subscribe (and sometimes even read). Much of human behavior can be explained in my opinion by our origins as herd animals, and to be a good member of the herd one must follow the leader or in this case the expert. As a relatively compliant human I tend to take seriously the critics’ recommendations, but often find their assessment so far from mine that I have difficulty touting it to others. All is not lost in those situations for it gives me the opportunity to let my audience know that I am well read and something of a connoisseur myself. If that is well received I may even launch an attack on the critic.
Their in-depth analyses especially of artistic stuff runs so deep that I often find myself drowning. It has been said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I suppose that also applies to ugliness. For example, the music that is pleasing to my grandchildren is experienced by me as simply loud and irritating noise. This would not likely result in an objective review by me of the latest hip hop or rap song. In like fashion, my parents were turned off by the swing music of the ’40s and ’50s with which I grew up.

Art: Ugly or Genius?

Nowhere is the critic more likely to wax poetic than when reviewing visual art. For me a painting for example is either pleasing or not, but these guys find hidden meanings which continue to be invisible to me even after they point them out. I am very fond of the impressionists who were the “Polly-Annas”  of the art world in that they chose to enhance the beauty of things they portrayed. I do realize that ugly has a legitimate placed in the art world. If the purpose of art is to elicit emotions, then art can be a powerful tool which forces us to face the world’s ugliness. Unfortunately, it appears to me that much art that is ugly was not intended to be so, nevertheless it may be taken by some critics to be a mark of genius. It has occurred to me that were Picasso to have shown up in an art therapy session in my hospital and do his cubism thing, I would have set about forming a plan of treatment for his psychosis.
Could this be yet another example of the “Tail Wagging the Dog?”

The better-known critics have a great deal of power. A favorable review from a big-time critic can put a starving artist into a much higher tax bracket, or conversely send him looking for a low paying day job. Many critics become celebrities in their own right. I can only imagine how many wannabes would gladly suck up to an art critic from the New York Times. Likewise, a visit from one of these gurus must be a major coup for a gallery owner. With all this influence available could it be that this is another example of the tail wagging the dog? Are the ever-changing fads in art due to boredom with the status quo or simply another instance of follow the leader?
Poetry: Schizophrenic Word Salad or Genius?

Perhaps the most glaring example of my literary deficiency lies in the inability to understand much of contemporary poetry. Admittedly, when it comes to poetry, I am a simple-minded person of the roses are red, violets are blue category. However, I recently inadvertently read a rave review of a book of poetry and subsequently happened on one of the poems in that collection. It reminded me of the “word salad” sometimes heard from those who suffer from a severe form of schizophrenia. The alleged profound thoughts these words were to elicit never reached my brain. It probably sounds heretical to many, but I can’t help wondering if I am really missing something or if these guys are just blowing smoke.
Art: The Language of Feelings

As you might expect, an old-fashioned guy like me is a big fan of Robert Frost. I must have been in junior high school when I first read his classic “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” After all these years I am amazed at how it still takes me to that place and time, and leaves me in that snowy place for a minute or so. Were I a critic, I might describe the last three lines of the poem (“I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep “) as a metaphor for life, but I choose to simply luxuriate in the feelings the poem elicits. When I attempt to define those feelings, I am at a loss for words, but perhaps that is what art is all about i.e. the language of feelings.

 

Music

Music is another category of which I am blissfully ignorant. Having flunked out of a couple of attempts to learn to play a musical instrument, I am vaguely aware of the complexities involved, and have the greatest respect for musicians of all stripes not only for their talent but dedication and work ethic. Nevertheless; since I am unencumbered by enough knowledge to analyze music I am left free to either enjoy or abhor it

Movies

When it comes to movie critics, my favorite hands down was the Siskel and Ebert TV show which lasted nearly 25 years. These two guys who must have spent most of their waking hours watching movies presented their opinions of current movies. The interesting part was that they frequently and sometimes violently disagreed in their critiques. Their debates demonstrated that pronouncements by experts are by definition subjective.
Where the Critics Really Shine: Scientific Literature

None of this is meant to diminish the value of critics for we are in need of those who can sort through the massive amounts of information dumped on us, and make recommendations. Nowhere are critics not only important but essential than in scientific literature.  Studies are often very complex and beyond our ability to understand.  Fortunately, there are always other scientists familiar with the subject at hand who are passionate about the pursuit of truth, eager to examine the data, and study the design and conclusions.

The Undiscovered Geniuses are Waiting…

No matter the subject scrutinized, it behooves us to remember that that in most cases such critiques are only opinions, and one should not close their mind to other possibilities. Undoubtedly, there are many undiscovered geniuses among us. What a tragedy if there were a Michelangelo or Shakespeare out there somewhere lost in the crowd.

P. S.To the best of my knowledge there are no blog critics active as yet, but if you happen to be one please be merciful.

