Life Lessons

The Fall


Because I was over 70 years old, when I last renewed my driver’s license, I was required to take the written test.   California’s Division of Motor Vehicles issues a manual that reviews the rules and regulations considered essential in safe driving.  Although many of the points made are intuitive, I did learn something new by reading the booklet:  There is really no such thing as an accident.   Even if a collision is unexpected and unintended, when an accident occurs, it is invariably the case that one or both drivers disobeyed some rule of safe driving. That motorist may have violated the speed limit, may have went through a red light or may have tried to stop, but could not, due to faulty brakes.

When two cars crash, as would be likely in any of the above situations, because neither of the drivers meant it to happen, we refer to it as an accident.  But the occurrence of the accident is the result of one or both of the motorists proceeding in a dangerous or unsafe manner that could have been avoided.  I recently had an “accident” of a different nature that I could have avoided if I had taken a simple safety step prior to it happening.

As the years have gone by, I have had increasing difficulty in staying asleep, without waking up with the urge to urinate.  I find many of my friends, in the same age cohort, to have similar problems.  The separate bathrooms my wife and I have provide us with sufficient space to not bump heads, especially, when we are getting ready to go somewhere.  My bathroom is adjacent to our bedroom that makes it necessary for me to walk a few steps out of the bedroom. 

Three nights ago, I took a sleeping pill that I do not use regularly, fell asleep fairly quickly and woke up around 3 a.m.  In the past, I had never had any difficulty in reaching my bathroom as it is quite close to our bedroom.  When I arose from my bed and headed to the toilet in the pitch dark, half-asleep, I felt disoriented and off balance.   I was more confused than dizzy, and in my awkward attempt to walk straight without careening, I tripped and keeled over making a loud thud upon hitting the floor.  I immediately could feel a streak of pain shoot through two areas of my body:  my rear end and the left side of my lower back.  When I tried to right myself and stand, I could not, at which point I called my wife who heard me fall, and she assisted in getting me back on my feet and returning to our bed.

 In my drowsy state, I had gone a few steps past the bathroom that caused me to trip over one of the two steps leading into the living room.  You know when you break a bone and, fortunately, I had not done that.  Besides which, I was lucky that I had not banged my head against either of the two surrounding walls where I fell.  Three days later I am still experiencing the pain in my back but it is not incapacitating and, I’m quite sure, will go away, hopefully, sooner than later.  Since the “accident,” I have put a night light in the bathroom that neither of us can see from where we sleep.  It is a very small change but it will certainly eliminate the risk of this same mishap in the future.  My misadventure reminds me of the saying we can all heed: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Life Lessons Memories Personal Reflections

The Realization

When I wrote this composition in the first semester of my freshman year at college, I had such a keen recollection of its underlying theme that I kept it all these years.  At that time, I did not write well so, readers, please consider this following essay the work of a rookie.  When I started looking more closely to skilled writers that had published, my ability to express myself on paper improved markedly between my sophomore and junior year.  Nevertheless, even today many years later, my writing any kind of prose very much remains a challenging task.

When I wrote this piece in my freshman English class, the underlying hurt I had experienced upon being rejected by whom I had considered close friends, was still very much on my mind.  The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, observed: “Man is a social animal.”  The strong need to have relationships with those around us can cause us to act in ways that can alienate us from those we wish to befriend or maintain as close companions.  Because we do not choose who are classmates are in K through 12th grade, the social pressure to fit in and be accepted as part of the group, during those years, is perhaps at its greatest.   Many clients, in my practice as a clinical psychologist, have described the excruciating agony they went through, as children, in feeling left out and unwanted by their classmates.  It simply is no fun to be the outsider spurned by those we are forced to be in contact with on a daily basis.  My immense desire to be accepted by all, like some of my clients, made rejection a sorer point for me than for most of my peers.

When I wrote this on a Smith Corona typewriter, spell checks or suggested punctuation changes did not exist.  Although I have corrected either omitted or unnecessary commas and words obviously spelled wrong, I have left the content of this composition intact.


People would rather create false images of themselves than admit to their imperfections of character. The tendency to believe that we are better than the next fellow is inherent in a great part of mankind.  This illusion, prominent in so many human minds, prevents us from correcting the very wrongs that we breed.  Mankind is a mulish race.  We too often resent the criticism that others have to offer, thereby reducing any chance of improvement in the eyes of our fellow man.  Instead of closing our minds to the remarks of others, we should judge all that is said to us, and then go on to discard or retain what has been said.  An excellent way of doing this is direct conversation with our contemporaries.

