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! 

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!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAMILIES

FAMILIES

In previous blogs I have discussed the importance of relationships in our lives; however none are more important than our relationships with our family of origin. They will be a powerful influence as to how we view the world and other people.  More importantly, these experiences will be major determinants in the development of our personalities.  Those fortunate enough to grow up in nurturing environments will find it easier to nurture their offspring.   To feel loved is likely to protect one’s self-esteem, and allow one to experience the joy of loving others.  Our values are in many ways shaped by family for even if one is rebellious and rejects what he has been taught, his new found truths often originate from the nature of his family relationships.

Apprenticeship to Adulthood

We humans are unique among mammals in the length of time required for us to reach maturity. Not only is our rate of growth slow, but there is much to learn if we are to survive and thrive in a complex society.  Although much is determined by our genetic make-up, we learn behaviors and perceptions primarily by unconsciously mimicking others.  In that sense, growing up is much like an apprenticeship.

The 21st Century Family

An accurate definition of family is now difficult to pin down. There are no longer traditional roles for family members, such as were the norm in my generation.  Since most parents work, there are fewer stay-at-home moms.   We now see an occasional stay-at-home dad, something unheard of in my time.  Other than widows, single mothers were not nearly as prevalent during my youth as they now are.  Modern mobility has limited the number of nuclear families who can experience the support of extended family members.  Many of our children grow up barely even knowing the names of their cousins.  Blended families composed of his, hers and their children can face special challenges.

The Power of the Family Bond

In spite of these changes, the bonds between family members are among the strongest of all our relationships. This is evidenced by the fact that one of the first phases of recruitment by cultists is to alienate the prospect from family members, usually leaving siblings and parents confused and devastated.  The same tactics are used by those who would attempt to relieve the elderly and infirm of their possessions.  In both cases, they discredit the families of origin and attempt to break the bonds between the victim and the victim’s biological family.  Those in positions of leadership of all stripes realize the strength of familial relationships, and seek to provide an atmosphere in which a surrogate family can develop.  Street gangs likewise are said to provide family like bonds, which have been lacking in the lives of those they recruit.  The search for the type of relationships found in families seems to be a common human need.

“I found it difficult to remain therapeutic while feeling homicidal.”

Although families offer the best environment for rearing children, they can also be the scene of horribly abusive behaviors. I have had little experience dealing with such problems, especially when they involve children.  I generally avoided treating such cases as I found it difficult to remain therapeutic while feeling homicidal.  In like manner I find that the understanding of other cultural practices such as honor killings, genital mutilation and such to be way above my pay grade, and in spite of being paid quite well.  Consequently, I will confine my remarks to treatment of more mundane problems.

Who is the “real” patient?

Most families seeking help are usually concerned about the behavior or mental status of one of their members. They are often coerced into treatment by the identified patient’s therapist.  That term (identified patient) is useful in that one may find that the person in treatment may be the healthiest member of the family, and labeled as sick because he is out of step with the rest of the family (i.e., the identified patient is actually the most emotionally healthy of the group who is reacting to an unhealthy family dynamic).

The importance of family therapy

There are multiple reasons that I believe involvement of family is critical in the treatment process:

  1. Family members may be able to provide valuable information about the patient’s behaviors.
  2. It allows the therapist to view family relationships first hand and thus provide insights as to the stresses in the patient’s environment.
  3. Family members may provide a more complete family history
  4. It allows the therapist to assess the level of support available, and to encourage such support
  5. Perhaps most importantly, it is a mechanism in which the dilemma of providing family with needed information about their loved one’s illness without violating the confidentiality inherent in the doctor-patient relationship. This becomes even more important in those cases where there are paranoid tendencies, or there has been a great deal of conflict.

The Complexity of Family Relationships

Although the average family size has shrunk considerably over the last century, relationships between members can still be complex. It must come as no surprise that there are often conflicts within families.  Since it is difficult to walk away from one’s family, those conflicts are not easily resolved, and over time may escalate.  To be chronically angry can be debilitating and painful, and as such, blaming another for those feelings comes easily.

The Blame Game

As mentioned in previous blogs it is important that the therapist avoid joining in the search to establish who is at fault, for to do so merely perpetuates the problem. He must be able to analyze the problem from the outside looking in, that is, learn how to be a meta-communicator. Hopefully, the members will find it difficult to continue blaming each other if the therapist redefines the problem as blaming rather than defining the problem as identification of who is at fault.