The Power of Belief

WHAT SHOULD I BELIEVE

          A few months ago in a blog about conspiracies (May 2017, Conspiracy Theories) I attempted to find answers to the question of why so many of us seem willing to subscribe to stuff even when it is far from the truth, or in some cases totally illogical.  The question has been of particular interest to me having seen many, many patients through the years with disordered thinking leading to false beliefs.  The extreme example of the phenomenon is seen in the paranoid psychotic person whose perceptions are so distorted that his interpretations of reality are far enough removed from that of the average person that he lacks credibility.  They are often so bizarre as to make others sufficiently uncomfortable that he may be shunned.  As a matter of fact, it is not a stretch to describe paranoia as conspiracy theories on steroids.

ARE WE ALL A LITTLE CRAZY?

We now realize that there are many conditions that can impair brain function resulting in paranoia, yet when comparing the paranoiac to the conspiracist, we see they have much in common, which begs the question as to whether the paranoid’s extreme suspiciousness rather than qualitatively different is merely an aggravation of the basic human condition.  After all, suspiciousness has been adaptive behavior for the human race.  It has contributed to our survival and those without suspicions are called gullible and looked down upon.  On the other hand, the conclusions arrived at by delusional thinking are rigidly held in spite of whatever logic or facts are presented.  In like manner, the political zealot’s ideas seem set in concrete, and he brushes off contradictory information as either irrelevant or untrue.

THAT TRUTH THING AGAIN?

If suspiciousness is not only protective but in search of truth, why do we so often believe stuff when there is no evidence that it is true.  Any good con man will tell you the best way to gain trust is to tell the mark what he wants to hear, and the best lies are those that confirm what he already believes.  As a personal example, there is the case of Donald Trump, who I thought was a jerk long before his TV show.  Granted, that opinion was based on feelings and maybe not even rational for obviously I didn’t really know him.  Nevertheless, I am now even more convinced that he is a jerk and moreover a bad President.  Consequently, I suck up what is said about Trump on MSNBC and reject what Fox News has to say as bullshit.  I find it difficult to understand how some of my friends can listen to the Fox News bullshit, and I am sure they feel the same way about me and MSNBC bullshit.  As a consequence, we rarely discuss politics, but I am sure that they talk politics to friends who are of like mind while I rap only with the anti-Trump contingent.  Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. One study indicated that groups with opposing beliefs actually became more extreme in those beliefs while discussing the issues with those who differed with them.  Thus, there may be wisdom in the maxim that “one should not discuss politics or religion in polite company.”

CATCH 22 AGAIN

Unfortunately, that policy presents us with another one of those unresolvable dilemmas, for if one assumes that it is impossible to resolve differences without discussion and discussion simply reinforces beliefs, compromise is unlikely to occur.  The phenomenon does offer a measure of security to politicians or political parties in that limited exposure of their base to contrary ideas will keep them in the fold.  With that, he can devote more resources to winning the independent vote.

When I was a kid we played a game called Follow the Leader in which participants were to follow the behaviors of the designated leader, and those who failed to mimic the leader were expelled until there were only two players remaining, at which point the one survivor would become the leader and the game would resume with the new leader.  There is ample evidence that similar behaviors are seen in nearly all aspects of human behavior, and that we are indeed herd animals.

SO YOU THINK YOU ARE A THINKER?

There is a famous British study in which a large group of volunteers were asked to walk aimlessly around a large hall without talking to anyone, while a few were secretly given instructions as to where to walk, and to appear confident of their destination.  95% of the crowd followed those who appeared to know where they were going, in much the same manner as would a flock of sheep follow a Judas goat.  This phenomenon, only one example of what has been called herd behavior or herd mentality, has received a great deal of study through the years by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, economists, theologians, historians and even psychiatrists like Freud and Jung.

The principles of herd behavior, or tribalism, have been found to have great utility in influencing all manner of human behaviors.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any aspect of our lives that is not affected in some way by our tribal memberships.  Those of us who fancy ourselves to be independent thinkers have little awareness as to how these and other genetically ingrained behaviors unconsciously affect not only our behaviors, but our thought processes, opinions and beliefs.  To belong, one must conform and conform we do, often with little awareness of why we do so.

HERMITS NEVER MAKE IT

The importance of herd behavior is not lost on the world’s politicians and despots.  They know how to make use of our need to belong to a group or to use a shrink term to be “validated.”  In order to brainwash someone or start a cult, one must begin by isolating the prospective victims in order to deny them validation so they will eventually align themselves with their persecutors.  They make use of the fact that as herd animals, contact with other living things is essential, and they hope that their victims will eventually accept whatever relationship is made available to them.  Similar dynamics undoubtedly play a part in the development of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as in the case of Patty Hearst, who joined the cause of her anarchist kidnappers after having been isolated and abused by them.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, it has been shown in several studies that solitary confinement often results in the development of psychosis, further evidence of the importance of relationships.