Six years ago, during my first year in junior high school, I had a feeling of such discontent that gloom had reached a stage of dominance in my character.  The year before seemed to be an antithesis of what was going on this year.  My closest friends had been ignoring me for nearly a month.  I could not understand what had happened.  Had I changed that much, or was it my companions who had changed so radically?  How could it be possible for me, who had been so popular, to be suddenly rejected by all?  As I walked through the halls between classes, I pictured myself disowned by the human race, much like the Man Without a Country had probably imagined himself.

Throughout the month, I had tried to solve my problem without success.  I had blamed everyone but myself for the present condition I was in.  For how could it be my fault?  It was my honest contention that no one, impartial to my situation, could have possibly thought that I was the guilty party.

But after a month had elapsed, it did not matter to me who was at fault.  My mental state had reached its nadir.  I realized that it would be extremely difficult to go on living in this manner.  I decided to chance upon doing something that I ordinarily would reject without second thought.  My idea was quite simple; it involved little if any strategy.  What I had resolved on doing was to go right up to one of my ex-friends and ask him why I had been neglected this past month.  To me this took a great deal of courage, but my determination, I was to find, would suppress any feeling of fear that I might have felt.

One day, outside of school, I put my plan into action.  I saw one of my friends, who had once been very close to me, and I immediately approached him.  “Marc,” I called out, “it’s me, Buzzy.”  As he stared at me, a light perspiration was clearly visible on my face.  Then he replied, “yes, what do you want?” I told him.

What came after my inquiry, concerning my relations with the fellows, and why they had been giving me the silent treatment for the past month, was smooth and gentle, in contrast to the tongue lashing I thought I would probably receive.  I discovered that the solution to my problem was no longer to act as childish as I had had a month ago.  And suddenly all of my previous actions came back to me.  My infantile actions, as I recalled, were primarily done to get attention.  Suddenly a feeling of disgust came over me, and Marc could notice it, for he told me to no longer feel bad.  I understood though, that now was the time to show them that all of my babyish characteristics had vanished from me personality.  I would act my age, as best I knew how, from this day on.

For one hour we talked to each other.  But I would have to say that within this hour I recognized something that made growing up a lot easier for me.  Besides learning where the trouble lay between my comrades and me, I had finally begun to understand that I was not always the right one.  There were others besides myself.  This bit of philosophy I have accepted and tried to follow ever since.

Life Lessons Mediation

A Successful Mediation

George Orwell once pointed out that the abstraction of the enemy without ever having met that person would keep him at odds with that person.  However, once he met a man who thought differently than he did, the abstraction became human dissipating the dislike or negative feeling toward that person.

I believe that a root cause of the tumultuous times we find ourselves in currently is the refusal to listen to whatever is being said by the opposing group.  Moreover, social media has exacerbated this polarity by spreading opinions, often with little factual basis, to those people that are predisposed to accept them as a priori truths.   I have been doing pro bono mediations for Small Claims Court in Orange County, California for the past 5 years.  What is most helpful in such cases is that the parties involved can seek legal advice but are not permitted to be represented by attorneys during the mediation.  The elimination of legal baggage makes it much easier to work with the two sides:  1) Plaintiff and 2) Defendant.  I would like to provide an example where high conflict situations can be resolved when the two opposing parties are willing and able to come together to mediate their differences.

The case I was assigned to mediate was between a young male and young female that had been former lovers.  The plaintiff was the male suing his ex-girlfriend not only in Orange County, but also in another jurisdiction. In each case, he was suing the defendant for the maximum $10,000 allowed in small claims court.

Because most small claim cases do not involve any prior engagement or knowledge of the other party, this kind of case was not typical.  When plaintiffs and defendants have never met, they share no history, thus, eliminating the entanglement and complications rendered by painful emotions.  Consequently, this was not simply a matter of money, like most small claims’ cases tend to be, but rather it included the past relationship and the intense feelings that these two formerly had shared with each other.   Unresolved anger between defendant and plaintiff in a voluntary mediation often does not bode well for a positive ending.   Although their relationship had ended about two years ago, what was being manifested from the start was the anger and hostility they currently felt toward one another.  As I began the process of mediation, I was not optimistic about how the outcome would look.

