Fuel For The Heart

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Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine,

I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.

A million tomorrows will all pass away,

Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today.

 

Many years ago, probably 1966 or ‘7, when I was a student at UCLA, my girlfriend, who was outgoing and socially at ease, and therefore the polar opposite of me, was on The Colloquium, I think it was called: some kind of Student Council, or Guidance Committee, or Student Council Guidance Committee, or – well, you get the idea. She was “in leadership,” as chambers of commerce like to say, whilst I, her eyes-downcast, shy, unsure consort, could barely get it together to be in followership. Anyway, the Colloquium had a yearly “retreat”, undoubtedly for the members to get together and Colloquy up a storm. I, as the consort, was invited along for the ride – a bus ride, as I remember, sports-team-style, with everyone crammed together for optimal bondage and fermentation.

Where did we go? I have no idea. What did we (or rather, they) talk about? I have no idea. Were there breakthroughs, grand hatchings of world-changing ideas, comings-up-with of new dimensions in human colloqui-izing? No idea, for in that era of my life, I was mostly on the Bernstein Plan: fade into the woodwork and hope nobody notices you, or far worse, calls on you, causing potential shame and humiliation, beyond that which was already in place, aplenty.

So, what do I remember?

Only this: on the way back home (yep, my memory skips the entire Colloquipalooza itself, though I’m sure it was groundbreaking and historic), music was playing on the bus, or wait, maybe we were all ‘group-singing’ (bondage and fermentation – remember?) the song, Today, by John Denver. It’s actually rather a nice song, and if you click on the link (go on, you scallywag, you!), you can watch the New Christy Minstrels performing it, and see and hear for yourself the Anita-Bryant-hair’ed, hands-prettily-clasped-in-lap’ed, Sunday-frocked girls, and the suit-and-tied, Ivy-League-hair’ed, pink-cheeked boys harmonizing it, altogether a pre-Hippie folkie vision of Purity, Goodness and Earnestness.

Anyway, you can imagine sitting there in the bus, having spent the weekend Doing Good, as we sang our little hearts out together like Methodists or something: sure, I’m mocking it a bit, but the fact that I still remember the goose-bumpy feeling of it forty-eight years later says something.

After the singing, I remember I sat there on the bus talking to a much older, white-haired couple, about “the state of the world”. We talked for quite a while, which was unusual for me with older people at the time, and, as I recall, we touched on most of the standard (but important) issues of the time: proto-environmentalism (“conservation”, in those days), why do there have to be wars, what’s happening to the world anyway, can non-violent resistance work – or will it take revolution, the military-industrial complex, commercialism, and all the rest.

As we pulled in to the UCLA parking lot, and wrapped up the conversation, the old guy extended his hand to me and said,

You’re a very mature young man.

I remember I wondered at the time, ‘Does he mean it?’ Or was he just trying to offer a little encouragement to a young, kind of lost kid who was basically an okay guy and in political agreement with him? Now I realize that it doesn’t matter, because I ‘registered’ his remark forever: here I am, almost a half century later, repeating it. Looking back on that young man who was me, I see that, to ‘him’, it meant, “Maybe I’m not that bad,” so whether the old man ‘meant’ it or not is irrelevant: it had found its mark, and I would always have it in the woodpile of emotional encouragments stacked deep in my soul, to draw on, during the freezing weather of my future. Fuel for the heart.

1973: I was a psychology grad student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was a bit more self-possessed than in my teens, but not much: each year there was a make-or-break test we had to pass, or be asked to leave the program. I had friends who had washed out, or been in the process of washing out, for years. It wasn’t pretty, and it ruined a couple of friendships, when I ‘made it’ and they didn’t. I’m not blaming the school: that’s probably the way it was everywhere at that time. Kind of like the Marines: they used the emotional pressure partly as a weeding-out tool. If you couldn’t ‘cut it’, you didn’t have it in you to function professionally as a psychologist: if you did – well, you were part of The Few, The Proud.

I didn’t doubt my ability to become a good therapist, eventually, with the right help, but the program wasn’t particularly geared to people like me: the ‘good ones’ were supposed to go on to become academics, researchers, ‘scientists’. As we went on, and my classmates seemed (at least, to me) to become more involved in their research, to spout more jargon, and to talk of finding positions in academia, I felt more and more like a fish out of water. I didn’t give a hoot about my dissertation, statistics, or reading deadly dull journal articles and books that seemed designed to impress colleagues, rather than shed light on human life. I didn’t want to know about “learned helplessness”, “cognitive dissonance”, or the primacy effect: I wanted to know what to do when someone feels their life is meaningless, why some people grow from grief while others collapse under it, and how to connect with people who were different from me.

