Our romance won’t end on a sorrowful note
Though by tomorrow you’re gone.
The song has ended, but as the songwriter wrote,
The melody lingers on.
They may take you from me
I’ll miss your fond caress,
But though they take you from me
I’ll still possess…
The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea.
The memory of all that,
No, no – they can’t take that away from me.
The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off-key,
The way you haunt my dreams,
No, no – they can’t take that way from me.
We may never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love,
But I’ll always, always
Keep the memory of…
The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced till three,
The way you’ve changed my life,
No, no – they can’t take that away from me,
No, they can’t take that away from me.
They Can’t Take That Away From Me, by George and Ira Gershwin, 1937
This song was written for the Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance, which premiered in 1937. Two months later, George Gershwin was gone. How ironic – the whole world could have sung this song to Gershwin, and “the memory of all that” – the prolific musical riches that were his legacy to us. And no, they can’t take that away from us, thank goodness. He and his music will live forever, especially in the hearts of Americans, to whom he gave the greatest gift of all: the American persona, captured in song – glorious music that expressed perfectly the tumult, the variety, the brashness, and the sentiment of our country.
But beyond that, this song is really saying something pretty profound: that the meaning and impact of a person can be carried, and carried on, in the elements that we associate with them, and that the emotional impact of these elements survives the person himself, and transcends our actual physical contact with the person. “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on,” as Irving Berlin (the “songwriter” referenced in the verse above) wrote. A person is more than their physical presence, or the person-to-person contact we may have with him or her.
I once asked a patient, “So, who raised you?”
Without a second’s thought, he replied, “J.D. Salinger.”
He could just as easily have said Dickens, or Dr. Spock, or Gandhi, or John Wayne, or George Gershwin, or Vince Lombardi, or Jay Zee (well, maybe not Jay Zee).
We are all surrounded by ghosts. No, not “Woo! Woo!” ghosts, but the invisible filaments of those who went before – those whose actions, values, feelings and attitudes affected those who affect us, those who ‘schooled’ our teachers. I don’t really know exactly what I think about the idea of our souls being immortal, or of reincarnation, but I do know that we live on, in the hearts and minds of others. We are all standing on the shoulders of an infinite host of others, who gave their all to move things forward in some way.
Unfortunately, many, if not most, of us are carrying within us ghostly ‘voices’ that cripple and paralyze us, just as powerfully as if they were bullets or arrows. Without realizing it, we bring our emotional wounds and scars ‘to the table’ all day, every day. And because we are living subject to these internalized toxic beliefs and messages all day, they can ‘take that away from us’, by dulling our responses to things, by making us pull back from our liveliness, avoiding and evading true connection with life, with people, and with being alive itself. The ghosts of negativity and sabotage within us act like static on a radio, so that our ‘reception’ of the call of life is not sweet and clear, as it is meant to be, but thready and unreliable: we are not here, but merely orbiting somewhere above authentic experience and responsivity.
In one of my favorite Hitchcock films, Saboteur (1942), Nazi agents in wartime America are holding the protagonists, ‘Barry’ and ‘Patricia’, played by Bob Cummings and Priscilla Lane, in a swanky mansion in New York City, where a huge formal dance party is in progress. At one point, the couple escapes momentarily to the dance floor, where the bad guys dare not grab them in plain sight of the other partygoers. Barry and Pat dance on desperately, clinging to each other, ‘free’ for the moment but acutely aware that these may well be their last moments of existence – their last moments together. They reveal their love for one another openly for the first time, knowing full well they will probably never get the chance to fulfill their romance.
Suddenly and passionately, Barry says,
Pat – this moment belongs to me. No matter what happens, they can never take it away from me. (Watch it here, around 1.17)
Yes, the gesture is most probably futile, considering their circumstances, but here he is, putting a stake in the ground of time and space, claiming, and highlighting, the moment for himself. Seeing the movie for the first time, as a kid, I remember thinking,
Wow – you can do that?
And now, all these years later, I teach people how do ‘do that’, and work with them to clear away the emotional underbrush, so that they can do that. The ‘Goon Squad’, as I call the inner voice of negativity, tries to infiltrate every single minute of existence, and they will hijack your whole life, if you give them a chance. What ‘they’ want is for you to be ever self-questioning, ever self-doubting, ever preoccupied with your own chatter, so that you never really ‘dock’ with life; if they can keep you absorbed in internal debates, and get you to hang back from involvement because of your self-doubts, then they have achieved their ugly mission in life, which is to keep you from your life. You find this pattern particularly in children of narcissistic parents, and as I have mentioned before in these pages, the book Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb, explains the ‘deal’ in more detail, for anyone who would care to pursue it further.