The Power of Brevity

In order for the therapist’s comments to be effective, they must be brief if they are to be remembered. The importance of brevity as with most things in my practice was learned from a former patient during a chance encounter, during which he thanked me for having helped him several years previously.  He credited his recovery to one statement of mine.  He said: “The thing that helped me most was when you said ‘you think too much’ and now whenever I start to worry about all the things which could go wrong those four words come into my head and I am able to move on.”  I cannot take credit for any brilliant insights for I didn’t even remember the incident, but it is an example of how an offhand comment may be more effective than hours of therapy.  The same principle applies to our everyday lives, as the most memorable comments are those expressed in a few words.  The lengthy ones are often forgotten before they are completed.

Obviously there are many reasons for families to seek counseling other than to deal with hostility, but no matter the problem it is helpful to look at it as a communication system gone awry. Imbedded in many different behaviors is a message, and thus can be seen as a form of communication.  For example, what is the message being sent by a teenager who is acting out?  It could be that they are angry about limits set, unrealistic expectations from parents, lack of trust by parents, sibling rivalry, or resentful that not enough limits have been set, or for reasons which have nothing to do with the family.  Of course, the teenager is almost certain to be the last person likely to divulge such information.  Disclosure can many times offer a pathway to an understanding, which may be therapeutic.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

It was not my intent for this paper to be a treatise on family therapy; however I thought it might be useful to see how some of the concepts could be useful in understanding not only our own families, but relationships in general. As I mentioned in a past blog as with marital relationships, it is almost inevitable that one will be so caught up in seeing the trees that he will become oblivious to the forest.  That is, he will not realize what is going on even though he can hear the words.  This was brought home to me several years ago when following a party a colleague said “Smith I can’t believe how you treat your wife.”   I was shocked, could he be talking to me, the couples therapy and family expert?  After all, I had no doubt that I was among the world’s best husbands, but Barb later confirmed that my friend was correct in his assessment.  As has been said, “None are so blind a those who will not see.”

Reframing

For example though all have separate personalities, they also have different roles to play as family members. For example it is common for families to have a star and a black sheep.  Parents may lament that they don’t understand why the black sheep can’t be more like the star, and continue listing all of black sheep’s misdeeds and faults.  In such a case the therapist might address the black sheep kid by saying, “That is such a loving thing, doing all that stuff to make your sibling look good.” No matter the response the system is changed, and this is apt to open up some different dialogue. This is a process therapists call “reframing.”

Scripting

There are many roles that kids and parents may unconsciously adopt. There are the placaters or people pleasers, the mascot or clown, the lost child or withdrawn person, and as mentioned in the previous vignette the hero or achiever, and the black sheep or scapegoat, to mention a few.  Family roles may develop in order to fill a need or may come about by the process of scripting.  I mentioned previously the role families play in the development of our identity, and when they convince us we are a certain type of person, we are apt to follow that script.  Some have gone so far as to say if you can convince someone he is a homicidal rapist, he is apt to become a homicidal rapist.  Obviously, there are many influences other than our families which affect our identity; however, the opinions of our parents and siblings are undoubtedly the most powerful.

Disagreements

In this time of rapidly changing mores, it is not surprising that there will be frequent disagreements between we old folks and the kids. Of course disagreements between siblings seem to be written into their DNA, and disagreements between parents is certainly not unusual.  When family members cannot agree to disagree, an argument is likely to occur, and such arguments often lead to verbal or even physical attacks.  I don’t mean to suggest that disagreements are all bad for as Walter Lippmann famously said, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much”.  When we tell our kids what to think while telling them we want them to learn to think for themselves it is little wonder they become frustrated for that is a classic double bind, or in today’s vernacular a no win situation.

Systems of Conflict Resolution

If a disagreement reaches the point that one feels threatened or under attack, either verbally or physically, he may respond in a variety of ways.

Attack/Attack system

He may retaliate in kind which is an attack-attack system. This is almost guaranteed to increase the level of anger, as each participant attempts to outdo the other.  These are the types of interaction which can lead to violence.

Attack/Placate system

The attack-placate system is often seen in cases of spouse abuse, when the abused attempts to talk hubby out of his anger by reassuring him and in other ways spreading oil over the troubled waters. This too usually fails as the abuser may feel patronized.