I felt my adviser was disappointed in me for not being enthusiastic about behavior therapy, and sometimes it seemed like the professors were more involved in their internal squabbling with each other (“When he first came here, he never approached me for guidance, not once, so the hell with him!”), and their own personal problems, than they were in producing the next generation of decent, human psychologists. Again, I don’t blame the school – I was an idealistic, romantic kid who was probably slated for a lot of disillusionment, no matter where I went to school.

Then, a ray of light came into my life: it turns out there was a ‘breadth requirement’, which decreed that you had to take at least a few classes out of your ‘field’ of concentration, in order to ensure that you were, if not a Renaissance Man, at least not a Dark Ages Man, oblivious to anything not in front of your nose.

Joy! I took the first film appreciation class of my life, and I’m pretty sure I was probably not very rewarding to the poor teacher. A sample of one of my ‘critiques’ of an artsy art film: “This film was a one-hour exercise in mental masturbation: I could have gotten much more out of an hour spent in actual masturbation!” – to which the response was a very great many savage red pencil marks. But that class was my first realization that film could be treated as a legitimate art form (kind of like what Freud and Jung did for people), and the beginning of a lifetime of appreciation and enjoyment.

And the other ‘field’ I gamboled in for a semester? Poetry. Well, actually I don’t remember a lot about it, other than the fact that the other students (grad students in poetry, I suppose) seemed to be operating on a different level than I – a much higher level. Specifically, I remember sitting in class trying to puzzle out The Emperor of Ice Cream, by Wallace Stevens: While the other students seemed to be spooning it up like a big sundae, I’m afraid I sat there with brain freeze.

But this I do remember: I was talking to the professor, a remarkable and highly-honored man (I believe he won the Professor of the Year award at U.T. several times running), during his office hours, about this or that, and he suddenly started out to say something, then stopped, abruptly.

Somehow, I had a feeling it was important. “What did you start to say?”

“Oh – nothing.”

Despite my shyness and lack of confidence, I had an intuitive feeling about this, and pressed him. “Please – tell me.”

He blinked a few times, in indecision, then seemed to make up his mind. He cleared his throat. “I honestly don’t know if it’ll be helpful or not . . . but, well, it’s just that, uh, I think you’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.”

I stopped breathing. For one thing, I had been a total boob in his class, contributing nothing to the conversation: if I was the emperor of anything, it was melted orange sherbet. I tried to discredit the statement: after all, this was Tennessee, not Harvard. And besides, what would he know about me, or anything else, anyway? But, much as I tried to negate him, that dog didn’t hunt: this guy was special – he didn’t get that Professor of the Year thing for nothing. He could hold his own at Harvard or anywhere. I knew my major professor was a friend of his: maybe they had talked? But my major prof didn’t think I was all that big a deal, anyway, so that didn’t make any sense.

My mind continued on though, trying to discredit, negate, and nullify:

Oh, I get it: he knows I need a little shot in the arm, and this is his way of administering it. That’s why he hesitated so much: he’s a decent fellow, and so it took him a while to make up his mind whether a lie for a good purpose was justified.  That’s why he’s such a good teacher: he knows how to motivate people, how to inspire them, and this is what he decided I needed.

We didn’t mention it again, then or ever. He seemed uncomfortable with having said it to me, like something you do that’s out of character, and then have to live with. I guessed it was possible he might have meant it, that his hesitation might have been because he was afraid it would ‘go to my head’, but I would never know.

What I do know is that that one little sentence has stayed with me for the rest of my life. It has buoyed me through some very hard times, when I thought I was stupid, a loser, a lightweight, a dope. When I’ve been put down by people who thought they were superior. When my ability, my talents, my credentials have been questioned.

Two little statements, from decades ago:

You’re a very mature young man.

You’re the brightest student I’ve ever had.

True? False? Well-intended ‘manipulations’, or sincere statements of truth? It doesn’t matter. I took them and ran with them. And I don’t mind saying that there were times when I clung to those statements, and others like them that I have filed away, deep inside, like a drowning man to a life ring.

And now that I’m the ‘elder’, and in a position to do this for others, I never hesitate to bestow laurels of encouragement, in my professional life or otherwise. I doesn’t cost you anything to compliment someone on something that’s true, or acknowledge them, whether it’s minor or deeply meaningful:

You have the most interesting sense of humor.

You have a real soul.