So, what I try to do is to help my patients, both within their therapy sessions and in their outside lives, do what Cortes, Pizarro and all the other explorers did: drive a stake into the ground and say, passionately,
I claim this land in the name of my own right to life.
Except the ‘land’ in question is the moments of your life, one after another. Just as a recovering alcoholic says, “I’m not going to drink, right now,” rather than “I’m never going to drink again,” a recovering child of narcissism says, “I’m going to be here for this moment, right now,” rather than “I have to work on being here all the time,” which is not being in the moment, but in your head (just what the Goon Squad ordered). This is hard to do – much harder than it looks, and it takes a special kind of help, from someone (a skilled psychotherapist) who knows how to ‘invite’ you into the moment, and keep you there, through the Goon Squad monsoons that rage in violent protest.
So, one part of our ‘They can’t take that away from me’ campaign is this anti-Goon Squad project we might call Operation Presence. But there is another front in this battle, too, that is maybe even more elusive, and this one I call Operation Selectivity.
You have an argument with your wife in the morning. Does it haunt you all day, depriving you of the ability to partake fully in the tasks of the day?
Your boss gives you the fisheye (you think) when you present your ideas for the big advertising campaign. Do you obsess about it all day, dwelling on how you might lose your job, and on how much you hate and resent him for withholding his approval of you like this? Morning, noon and night you think, think, think about what you should have done, what you did wrong, what you could do differently.
Some guy on a big Harley, with more tattoos than he has skin, cuts you off in traffic on your way to work, forcing you to miss your exit. Do you fume, steaming at him all day, as you snap at coworkers and half-heartedly go through the motions of doing your job?
You haven’t filed your tax return on time. Imagining the IRS is after you, or soon will be, you lay awake at night in a sweat, dreading what might happen at any moment: wage garnishment, fines and penalties, shame and public disgrace. You stop answering your phone; deep in sequestration, you’re afraid to look at your mail.
Wounded because you caught your girlfriend with another guy, you go on a two-month drunk, get two DUI’s, and lose your driver’s license.
Worry, obsession, dwelling: this is another way that your mind can hijack your whole life. I used to give out t-shirts to patients, that I got from some Buddhist outfit I can’t remember anymore. The slogan on the t-shirts was,
Worry is not preparation.
Bad things happen, then good things happen, then bad things, then good things. Get knocked down 7 times, get up 8. Don’t let the ‘bad things’ win. Don’t let them take over your mind, crowding out anything else in their way. If you have to, take action, but don’t let worry, obsession and negative thoughts spread out and engulf your life like some unchecked bubonic plague.
So you didn’t file your taxes? Don’t obsess about it – do something about it!
Had an argument with your wife? Decide what you can do, constructively, about it, then let it go and go to work and do your job well.
Afraid you’re going to get fired? Try your best to improve your performance, while you look for another job, if necessary.
Worry is not preparation: obsession is optional.
Obsession only ensures that what you’re obsessing about has top billing at all times, chasing all the other (good) things in life away.
Bad things are ever-present, and so is the fear of bad things. They take up enough space without your giving them a free pass to your whole mental kingdom. Work on choosing what thoughts and feelings are worth focusing on, and for how long, and in what way: do you want to pollute your consciousness with fears, victimhood, thoughts of revenge, hatred, and unreachable fantasies? Or do you want to take appropriate action, then let it go and allow ‘air time’ for the positive experiences that life has to offer? That is Operation Selectivity. Note, I am not talking about denial, or stuffing and ignoring your negative feelings and fears, just that there is a time and place for them, and a time and place for the rest of life as well: don’t miss it. Exercise your power to choose, to be selective about what you let in and what you keep out.
And that brings us to complexity. Consider this scene in Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum, our protagonist, is a private eye who is hired by evil Kirk Douglas to find Douglas’ girlfriend, who has run off after plugging Douglas with a .38. Mitchum ends up falling for the girl himself, runs off with her, and finally, after hiding out, lying, and a murder, she runs off.