JUST ONE OF THE GUYS

It is largely accepted as fact that negative political campaigning is more effective than merely focusing on issues.  In such cases the emphasis is not on issues, but rather on his/her opponent’s character and identity.  The candidate will set out to show that he is like his audience and thus is a member of their tribe while his opponent does not belong.  When addressing a blue-collar audience, he may shed his coat and tie and roll up his sleeves.  The recent election has demonstrated that a baseball cap can generate more votes than a resume in those rallies while more formal attire will be chosen for $1000-a-plate dinners.

HERDS GONE WILD

Nowhere is the herd concept better illustrated than at athletic events.  I have been an Ohio State fan all my life, which by the way is a long time.   Of course, football is the most raucous of all modern sports and one in which tribalism is on full display.  I paid significant sums of money for the privilege of sitting in crowded uncomfortable seats sometimes in rain or snow. Surrounded by 100,000 fellow tribe members all rooting for the enemy to be vanquished, I felt I truly belonged.  Fellow tribe members were readily identified by clothing adorned with the school colors.  We pledged our fidelity by singing the alma mater followed by the school “fight” song.  Seating was arranged so that the opposition fans were separate from us good guys, and the cheerleaders encouraged our totally uncivilized behavior.  The best seats are those on the 50-yard line not only providing a better view of the action but placing the fan in the center of the crowd much as other herd animals jockey for position to be in the center of their herd.  Our loyalties also affect our beliefs, e.g., questionable calls by the refs are bad if they favor the other team, and the boos of one are apt to be taken up by other fans.

In similar manner mob behavior can be initiated, and there have been instances where those officiating games have feared for their lives.  Soccer games seem especially prone to mob behaviors.  Political rallies can be orchestrated to take advantage of that same dynamic.  It is said that Hitler frequently placed plain-clothed SS agents in crowds when delivering his tirades. Their job was to stir up the crowds by cheering his every word thereby stimulating herd behavior, a technique not lost on modern day political organizers.  For example, it is clear that the “lock her up” chants during the last presidential campaign were not entirely spontaneous.

GOOD GUY, BAD GUY

Throughout history leaders have come into power by designating a person or group of people as enemies.  A prospective leader must be able to place blame for whatever widespread complaint exists, and convince his audience that they are under assault by the bad guy or a group of bad guys.  It is helpful if he can induce hatred, for passion increases voter turnout, and the resulting divisiveness is encouraged.  An opponent will feel compelled to respond in kind to the accusations and the campaign becomes a battle of personalities rather than ideas.  Charisma triumphs and meaningful debate never happens.

We are all under a great deal of pressure to believe as are our fellow tribesmen. Consequently, we are strongly influenced to share our beliefs with those who are sympatico, which often leaves us isolated from those who don’t share those beliefs.  In a previous blog, I referenced a study which demonstrated that people are more apt to believe information obtained from a friend than from conventional sources, another indication that belonging is enhanced by sharing beliefs.

IS INDEPENDENT THINKING A LOST CAUSE?

Although many of our beliefs are buttressed by facts, there is also a certain amount of volition involved.  We sometimes reject beliefs that we find objectionable in spite of significant corroboration, and readily adopt those we find appealing despite limited evidence of their validity.  Religions demand professions of belief if one is to enter into the fold, be eligible for an afterlife or in some cases even one’s mortal life.  Early Christians presented their captives with a choice of believing or dying.  Radical Muslims are reported as doing the same even today.

Today, there are powerful pressures brought to bare in efforts to channel our beliefs.  We are drowning in information, much of which is distorted or false.  We are affected by advertising so sophisticated that it is personalized to each of us.  News sources which we trusted to provide truths are under assault.  Then there is that whole internet thing which muddies the waters even more.  Perhaps it is understandable that in our search for a lifeline we should reach out to our tribe to tell us what to believe.

Addendum by eshrink’s offspring (Maggie)

So, what is the answer to this dilemma? Maybe recognition of our need to belong is the first step to evaluate our own ability to think rationally. Instead of convincing or attempting to persuade others, maybe more listening and less talking will lead to greater understanding. No matter our opinions and thoughts, greater understanding and close relationships are what define the human condition.

One of the primary teachings I learned while earning my journalism degree was one of neutrality and learned objective behavior. “A reader should never know what your opinion is. Save that for the editorial page,” a professor preached to our class. To counter the need to disagree, I was taught to ask why. There is always more value in understanding why someone believes something than trying to convince them why their thinking is flawed. To ask the question and learn about their thought process (if there is one) can lead to greater understanding for the person asking the question and sometimes illicit the process of critical thinking in the one whose opinion differs from your own.

At the end of the day, this life is about relationships. Humans connecting with one another. Maybe we can be an example for the pundits and the politicians who want to gain power by dividing rather than unifying. One can only hope.