It’s so unusual to find someone with a sense of personal ethics.

To have gotten as far as you have, coming from your background, is remarkable.

So, if you’re an elder, or in a position of authority, or just realize that someone looks up to you, don’t waste the opportunity to say something positive, something for that person’s ‘woodpile’ against the winter winds. Don’t assume “it’s obvious,” because it isn’t.

So often I’ve had couples come to me for help and one person says, “I need to hear some words of love or appreciation sometimes,” and the other person says, “Well, I’m sitting here, right? That should be enough!” No, it’s not enough! Patients have often told me about kind words, encouraging words, personal words, that a teacher, or a neighbor, or a friend, said to them many years before, that have sustained them in the face of despair or loss or failure. Despair, loss and failure: those are obvious. Love is not obvious. It’s fragile – it needs to be expressed, manifested, and nurtured like a hothouse flower.

So, today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine, open your mouth and let out some of that love you’ve been hiding inside. Just look around you: someone you know is dying for someone to believe in him or her, dying for a little encouragement.

Don’t wait.

Today is the day.

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Blue Star

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Driving back from a fishing trip with my son, when he was maybe 10 or 11, I was playing some CDs I had made from my iTunes library. As usual, it included an eclectic mix of everything I like, from oldies to newies, from jazz to pop to rock, from Forties novelties (One Meatball), to the Weepies and Ray LaMontagne. He sat in the back quietly for the most part, probably rolling his eyes at most of it, although, having hung out a lot with me for most of his life, he does have an appreciation for my ‘old stuff’. I mean, how many kids can instantly recognize Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, or even Whit Bissell, for god’s sake?

Well, as I say, we were driving along on the approach to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and a song came on that I threw in because I had been checking out doo wop groups at the time: Blue Star, by the Mystics.

As the song ended, I heard from the back seat, “I liked that one. Could you play it again?”

Hmmm, I wondered what was going on. I mean, I could always rely on a laugh from the funny stuff, like Spike Jones, or those crazy ones by Louis Jordan – like, Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?, or Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?, which we had heard, and loved, in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons we used to watch together.

But beyond a basic shared appreciation of good music, our tastes diverged greatly. I mean – rap, hip hop, metal, techno, emo, schmeemo?  I’d rather be beaten with a sharp shillelagh, thank you.

“Sure,” I said, and set it up to play again. This time, I listened more carefully to the lyrics, while shamelessly checking the rear view mirror a couple of times:

Blue star, blue star…
Blue star that shines above,
You are the star of love.
My love is far away,
With all my heart I pray:
Oh, blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

The other stars all know,
 Just why I love her so,
And I will surely die,
If you don’t hear my cry,
Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

In my dreams I see,
Her sweet lips are kissing me;
When I wake at home,
She is gone, and I’m alone…

Oh blue star, hear my plea,
And bring her back to me,
If you will tell me when,
Then I can live again,

Oh blue star, shine upon the one I love tonight.

And here’s what I saw behind me: he was in a kind of faraway, dreamy trance, a look I recognized immediately, and remembered well – the “Will I ever find my true love?” trance. It exists in a teenage half-life, somewhere between hope and despair. I mean, we all want the Blue Star’s help in pointing out the right one for us, don’t we? Sure, the song was outdated, the chords mundane, but the subject matter, and appeal, were, and are, timeless.

And for me as his Dad, it told me this: my boy was growing up, and soon he would want and need lots of things that I could not give him. Of course, he would have hotly denied any of this, with a snort; he probably wasn’t even consciously aware of it. That’s why it was so moving and poignant to me – the innocent sweetness of that unselfconscious look, at the very dawning of a new era of life.

Ever since then, I can’t listen to Blue Star without the emotional memory of that moment welling up inside me: that’s the power of connection, of meaning through caring. A song that was mundane and trite, became special to me, because it touched something in him.

And this same process also happens, and frequently, in my therapy practice. I get to witness those magical, dawning moments – moments that, sometimes, only I am aware of. And then later, when the feelings and thoughts are more accessible, I get to share them with their authors – and I do mean authors, because I see the development of a self (consciously or not) as a beautiful, artistic act of creative courage.

Why courage? Because daring to care again hurts, when caring always ended in pain before.  And it hurts to want, when wanting always led to shame and frustration. And it hurts to grow, because leaving the familiar always invokes fear — and guilt. It hurts to need, when needing always meant ridicule, or emptiness. And it’s hard to wish, when wishing always meant a slap in the face, or failure.