Years later, he has reinvented himself as a nice, quiet service station operator, with a nice, quiet girlfriend and a nice, quiet fishing lake nearby. Sounds nice and quiet, huh? But oops – Kirk never forgets, see? He reaches out and finds Mitchum, and has him brought to his palatial estate on the shores of Lake Tahoe, to be ensnared in Kirk’s complicated two-birds-with-one stone scheme that is supposed to end with Kirk not only cheating the government out of the million dollars he owes in taxes, but with Mitchum framed for a murder that one of Kirk’s henchmen committed.
Mitchum knows he’s going down, but he doesn’t yet know when, or how. He only knows why, because, you see, Kirk never forgets – or did I already say that? So the scene opens with Kirk and Mitchum exchanging bogus pleasantries as they size one another up, all smiles, while Mitchum gets a tour of this lakefront Xanadu. Then they go out to the terrace, with a sweeping vista of Lake Tahoe.
In a movie jam-packed with crackerjack dialogue, this is the least of it, but listen in, and I’ll explain, later, why it’s a big deal to me:
Mitchum: Am I here to admire the view?
Kirk: Not exactly – I need your help.
Mitchum: (Fatalistic smile) Like old times.
Kirk: I always liked you.
Mitchum: You liked me because you could use me. You could use me because I was smart. I’m not smart anymore – I run a gas station. (Pause) I like the view.
So, what’s the big whoop about this? That a man who knows he’s screwed, knows he may be at death’s door, who’s standing there with the man who’s going to kick that door open, still has the presence to say, “I like the view.” Sure, he’s sick with fear, his mind is spinning with how he’s going to counteract Douglas’ schemes, and survive this enforced walk on the gangplank, but he still notices the view, and appreciates it.
Nice job of being in the moment and maintaining complexity there, Mitch! Nice job of remembering that more than one thing may be happening at the same time: to let the negatives suck up all the energy is to miss out on some of life’s sweetest moments.
And that leads us to the Memphis Moment. Years ago, I had a patient who had to travel for work. She hated flying, hated hotel rooms, hated the kind of work she did on these trips, and hated all the changes, and logistical complications, that come with travel. Oh yes, she hated travel, too. So, these trips, to her, were basically five days flushed down the toilet of life. After a few months of hearing her lambaste her job, the deadliness of hotels, the miserable food and so on and so forth, I stopped her cold and asked,
What could you do in Memphis, that would be fun?
She stopped breathing and glared at me like I was an imbecile.
What the hell are you talking about?
But I don’t throw in the towel that easily. I said,
I’m talking about taking some time out during your trip, to enjoy something about Memphis, or whatever town you’re in. After all, Memphis can’t be all bad. Why should you allow these business trips to ruin your life for days and weeks at a time, when lots of people go to Memphis to have a good time?
(I was on pretty safe ground there. I had lived in Memphis for a summer, when I did an internship at the Memphis V.A. Hospital, and therefore knew firsthand that Memphis wasn’t all bad.)
Oh yeah? Like what?
Like Sun Records Studios, like Beale Street, like the Peabody Hotel, like even Graceland.
Graceland? (Said with dripping sarcasm and a withering sneer.)
Yeah – Graceland.
Well, eventually she did take my suggestion under advisement, judiciously, and though she never visited Graceland, she did make an effort to try and do something she liked in every city she visited. She even manged to have a good time in San Antonio, seeing the River Walk and the Alamo – corny, but fun. And later on, we expanded the concept to her life here – and every time she would stop and find something, or someone, fun or interesting, in the midst of the ‘obligatory’ things she was doing, we came to call it a Memphis Moment.
And the moral? Don’t allow yourself to become a drone: no matter how much you have to do, no matter how much you may hate your job, or your boss, or some aspect of your life, don’t let that one thing dominate it; consciously work to find, and mix in, things that are fun, that are creative, that are challenging, enjoyable, or even crazy, in a good way. It’s not impossible: finding a Memphis Moment just takes intentional effort and willingness.
Life holds untold riches – even in the midst of tragedy, or boredom, or worry – for those who are willing to look for them. Don’t surrender all of your ‘bandwidth’ to negativity, fear and doubt: if you work at presence, at complexity, at mental selectivity, then they truly ‘can’t take that away from you’.
So, plant your flag squarely in the moment, and remember the Alamo!
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.