Because of their former relationship, I thought it best to let them bring up the emotions and hurt involved, but, with the implicit caution, not to let these same feelings between the two of them get out of hand.  In brief, the plaintiff was suing the defendant for not having shared in paying the rent for a long period of time. When they had lived together, their names were on the lease and this arrangement continued when they moved out to another city. Thus, there were two leases in two separate jurisdictions. During the mediation, the defendant cried explaining that she had meant to pay the rent once she was able to become certified as a teacher. At that time, the plaintiff was completing medical school and, he had incurred some debt that may have factored in his deciding to sue the defendant. Currently, the plaintiff was completing his medical residency while the defendant was seeking employment as a teacher.

After both had expressed their feelings, I asked the defendant how much she was willing to pay her ex-boyfriend in the hopes it might put the issue to rest.  In comparison to the amount he was asking, her offer was on the low side as she mentioned she was just beginning to work.  At this point, I reinforced their good will in making a sincere effort to get beyond a situation that had brought pain to them both, by now sitting down to meet one another in mediation.  I then pointed out to them that they were both quite young and were just really beginning their lives as professionals.

What then followed was quite surprising: There was a sudden shift in the plaintiff’s facial expression from anger to something much less severe.   Now I sensed that in fact I might be able to arrive at an agreement between the two of them.  Rather than intervene, by asking the plaintiff what kind of offer he was willing to accept from the defendant to bring the case to closure, I chose to let him speak. He said: “I don’t want to hurt you anymore so I don’t want anything from you.” Moreover, he wanted to drop the other case he had pending against the defendant in another county.  In writing up the agreement, both parties agreed that the plaintiff would dismiss the case without receiving any money.  I further had them sign a separate agreement that the pending case, out of the jurisdiction of Orange County, would be also dismissed.  To conclude, i think the mediation worked because of the powerful impact that each had on the other when they were actually able to face one another and proceed in a civil and respectful way.

I realize that politics is very different from mediation.   But wouldn’t if it be a much better world if our representatives in Washington D.C. listened to one another rather than hurl verbal stones at one another?   Unfortunately, our president does not foster a climate where the democrats and republicans can sit down with one another, and in agreeing to disagree on several issues,  go beyond their differences in creating a sense of unity and harmony among themselves and our people.


Crisis Management Leadership Life Lessons

Northridge Earthquake

After moving from New York City to Southern California, I did not look forward to being greeted by an earthquake.  Back in 1981, I was living on the 18th floor of a condominium in Long Beach with my cousin.  On a clear day from my bedroom looking north, I could see the famous Hollywood sign.  When the building suddenly started swaying and shaking, and I realized what was happening, I closed my eyes and hoped it would end as quickly as it had begun.  The recognition of an earthquake in progress brings a complete sense of helplessness to whomever experiences it.  Because the origin of the earthquake was not close to Long Beach and its magnitude was not great, Long Beach did not incur much damage.

Since living in California, by far the worst earthquake I have experienced came in January of 1994 where the center was in Northridge, California in the San Fernando Valley in the County of Los Angeles. It had a magnitude of 6.7 and, it occurred at 4:31 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time, with its duration approximately from 10 to 20 seconds.   Suddenly awakened from a deep sleep, I remained breathless, as it seemed an eternity before the movement of my condominium building ceased (I was thankfully no longer living in a high rise).  Without a doubt, much worse damage would have occurred if the earthquake had struck at a time when most people were up and around.

When the earthquake hit, I was employed as a psychologist in a bilingual mental health clinic, El Centro, located in East Los Angeles.  Because there had been a fair amount of damage in downtown LA, temporary shelters were set up for people whose homes had been affected.  El Centro sent a case worker and me to Belmont High School, the site of one of the shelters, with the task of helping families, impacted by the crisis, cope better.

When I arrived at the school early the next morning, I saw my colleague who pointed to a mass of people surrounding some Red Cross workers, who were carrying megaphones.  Because she was already working with a family, I went over to see if I could help.   Upon hearing one of the Red Cross workers asking if anyone could speak Spanish, I quickly went over and told him I did.  He told me to tell the crowd to return to where their individual families were staying and water and food soon would be brought to them.  When I translated what he had said in Spanish, all the families immediately dispersed, and, as they formed lines to return to their designated areas,  I had this eerie feeling that I was like Moses in the Bible, casting a rod on the Red Sea, that allowed the Jews to cross over the water unharmed.

I was surprised to discover that the Red Cross workers had come from New York, and other areas quite far from California, with few, if any able to communicate in Spanish.  Because the target population was first generation immigrants from Central America and Mexico, about 80% of the families could only speak Spanish.  While the Red Cross workers were able to organize the food bank with helpers that spoke English, the case worker and I spent time with the families, many of whom had children that had some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because there were so many families in the makeshift shelter at the high school, I knew there would not be sufficient time to carry out an actual therapy session with each one.  Upon meeting the family members, in order to expedite the process, I made a quick assessment of how badly they were all hurting from the disaster.   I was able to do this by simply asking how they were doing, and afterwards, by observing their responses, with special attention given to how the children were doing.