In the series Band of Brothers, about paratroopers in World War II, their slogan is “Currahee”, which we are told is an American Indian word meaning “We stand alone, together.” That makes sense: When you are doing something frightening and new, whether it is jumping out of an airplane into the midst of the German army, or opening the emotional scabs that are crippling you, you need help: not to do it for you – because you have to do it yourself – but to ‘stand by’ you as you do it, to hold a safe space for you, to be an experienced ‘Sherpa’ to help you to trust the experience, let go of old ways, and take the plunge into the new.

So what are these Blue Star moments? They are turning points. To a layman, they might seem ordinary, but to one who knows what to look for, they are magical:

A young male patient had been holding me at arm’s length for several months. Finally, one day we had this conversation:

Me: You know, James – I don’t bite.
James: I know.
Me: Then what’s the problem?
James: They don’t call me that, you know.
Me: Call you what?
James: James.
Me: What do they call you?
James: Different things.
Me: You mean, like, it depends on . . .
James: Yeah.
Me: So, what do I get to call you?
James: I’m thinking about it.
Me: ‘Thinking About It’? Sounds like an Indian name.
James: Very funny. Okay then, I guess you can call me Jay Jay.
Me: Hmm, Jay Jay. I’m honored.
James: You should be.
Me: I am.
James: And what do I get to call you?
Me: How about Gee Gee?
James: Asshole – okay, I’ll settle for Dr. B.
Me: Fair enough – you got it, Jay Jay.

And after that, I was always Dr. B, except when he wanted to tease me, and then he would put his head down, shoot his eyes up at me, and with an impish grin, call me Gee Gee.

Now, that was an honor. And a Blue Star moment. (Actually, the real Blue Star moment was the word ‘Asshole’: you don’t call a holding-at-arm’s-length therapist Asshole. When he first said it, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and giving him a fist-bump.)

Another example: a woman I worked with long ago – very strong-willed, very loud, very brash, and very opinionated, who, not surprisingly, was in conflict everywhere in her life. She was the CEO of a small company she had founded, a service company that depended on good will from its clients to survive. But she was constantly getting into disputes and arguments with the clients, mostly about meaningless details that she could have let go, but didn’t.

And most of all, she always had to ‘know’ the one right answer, the one right way – her way – to do everything. This was her idea of ‘strength’ – she saw people who weren’t as sure as she was, as weaklings and saps. She had also lost many good employees, due to her overbearing manner and refusal to back down in disputes – disputes which she caused, and which didn’t leave any room for a resolution which allowed the other person their pride or even their emotional space.

Our sessions would often take the form of a ‘test’: she would bring up a problem, such as why employees were leaving, or why clients didn’t renew their contracts. My ‘test’ was that I was then supposed to supply an answer – an answer, that is, that didn’t involve her changing her own behavior! This is what it was like:

Marsha: Why am I the only one who takes on any responsibility at work? I mean, there are a million things to do. Why is it so hard for people to just put down their damn coffee cup and dive in?
Me: Are you saying they don’t do anything?
Marsha: Oh sure, if I stand there over them with a whip and tell them word for word what to do, they do it. But it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Me: So, they don’t do anything on their own?
Marsha: Well, you’re actually catching on: for a minute there, I thought you were deaf.
Me: No – I’m pretty sure they can hear you all the way down the hall. Has it ever occurred to you that your employees are intimidated by you, or that they are afraid to do things on their own, for fear that you’ll criticize them?
Marsha: Criticize them? Now why would I do that, if they actually got it together and did something without my standing there with my whip?
Me: Well, one reason could be that they might not do it your way.
Marsha: You mean the right way?
Me: Um hmm – and what is the right way, Marsha?
Marsha (smirking):  My way, of course!
Me: The defense rests.
Marsha (shaking her head in disgust): Well, once again, you haven’t come up with a single workable idea to help me deal with the employees – or the clients.
Me: I’m just saying, if you gave them a little running room, a little more leeway, they might feel more empowered to do things on their own without fear of criticism.
Marsha (shaking her head No): Nope – you still don’t get it: if they would show a little more initiative, a little more intelligence, maybe I could back off and trust that things wouldn’t go to hell in a handbasket as soon as I walked out that door. But no such luck: they just sit there like Henny Penny and gabble on their cell phones like kindergarteners all day, unless I stand over them and hand-feed them the next task, and the next, and the next.
Me: I did give you an idea.
Marsha: You call that an idea? That’s no idea: that’s yesterday’s coffee grounds.
Me: I guess you’re going to have to stand over me with a whip, too, to get any decent work out of me.
Marsha: You got that right.
Me: Well, sometimes I might not have an immediate answer that meets all your criteria. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trying, or that what I’m doing won’t help you, maybe in ways that you can’t see right now. There are ways of knowing that aren’t about giving right answers.
Marsha (mocking): Oooh – deep thoughts!