Attack/Divert System

Another type is the attack-divert system which as you might imagine can become rather bizarre. This might be effective in minor skirmishes, but simply changing the subject in the face of overt hostility is weird, and leaves the problem unresolved.

Acknowledge the Affect

For the best method to deal with such emotionally laden situations, I hearken back to my mantra of “acknowledge the affect.” In such cases, the message the attacker is trying to send is that he is feeling some kind of negative affect such as: anger, hurt, envy, jealousy, or fear.  Statements such as “I can see you really feel strongly about that” or “are you angry with me?” will often defuse the situation.  It is not necessary to change your opinion or point of view, but simply to communicate that you understand how he feels.  If your attacker’s affect is not available then one can use his own such as: “I feel …………” The concept has wider application, for in any emotionally charged situation it only makes sense to deal with the emotions rather than to ignore them.

What’s Next?

In my next blog, I plan to focus on child rearing. I am well aware there are probably hundreds of books written by people who are convinced they know better than you how you should raise your kids.  I don’t plan to do that since I have made plenty of mistakes in that department; although my kids all turned out well in spite of my screw-ups.   Rather than directions as to how one can raise perfect little people, I plan to provide helpful hints on how to screw up your kids lives: I call it “How to screw up your kids without even trying.”

Thanks for reading!

DO YOU HEAR ME NOW

Editor’s Note: Image not approved by e-shrink, but I needed some eye candy 🙂

In a previous blog, I promised an encore presentation on the subject of interpersonal communication. Your patience is about to be rewarded for I will now set about to fill these pages with the words of wisdom promised.

Actually if one excludes extrasensory communication and similar spiritual phenomena, there is little mystery about how we communicate with each other, but it is amazing how we can screw it up. It appears that all creatures have some means to communicate. Some plants are said to communicate with each other, and I just read an article in Scientific American presenting evidence that some bacteria send signals to others of like kind.

The Dawn of Communication

It is impossible to know exactly how earliest man communicated, but it can be assumed that job one as they came together as groups and then tribes, was to be able to communicate with each other. They would soon find that gestures and other nonverbal means were not sufficient for them to be successful carrying out joint efforts, like gathering food, providing shelter, and protection. Sound would prove to be the most effective means. Messages could be carried over distances without interrupting the sender’s activities. For example a certain sound may have been agreed upon to sound a warning. Meanwhile, man would be evolving physically with very versatile machinery to produce a variety of complex sounds which we now call words and language was born.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Since our Great, Great, Great, Great………..and so on grandparents, like us, were never satisfied with the latest technology, they would undoubtedly start looking for ways to communicate distances beyond their range of hearing. It would also be nice to save and share messages. Smoke signals and other such signaling procedures would have little useful utility. They solved that problem by devising symbols for each word thus enabling them to not only hear, but also see all those words. Fast forward a few thousand years, and here I sit recording words in this mysterious black box. As you are all aware this is not the end of that story, but more about that later.

Most of us talk better than we listen

Of course humans have developed the most complex system of communication centered on our verbal language skills. As a matter fact, many anthropologists rate our ability to use language as the major factor which allowed man to become the dominant creature on the planet. It is language that allows me to write this paper, and to communicate ideas, opinions, directions, knowledge, feelings, or indeed any thoughts which come into my head to anyone who is inclined to listen, and therein lies the most common flaw in any communications system, i.e., most of us talk better than we listen.
Psychiatrists listen, it is what we do, as a matter of fact sometimes that is all we do. It has always amazed me how therapeutic listening can be. There are many times when patients have left my office saying they felt much better after venting their particular problem, in spite of sparse verbal responsiveness on my part. It makes me sad to think that some people find it necessary to spend money to have someone listen to them. Come to think of it, if we all would be better listeners it might save a lot on shrink bills.

 

I can identify with those people who feel no one listens for I have always envied those guys with deep commanding voices who are able to dominate a discussion. In those situations I am rather soft spoken and sometimes feel excluded. My attempts to change the timbre of my voice have been unsuccessful; consequently; I am usually content to let my wife take the lead in those social situations as she is very good at social repartee.

The Nuts and Bolts of Communication

Everyone knows that in order to have a communication, one must have a transmitter and a receiver. For the sake of brevity (my readers seem to appreciate that quality in these blogs), I will limit my comments to communications between people; although, I realize there are now many machines that communicate, and that animals communicate with each other and with us. It is important to remember that in the presence of other people it is impossible not to communicate, for paradoxically not to communicate sends a message: therefore a communication has taken place. When one ignores another person, it may send a powerful message, but one which can be interpreted in many ways. The message may be clear depending on the situation or context, but can also be confusing.