I began by informing the family about the services offered by El Centro and, that they could be had at virtually no cost to them.  Fortunately, there were some resources made available to each family such as paper and pencil. A typical intervention that I found to be quite effective was to have the child or children draw a picture of their apartment after the earthquake, and then afterwards, have them draw it the way they remembered it.  I had the parents then reinforce to the children that their apartment would be repaired, and most importantly, they would have a place to return.   Depending on the needs of each family, I spent anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, but given the number of families there, I made it a point to budget the time spent with each one.

It was a long day as we were there for more than 10 hours with a very short break for lunch.  But because the families expressed their appreciation for our efforts, the case worker and I both shared a sense of satisfaction at our accomplishments.  At the end of the day, one of The Red Cross workers confided in me that he would have liked to have been more useful, but obviously could not, due to the fact that he did not speak Spanish.

I do not want my readers to think that I am saying The Red Cross is not a worthwhile organization.  In fact, some years earlier I had taken a very beneficial training course in how to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires or floods.  Nevertheless, it was evident that there was a lack of coordination vis-à-vis a need’s assessment with local agencies in Los Angeles that knew more precisely what type of services were required.  In this case, it was not so much that there was a lack of assistance but rather that the wrong sort of aid had been sent.

Similarly, there has been many errors made in adequately managing the current coronavirus health crisis.  In view of the fact that we are all living in the “shrinking” world of globalization, it is imperative that nations cooperate with one another.  When China refused to accept the seriousness of the coronavirus by hiding the scope of the problem from the world, what started as an epidemic quickly turned into a pandemic.  Once the medical profession understood the potential danger of what might happen here, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, needed to lead in administering–as soon as possible–test kits to work on tracking the virus.  Unfortunately, for a number of reasons that we now understand, this did not happen in any timely manner.

To conclude, the initial response by The Red Cross to the Northridge Earthquake showed a lack of coordination with the local agencies in California that were directly involved, an absolute necessity in the successful handling of any type of crisis.  The most important lesson here is that leaders need to talk to local experts on whatever the emergency entails to develop a united initiative.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Consulting Psychology Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality

The Serenity Prayer and Beyond


The lines, now recognized as the Serenity Prayer, are rooted in a sermon that Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, gave either in 1932 or 1933. They are the following:

  • Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know the one from the other.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have adapted it in the following way:

  • God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    Courage to change the things I can,
    and Wisdom to know the difference.

Regardless of the wording, the basic meaning does not change and, I would maintain that these words have had a profound effect on the way people think about things. One of the difficulties I have found people to have is their belief that they are capable of changing situations that they simply cannot. Thus, employees are not likely to change their boss’s behavior just as spouses are not likely to change certain traits their partners may have. The distinction is that they can change the way they react to their bosses or their spouses much more easily than changing how these significant others behave toward them.

An important ingredient in cognitive-behavior therapy is implicitly stated in the Serenity Prayer: You can change the way you think about others but don’t expect others to change for you. This is not to say–you can’t ask your spouse to change a certain type of behavior that you might find bothersome or annoying–without ever arriving at the desired consequences. You may. But generally, I have found that in most situations it makes more sense for a married couple to be able to live with and accept each other’s ingrained differences. Frequently, couples enter marital counseling with each partner blaming the other without understanding how each one’s behavior impacts the marriage.

Another illustration of this could be a student, after studying long hours, performs poorly on an exam. That student may blame her/himself for not doing well. Let us look at this example more closely. If the student did the best he/she could, then perhaps she/he may come to the conclusion that he/she is not particularly skilled in the area that exam covers. But if this is the case, does she/he have to feel badly about himself? Given the above information, I would answer this question with a firm “no.” However, what if that same student did poorly because of intense test anxiety, but she/he would have achieved a much higher score if the experienced anxiety was under control. Because no one of us can perform equally well in all areas that we may partake in, in the first situation it may be preferable for the student to accept this fact and focus on another field. In the second case, however, in which the student is suffering from test anxiety, she/he can change this through techniques involving relaxation and/or meditation with the possible help of a therapist or expert in that subject.