Well, it went on like that, week after week, her testing me, and me ‘failing’, until one dark, rainy day, when she came in, looking totally exhausted, and flung her wet umbrella down at her feet.

Me: What’s going on? You look all done in.
Marsha: I am.
I sensed that she needed to have some time with her feelings. We were silent for a few moments, then I spoke again,
Me: Feel like talking?
Marsha (with a deep sigh): I’m tired – just so tired, of always being the one on the spot.
Me: You mean, like having all the responsibility?
Marsha: Yeah – keeping everything on track. (another sigh) But – what if it wasn’t me: would the world come to an end?
Me: I don’t think so.
Marsha: That’s good to know, because I don’t have anything left in the tank.

Silence.

Me: So – what happened?

Silence.

Me: Is there something . . .
Marsha (beating her hands down on the chair arms): I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know!

Silence.

Marsha (Sighs again, then glances at me with an unfamiliar, almost childlike look): Can’t I just not know, for once?
Me: Of course – there’s still a place for you here, and in the world, whether you know or not.
Marsha (crying): Can’t someone else just take over for once?

Silence.

Me: They could if you’d be willing to stand back from the wheel and let them steer for a while – and accept that their course might not be identical to yours.
Marsha: As long as we’re going in the right general direction, I’m too tired to fight anymore.
Me: Sounds like the captain is growing up.

Give that lady a Blue Star!

She later realized that she had learned something from all the times I had ‘failed’, but was still there for her: that I was still providing something, and that my not always ‘knowing’ didn’t mean I was weak, or that I didn’t care; there are things beyond ‘knowing’ that a human being can provide.

And still later, she learned that when her critical, demanding father ‘quizzed’ her at the dinner table every night, she felt that the only value she had was in giving the right answer. And she learned that she wasn’t the failure, he was, for only valuing that one thing about her.

And for Gee Gee (aka Dr. B)? He had the joy of welcoming an honest-to-god human being into the world.

So, the next time you’re listening to a friend’s problems, or looking in the mirror and wondering if you’re worthy, or driving along with your kid in the back seat, don’t wait for miracles: if you look closely, you’ll see that a Blue Star is already shining upon the one you love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Love, and How It Gets That Way

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Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree,
That I’ve been dreaming of?
Where is she,
Whom I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever hear the sweet hello,
That’s only meant for me?
Who can say where she may hide?
Must I travel far and wide?
Till I am beside someone who
I can mean something to…
Wheeeeere,
Wheeeeere is love?

Where is Love? from Oliver, by Lionel Bart

These heart-rending words (and if your heart isn’t rended, or even rent, watch the musical, and if it still isn’t rended, you get forty lashes and ten days of gruel), from the mouth of Charles Dickens’ immortal lost waif, Oliver Twist, express with tremendous poignancy the question we are all asking, one way or another:

Where the hell’s the love I came here for?

That’s right – we know it’s all around us, somewhere, we know everyone talks about it, they sell cards about it, sing songs about it, write poems about it, give us money instead of it, confuse it with sex, even have a holiday devoted to it, but, as Ollie himself might say, “Where the deuce is the bloomin’ stuff, anyway?”

Must we, like Ollie, ‘travel far and wide’ to find it? In Out of the Past, one of my favorite film noirs, this is this bit of dialogue:

Jeff Bailey: You know, maybe I was wrong, and luck is like love. You’ve got to go all the way to find it.
Ann Miller: You do to keep it.

All of this implies that love is like finding buried treasure: you have to seek it assiduously, putting aside other, more minor, considerations, to attain it. And, if you’re very, very lucky, you just might find it, somewhere. Jeff Bailey thought he’d found it – he even gave up his whole life, his home, his career, his reputation, his principles, and ultimately, his own personal safety, to go ‘all the way’. And what was the ‘treasure’ he risked all to attain? The kind of girl who kills without remorse, ditches him, and, at the end, when they’re stuck with each other, says,

You’re no good. You’re no good and neither am I. That’s why we deserve each other.

Cover your ears, Oliver.