An outstretched middle finger pointing skyward will rarely be misinterpreted

Verbal conversations are the most versatile and intimate of our means of messaging while written messages are less likely to be misunderstood. Non-verbal messages can also be very precise, for example in our society the presentation of an outstretched middle finger pointing skyward from an otherwise closed fist will rarely be misinterpreted. In spite of such exceptions, words are generally the more precise tool. The superior quality of verbal versus non-verbal communication is evidenced by the difficulty those born without hearing experience as compared to those who are blind. It is well known that a person’s lack of one special sense will result in a compensatory increase in acuity of its opposite. The result for deaf people is that they can become markedly adept at sign language, but to converse with hearing people becomes very difficult. They must either use crude gestures, or depend on written messaging, the first being ineffective and the second inefficient. Lip reading is apt to be fraught with errors and may not even be possible for those born deaf. Blind people however converse with little difficulty and their enhanced hearing may allow them to hear inflections which might go unnoticed by those with normal vision which could help make them superior communicators. The result is that deaf folks often prefer to relate to others who are deaf, while blind people find it easier to assimilate into ordinary society.

The Art and Science of Listening

As I mentioned previously, I believe that failure to hear is usually due to a failure to listen. Listening requires effort. In order to be an effective listener one needs to use all of his faculties, including not only his ears, but also eyes, touch, and sometimes even his sense of smell. It goes without saying that it is essential to be attentive, and to maintain eye contact unless the one talking seems uncomfortable. Observing a person’s posture and movements are all part of the listening process. For example, folding one’s arms across their chest indicates they are not likely to be receptive to your comments. Of course there are many less obvious non-verbal cues which are delivered unconsciously, to which we may respond to without awareness they have occurred.
People who study non-verbal communications can gather amazing amounts of information by simply watching a person. While teaching both individual, couples, and family therapies, we often would show a video tape of a session without sound, and speculate as to what the body language revealed. If the therapist who conducted the session was present he/she would usually be surprised at his/her lack of awareness of some their own non-verbal behaviors. Although a thorough review of the subject is way beyond the scope of this paper, we can learn some things which can be helpful to enhance our abilities to really listen just by watching.

Listen with your eyes

Most cues will be obvious, the breaking of eye contact, leaning forward or backward in a chair etc. One very telling clue as to our engagement is the shifting toward or away from symmetrical positioning e.g. the mirroring of postures. If the person with whom we are conversing mimics our sitting position, it is likely that they are engaged in the conversation, and to change positions will indicate disengagement. We are likely to sense those changes in others more easily than in ourselves. Leaning forward toward the conversant will indicate interest and encourage more talk on the subject while leaning back can be interpreted as: “enough of that subject.” At the same time it may be helpful to remember that if you are bored you probably will look bored, and you will give off the same signals as your bored companion. As mentioned previously, words are still your best shot to receive a clear message, and the non-verbal stuff should be viewed as ancillary.

The Transmission

Now that you know everything there is to know about being a receiver, we can move onto how you may become a talented transmitter. If you are to become a scintillating conversationalist, or a raconteur par excellence you must learn how to deliver a clear and succinct message. This must not be as easy as it sounds for even when listening as hard as I can, I sometimes have no idea what is being said. The KISS acronym (keep it simple, stupid) is still a good rule when it comes to personal conversation. Complexity tends to obscure rather than illuminate. Most contemporary poetry violates this rule in my opinion. My attempts to understand it leaves me with the same feeling I get after spending a half hour working on a rubric’s cube. I confess that I carry a few big words around to use when I want to impress; however long multisyllabic words should be avoided if a little one will do. (You may notice that I have used some of my favorite fancy words in this paragraph, and I trust you are duly impressed).

