October 21, 2017ramble

Thoughts from the Therapist... lately I haven't been going often, but one incidental impression I got from Irvin Yalom's "Staring at the Sun" is that there isn't one correct schedule for therapy. A year or two ago when I realized my once-a-week course was more than I needed, I leaned more towards dropping the whole thing - since then I've been doing the very occasional check-in session but with a sense of "I'm not doing this right". The session I had this past Monday was helpful, both because of the dialog with my therapist Terry Hunt and then how further reflections helped me get my own thoughts and feelings in more order.

For one thing, I can admit to myself that I look to my therapist for a kind of paternalistic approval - given that my dad died when I was 14, I guess I can be gentle with myself for desiring that, even if I guess therapy means it's a rent-a-dad kind of situation. Terry expresses a lot of enthusiasm for my way of looking at the world and my projects, and that means a lot to me. (Sometimes he lets me talk, almost too much - I was rambling on, and then he made a good point, and I had to stop him from encouraging me to continue the rambling because I wanted to absorb and sit with the point he had just made.) (Also, after seeing those old home videos I think they have similar voices, but that might just be coincidence.)

At the session, and after reading "The Righteous Mind", I realize that my "elephant" (i.e. what really drives and motivates me, vs the usual inner-voice conscious self as the elephant's rider) is the need to be a certain kind of Righteous - the righteousness of being 100% reliable and in accord with Objective, Unassailable Truth. Or at least 100% reliable in notating how unreliable I am... someone (including myself) being wrong about facts but still speaking with absolute authority is my vision of original sin. And parlaying judgements and interpretations into "facts" is similarly terrible. (Getting back to the elephant-rider metaphor, this puts me in the oddly circular position of my emotional motivation being making sure my intellectual self can fully justify the emotional motivation.)

What that tells me is I need to get away from a sense of absolutes. Intellectually I believe that if you really seek a true absolute, all you can find is the objective goalessness of the physical universe. To quote Peter Gay: "Since God is silent, man is his own master; he must live in a disenchanted world, submit everything to criticism, and make his own way." Existential philosophies point a way of living with this, and it's a fraught path.

But the way I've lived is assuming other absolutes. Every control dial setting I have "has to" make sense if you turn it up to 11. When I was religious, I had to be totally reliably religious. My attempt to live that sunday school way, while seeing religious peers drinking (besides the underage factor, my church is tee-totaling) and partying and fooling around in high school kind of busted my sense of lived faith. (I mean, I was fooling around a little myself, but at least I was feeling guilty about it.) Combined with how the world was full of so many other religions, it made the Absolute Objective Truthness of what I had been believing untenable.

Besides being a product of my own neuroses, I think this reflects my upbringing in Western culture. Some Eastern outlooks I admire embrace moderation as a virtue in and of itself, but it's not a point of emphasis for the Evangelical Christian culture I was swimming. (My upbringing wasn't fundamentalist, but I see how a need for being Objectively Unassailably True is why we have young earth Creationists etc... in the West, God is often all about being The Ultimate, the complete, the total, all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, all-turned-up-to-11. We forget that there are other ways to interpret Him - how if you go back to the Old Testament you see a God who is sometimes all too human, almost petulant. The author Karen Armstrong does a good job of explaining how the Trinity covers a lot of old bases, from the unknowable, ineffable "Sky God" to the much more human types we see walking around Mount Olympus etc.)

Ok.

So now I'm thinking of this in terms of pleasure, my own enjoyment. Now I've hardly been an ascetic monk, but I rarely have a sense of permission to say "I'm not going to do this because I don't WANT to do this." - that I'm refraining because there's no pleasure in it for me. I mean, if you had the "pleasure justification dial" set at 2 or 3, what Objectively True rationalization was there for not cranking it up 11? But what the existential stance tells me is: I don't have to dial it up because I choose not to. But I can also choose not to keep at its lowest settings without having to assume I'll become a pure hedonist or junkie or whatever. It can live at a healthy medium-high setting in balance with the other dials of responsibility and life in general.

Realizing that has led me live more pleasurably, and more appreciate the loveliness and ease of my privileged life, and better apply philosophies to better cope with the unpleasant parts.

My erstwhile arguing companion EB pointed accusingly to my roots as the child of Salvation Army ministers (an organization that tells its clergy where to live and what to do, and for them goes well beyond a normal 9-5 job)- he was convinced I imbibed the early lesson that I wasn't as worthy of attention as the charity cases they were helping, and that's where my sense of self-sacrifice came from. He was rather off base - he thought that my scene was a lot closer to communal living than it actually was. (Salvation Army Officer Kid family life is reasonably firewalled from the running of the church, despite the "having to change towns every couple of years" aspect). Still there might be something in seeing my current self rooted in my early family situation- Especially combined with a mom with an in-family reputation of a kind of stalwart "martyrdom" that I may have internalized as well. (Her younger sister nicknamed her "Betty the Good")

"Martyrdom" is an overly jocular and loose way of putting it, but I absolutely live with a sense of judging the cost/benefit of everything in a group, communal way - if I can make a small sacrifice that makes a larger difference to someone else, I feel morally obliged to make that sacrifice, regardless of the fact that I am me, and they are them. It's not absolute, and I'm hardly wearing scraps and bankrupting myself to give give give to charity, but it does drive me in a lot of ways.

So seeking to balance my maternally-derived "martyrdom" - a close friend of my dad's once told me (meeting with him years after my dad's death) that my dad had an especially well-developed sense of pleasure and delight. The short of this all is, I want to cultivate more of that in me.

(Some of my closest friends wrestle with depression, and my sense is some of the issue is that their knack of simple enjoyment and pleasure is tamped down, so sometimes I worry I can't give them good sympathy or empathy. I don't know how much the kind of mindfulness I'm suggesting here can help them, but I guess it's better than nothing.)
"I think I expected more babies, from the title"
--Liz after watching Baby Driver... great flick! Like a less gross and violent Tarantino at his most stylized but with much better music.
"I do not produce thoughts, thoughts produce me."
--Julian Barnes, "Nothing to be Frightened Of". Listened to it on audiobook, after reading it and finding some great quotes by the author and from others in 2009