Well, in all this frenzied reaching for the brass ring, this rushing about the world looking from face to face for a sign that the other is our true love and soul mate, it seems to me we are missing something important. And it is simply that the successful transmission of a signal depends on two things: the transmitter, and the receiver. The transmitter is (hopefully) the true love that the ‘proper stranger’ is beaming your way.

And what, then, is the receiver? Our ability to BE loved in the first place. It seems to me our society takes this last bit for granted, but it is by no means a small part of this whole equation, and has a great deal to do with how and why love goes wrong so often.

While it’s certainly true that, as Woody Guthrie says,

It’s a-hard and it’s hard, ain’t it hard,
To love one that never did love you,

the following is also hard, though mostly unsung: To love ‘one’ and not have it received. I had to do therapy for years and years before I realized this – that, while terrible damage is done children because their parents either do not love them, or do not know how to love them effectively, there is also terrible damage done by parents not being able to receive, and value, their children’s love for them.

People want, and need, to have an effect on others. It proves they exist. When children’s love for parents is taken for granted, or worse, forced into a meaningless Jell-O mold, like “Say you love your mother, dear,” the treasure they have to offer the world is devalued, demeaned and trivialized. And when someone feels that their cherishing, their respect, their delight, their ‘getting’ of someone else, is meaningless, then they feel they are inconsequential, no matter how much the parent repeats, “I love you,” to them (often in the same formulaic chant).

As the therapy process evolves, we see changes in many areas of functioning. It is assumed that one of the hoped-for goals is an increase in the capacity for genuine caring and love. However, someone constantly in the thrall of emotional storms is by necessity self-absorbed, and does not have the psychological wherewithal to stand back from themselves and truly love another. As the internal storms abate, there is the possibility to see, hear and appreciate another person’s qualities. This is partly why, in the ‘old days’ of psychotherapy, patients were forbidden to begin outside relationships during the course of their therapy: they had to be free to be ‘selfish’ enough to have their primary focus be on building structure inside, and on the therapy relationship.

But there are two other areas of relationship that can improve dramatically over the course of treatment, too:

1) the capacity to receive (and believe !) the therapist’s concern and caring (and, by extension later, to receive, and believe, concern from others in the outside world).
2) the growing belief that their concern and caring for the ‘other’ (the therapist, in this case) matters, and is valued and important to the other.

Perhaps older readers will remember the lyrics to the song Nature Boy, by Nat King Cole, which express this all pretty efficiently:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,
Is just to love, and be loved in return.

And, not to belabor the point, but bear with me for just one more, from one of my favorites, John O’Donohue:

We do not need to go out and find love: rather, we need to be still and let love discover us.

What do these things mean? That the familiar trope of seeking love by searching the world over for it, is itself kind of a grape Jell-O mold that vastly underrates the difficulty of the thing, and the accomplishment of attaining it. For this thing called love is not just praying to god you find somebody cute who thinks you’re cool: it involves a host of skills and capacities that one develops by practice, by work on oneself, by thoughtfulness, and sometimes, by therapy.

A basic, but not complete, list would include:

The ability to love another person for who she or he really is, apart from yourself, and to support the person in becoming him or herself.

The capacity to believe that the other person receives your love, and values it.

The ability to receive their love, not in a cynical way, not in a formulaic way, but to really see the ‘signs’ that indicate that they love you, and how they are loving you, and the effort that goes into it.

To enjoy their love for you, rather than taking it as conditional, a burden, a performance demand, or a stricture of some kind. Realizing that to receive the gift of love graciously is to give a precious gift back to the giver.

The ability to realize that their loving you, caring for you, wanting to help you make it in life, and even your depending on them, is not a burden on them, but the fulfillment of their own emotional capacities. After all, if you have the ability to dead-lift 750 pounds, but never lift a weight, that’s no fun, is it?

Do you start to see what I mean? The ability to love and be loved is not like rolling off a log – it is a lifelong practice, that can only be developed by being made a high priority, and it can evolve beautifully over a long period of time. It is one of the only human gifts that can continue to grow over the life cycle, and is not affected by the ‘ravages of time’ and aging.

A cute young couple out for a stroll together on a Sunday afternoon, holding hands as they plan their lives together, is a fine sight.

But that same couple in their 80’s, holding hands, laughing together, being comfortable in the silences, knowing what they have been through together, and still getting a kick out of each other: now THAT’S a big deal.

Oops, almost forgot: Ollie, you can uncover your ears now. After all, you don’t want to miss my next blog.

Ollie: What’s a blog, sir? Some sort of sausage?

Me: No, Ollie – it’s when I write down all my thoughts about life.

Ollie: If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d prefer the sausage.

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.