Direct vs Indirect

Conventional wisdom is that one should always be direct with one’s communications, and “not beat around the bush” as my grandmother would say. In general that is a good rule to follow; however there are times when one might need to deviate from that practice. It brings to mind the solution that my wife Barb found to a vexing problem. It involved a young man who did some office work for her from time to time. The problem was that he had a persistent very strong body odor. She was concerned for him, and suspected the B.O. might well have something to do with his limited social life. Of course, she was reluctant to confront him directly. Although her maternal instincts had kicked in, she did not feel close enough to him to be comfortable discussing his problem directly. After considerable deliberation she resolved her dilemma by giving him a box of deodorant soap for Christmas. Unfortunately, she had no follow up with which to judge the success of her coded message.
There are times however when a direct communication is the best choice in embarrassing situations. One personal example happened while I was giving a lecture to a group of nurses. I noted some snickering among them which was puzzling since grief was the subject of the talk. I later learned that my fly was unzipped. It would have been an act of kindness to have been informed of my zipper problem. To make matters worse, I was forced to endure taunts by colleagues that this was an obvious Freudian slip.

Sending manure and roses in the same box

Although words are of the utmost importance in communicating, we must not forget the music that goes with them. By that I mean the tone, volume, cadence, pitch, and other elements produced by the noise maker in our windpipes. The mechanisms we use to produce sound is remarkable in its versatility and is capable of expressing innumerable emotions which can accompany our words. What we say can be modified, enhanced, diminished or even totally changed in their meaning by our voices. When the words fit the music it can add clarity, but when they don’t it can be confusing. This also applies to visual clues as previously discussed. In those situations in which sound contradicts the words, we have two conflicting messages in one. The purpose of double messages is usually to express hostility, but make it difficult for the recipient to respond as we used to say at the lab: “to send manure and roses in the same box”. In such cases it may be difficult for one to decide which is the more pungent odor.

Sarcasm and the double message

Sarcasm is probably the most recognized form of the double message; however there are some who are masters of the technique. Some women are said to be “catty” in their conversations with other women For example at a dressy social function Miss Catty might say, “What a nice dress, I saw one just like it on the dollar rack at K-mart the other day.”The recipient of this message is apt to remain speechless unless she is quick enough to come up with an equally sarcastic response. In any event the two are unlikely to become friends. There are words and phrases which can be interpreted differently. Some idioms can be confusing and even suggest opposite viewpoints. Since language is never static some may change in their meanings as for example the phrase, “cute as a bug” usually referring to a younger person now seems to be accepted as complimentary; however I don’t believe many people would consider bugs cute.

Anger vs Hostility

Many people find it difficult to deal with anger either of their own or others. This can be limiting in their ability to form lasting and honest relationships for there will always be reasons for anger towards others whether real or imagined. Unexpressed anger will result in either hostile behavior or depression.

In our so called civil society it is often deemed inappropriate to express anger directly, but rest assured it will be communicated by all those non-verbal means we have talked about in spite of our best efforts to conceal it. Contrary to public opinion anger and hostility are not synonymous. Anger is an emotion while hostility is a behavior. Hostility is unlikely to resolve the issues which perpetrated the anger, and furthermore the response to hostility is apt to increase one’s anger.

The efficient and healthy way to express anger

There is a very simple and efficient way to express anger and that is to say “I am angry with you.” This will allow the source of your anger the opportunity to ask about your anger and consider options other than fighting. As I mentioned before, you are the only expert on your emotions so they can’t be refuted by others. If he shows no interest in resolving your differences, you are best off to just dump the sucker.

When you’re on the receiving end of anger

The opposite side of the coin is when you are the recipient of the anger or hostility. If the person is sufficiently enlightened to open the conversation with their feelings of anger, you have a good chance of resolving the issue, but it is more likely that it will be hostility, e.g., name calling, accusations, jealousy, or even physical assault. In the latter case just run unless you have a ball bat handy.

Acknowledge the affect

In other circumstances you may be able to diffuse the hostility by acknowledging the affect. The affect for you non-shrinks is the word we use for feelings. As a matter of fact that phrase: “acknowledge the affect” became my mantra when teaching psychotherapy. Phrases such as, “you must be very angry, or you really look mad,” may lead to a more productive discussion. In some cases it may be more effective to use your own affect especially if there is no response to your acknowledgement of his anger. Whatever you say must be honest, like “I feel sad, this hurts my feelings, or you are scaring me.” Although these strategies do not guarantee success, they are less likely to result in escalation of the conflict. Of course sometimes we would rather fight and in such cases that remains a prerogative; although it is often difficult to determine the winner.

Being assertive without hostility

Many of us have grown up in homes where we were taught to be submissive. This is probably true for women more often than for men. Then we grow up and find that we must be assertive or be ignored. Our childhood experiences of assertiveness was usually linked with anger, but as we grow up we learn that to be accepted into society we must learn civility. The result is that in this competitive world we must assert ourselves or be left in the dust. The problem is that we don’t know how to be assertive without being hostile. This was a problem for many, many of my patients. As women strived for more independence, and learned to work alongside men who were accustomed to being considered the dominant gender their need for assertiveness training increased, and this need is not confined to women. Learning to recognize feelings will help one to compartmentalize them and learn how to communicate without unwanted hostility. In other words acknowledge the affect.

The Awesome Complexity of Communication

The subject of interpersonal communications is obviously much more complicated than what is presented here. It is estimated that our vocabulary includes between 10,000 and 17,000 words depending on age and education level. When the myriad non-verbal modifiers are added coupled with the thousands of ways words can be arranged we become aware of the awesome complexity of this function which we take for granted.

P.S. I am a bit anxious about submitting this for publication as I have a grandson who is about to graduate with a major in communications. I can only hope he will be merciful in his critique.
Next time, I hope to share some thoughts about families.

THE POPE AND I

No, I did not have an audience with the Pope. I confess that this title is a bit misleading, but you must admit it got your attention.

The Pope’s visit got everyone’s attention especially viewers of CNN, for their coverage was non-stop from arrival to departure. This must have made their bean counters happy, since I imagine their bottom line could be adversely affected were they to pay independent journalists to cover the horrors taking place in the middle-east and Africa, or the desperation of immigrants around the world.

You may be wondering why I didn’t change the channel to Fox and watch them trash democrats or MSNBC, as they did the same for republicans, or even to Sesame Street in case I wanted to learn something worthwhile. The problem is that Barb likes CNN.

Although I don’t wear a long white dress and beanie, I found his speeches interesting and even inspirational. At one point I nearly pulled a John Boehner and could feel a tear about to erupt. In most cases, his thoughts and opinions paralleled mine therefore; he must be pretty smart. In particular, his speech at the U. N. caught my attention when he talked about the need for people to bond and trust each other. I concluded that the Pope had much in common with this old Presbyterian. It occurred to me that our need to bond with each other seems to be universal and can have both good and bad consequences.

My understanding of Pope Francis's statement, which would result in people caring for each other, and in so doing to learn trust. There is little doubt that if such feelings for our fellow man were present in everyone, this world would be a much more pleasant place in which to live. Of course, this in not a novel idea. Many have espoused it for the past couple of thousand years, if not longer, but with minimal effect. In fact, religions both past and present, expect their members to meet and worship together. They usually encourage fellowship, and the experience of belonging to a caring group of people is fertile ground for the development of trusting relationships. The Pope must have felt there was a lot of bonding going on as millions flocked to hear his words and receive his blessings.

The Pope and I agree that bonding and trust are important. A very common complaint by my patients was of loneliness, and feeling a lack of connection to others. As a matter of fact, most of the perpetrators of the recent spate of mass murders are said to have been alienated from society. Notes they left reflect the anger they felt at being left out and alone. Group therapy has been a useful tool in dealing with such problems as it provides an opportunity to relate in an atmosphere where one can share in a safe environment, and learn to trust and be trusted. This need to bond appears to be so ingrained in our very nature that we sometimes look for other ways to satisfy the need. Those whose lifestyle or physical infirmities limit their relationships may find solace in a pet. There have even been instances reported in which prisoners who are isolated attempt to befriend the rats who visit their cells.

It is not clear when this need, so powerful that if unrequited may lead to suicidal or even homicidal behavior, became so ingrained in our psyche. There is evidence that earliest man  learned the advantages of close relationships. Indeed, it is likely that without such bonding, our prehistoric ancestors might not have survived, and could have become extinct as did other branches of the hominid progeny. Indeed, in a world where predators threatened their existence and competed with them for food, it would not have taken them long to realize there is safety in numbers. Likewise, as they developed carnivorous tastes they would have found that teaming with others would contribute to successful hunting. Such lessons learned were not unique to humans for many other mammals found that bonding with others of their species enhanced their chances of survival. With such a history spanning thousands of years, it should not surprise us that this need to bond would eventually become imprinted on our DNA.

There are some, myself among them, who are concerned about the ways in which our children are limited in developing relationships to which they can bond. Home schooling has become more popular and is likely to become more so as the digital world expands. I have long been concerned as I have seen the consolidation of small neighborhood schools to become institutions that are so large it is very easy for a child to be left out of the mainstream. Since K through 12 school is where children learn social skills, and develop much of their self-image, such feelings of alienation can have serious consequences. Parents face a great deal of stress sometimes working two jobs, and stay-at-home moms are less plentiful. It appears that kids spend much more time texting than talking. The rest of their free time is often spent playing video games. And, yes I know that a previous generation had the same concerns with the invention of the telephone, as my Grandson eloquently pointed out to me a few months ago. I agreed that the phone was a step down from looking one in the eye, but did preserve voice inflections and thereby we were not quite so insulated from the feelings of callers.

Most people would agree that neighborhoods are not as neighborly as they once were. The current generation prefers distance from their neighbors as witnessed by the current housing developments where larger lots are preferred and “houses are not jammed up against each other." Studies of large city apartment buildings indicate that many residents do not even recognize their neighbors. On the other hand, I did recently read that some companies are now eliminating the cubicles in which they isolated their employees, as they have decided that their workers were much more productive in an open office space. It was felt that the changes also resulted in feelings of camaraderie with coworkers, company loyalty was strengthened, and absenteeism was reduced. Such examples illustrate when barriers are removed, there is a natural tendency to bond.
Of course the ultimate bonds are those with our immediate families, but for most this does not seem to be enough. When populations grow so large that physical contact is impossible, they still find ways to bond. Witness any athletic contest and you will see groups sometimes numbering in the thousands banding together to cheer on their team and boo the bad guys. Though there are some loners among us, most seem to have a need to closely align themselves to a group or organization. There are lodges, fraternities, sororities, clubs, religious and political groups, reunions, and volunteer organizations to name a few. There seems to be an almost universal need to belong, to be attached in some way to others.

History tells us that nothing unites a group of people, whether it is a neighborhood, tribe, or country, like a common enemy. It makes little difference if the threat is real or imagined. Throughout history leaders of nations have been able to mobilize and bond their subjects by convincing them they have an enemy. Coaches have long known that their team’s success depends to a great extent on the relationships between their players, and their ability to function as a unit. Those who work in dangerous positions such as fire fighters, policemen, heavy machinery operators and such must depend on others to “watch my back;" consequently, trust is essential, and camaraderie is a prerequisite. Many religions bond together in their struggle against demonic forces of one kind or another.

Nowhere except within families is bonding more intense than in the military. Recruits soon unite by learning to hate their drill sergeant. The entire unit may be punished for the transgressions of one; thereby teaching him a sense of responsibility to his buddies. One may enter the service for a variety of reasons, but once in combat they report their allegiance is to those who fight beside them. The bonds formed are so intense that some experience grief after leaving their unit in spite of the dangers and horrors they may have faced. This sense of loss in addition to the survivor guilt often felt are undoubtedly factors which account for the epidemic of suicides by returning soldiers from our latest war. Some have volunteered for return tours of duty apparently hoping to recapture that which was lost.

It is true that relationships are not only pleasing, but probably necessary in order for us to maintain sanity. Indeed, one study from many years ago where volunteers were subjected to total isolation, all developed psychotic symptoms in as little as two weeks. It is also true that throughout the ages there have been the cunning and unscrupulous who have perverted this need of ours to service their lust for power. The mechanism as I mentioned previously is simply to convince a group of people that they have a common enemy and that they must unite to protect themselves or punish the miscreant for his alleged misdeeds. One need only to turn on the nightly news, and hear about the violence and chaos that persists throughout the world to see how successful these strategies have been as populations bond together to destroy their own version of the bad guys.

Although in the U.S. we moderns no longer have saber tooth tigers to fear, there are many who have no difficulty finding people to hate and whom we should fear. We have the white supremacists who are convinced we are in danger of being persecuted by blacks, the gun lobby who wants us to fear everyone, and other groups too numerous to mention. And let us not leave out our politicians as the republicans convince us we should fear the democrats and the democrats tell us the republicans are the ones who will do us in if given the vote. In other words, we are encouraged to choose sides, bond, and fight with each other. In order to fight we need a leader to save us, and there are always those who are gracious enough to be that person if only we will vote for him.

If I ever did have an audience with the Pope, I would enjoy discussing this bonding and trust stuff with him. I would probably agree that more bonding and trust is needed, but that in many instances those same qualities can also be used for nefarious purposes. In that vein, I can see myself saying, “Frank, be careful what you wish for” or in his case it would be more appropriate to modify the admonition by substituting the word "pray" for the word "wish."