Many people are upset not only by the current coronavirus, but also by the way our leaders are handling the state of the world. I don’t doubt that these people may have the best of all intentions but I consider it unhealthy if their anger is such that they are paralyzed, thereby, preventing them from moving forward. Certainly, if you want change be sure to vote inasmuch as that is an activity within your power. However, changing the state of society is a huge task well beyond the scope of any one individual. Rather than expending so much mental energy in thinking about the impossible, I would advise these people to choose something near and dear to their heart in which their involvement might affect some type of change, whether it be small or large. Here, once more, we see from the Serenity Prayer the importance and wisdom of delineating between what we can change and what we cannot.

Life Lessons Literature Psychology

Reflections upon Reading Anna Karenina

When I compare the writing styles of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I view the former as seeing life through the external lens of societal forces impacting the major characters in his story. On the other hand, the latter describes his characters through internal or intrapsychic forces that propel them to act.   As a practicing psychologist, I find Dostoyevsky’s method of character development the more appealing but this is not to say that I did not enjoy reading Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s writing style provides the reader with his perception of Russia life during the 1870’s.   The description of Russia during this time allows the reader to see both the political and cultural shortcomings. But in providing a slice of life Tolstoy may go into details that don’t alter or add much to the story. An example of this is the rather lengthy scene of Levin arriving late on his wedding date due to a lack of a cleaned pleated shirt. The detailed description of Levin having to obtain a pleated shirt from his assistant adds little to the development of who he his in relation to the other main characters in the story.

The novel, Anna Karenina, has all the qualities of a grand scale soap opera insofar as its principal characters face love, adultery and then, in the fashion of the Greeks, tragedy. None of the major characters in Anna Karenina are outright villains inasmuch as they commit acts of kindness or goodness as well as acts to the contrary. Soap opera characters likewise can go from the heroic in some episodes to much lesser qualities in later episodes. Perhaps the popularity of both Tolstoy’s masterpiece and soap operas resides in this very complex nature of human behavior where evil and good at different times come from the same hand.

As I read Anna Karenina, I thought about George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch written about the same time Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina. One very significant difference between the two novels was their author’s gender: Eliot’s protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is introduced early in her life when she is about 17 years old as a naïve and idealistic woman that decides to marry a man much older than she. When Anna is introduced, she has been already married for eight years to a man twenty years older than she.   But although he may be rigid in his beliefs, there is little evidence that he mistreats her or demeans her as there is in Dorothea’s marriage. Eliot resolves her heroine’s marital difficulties by bringing about the death of her spouse, Edward Casaubon. This allows Dorothea the release of her positive energies and the falling in love with a much younger but distant relative of Casaubon, Will Ladislaw.

Anna Karenina’s circumstances are much different: She has the insight to understand she is doing wrong falling in love with Count Vronsky and from the start wants to break it off. But she cannot and we see this love as a fatal attraction that begins to take control of her and becomes all encompassing. She is torn by her passionate love. This results in her diminishing both the character and stature of her husband, Alexei Karenin, causing her to fixate on her husband’s ears as, most repusilvely, sticking out from the rest of his face. Intrinsic to Anna’a attraction to the Count is the fate that binds her love to him much like the fate of that of a Greek tragedy. Anna meets Vronsky at a train station where it is discovered that one of the railroad workers has a fatal mishap that finds him killed at a train crossing. This sets the stage for where and how their relationship will ultimately end.

When Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, sees her in the midst of child birth on her death bed, he is able to forgive her and grant her the divorce and right to live with her much beloved son, Seryozha. Dorothea’s husband, on the other hand, writes a codicil to his will stating that she will forfeit all of his wealth if she marries Will Ladislaw. Dorothea chooses to marry Will for the goodness she sees in him, and, in so doing transcends social convention by not doing what others expect of her.  Meanwhile, Anna cannot accept the generous offer her husband makes to her because she does not want to feel indebted to him. Of course, if she accepts the offer we no longer have a Greek tragedy. By her rejecting the offer, she becomes trapped in a relationship, taboo to the norms of the times, with her gradual descent into a Hell. This rejection of her husband’s largesse due to her not wanting to feel indebted to him is difficult to understand given the way Anna acts in subsequent passages of the novel. An example of this is Anna disguising herself in entering her husband’s house to visit with her son on his birthday with the accompanying joy that they both experience. The pain that Anna feels in not being able to see her son, due to her not being divorced, is made very real throughout her relationship with Vronsky.

As I read further, I had hoped that somehow Anna would obtain a divorce, be reunited with her beloved son and live happily ever after. But it became apparent that this would not happen: She sees herself stained, a pariah, having lost all communal and social ties. In feeling entrapped and not being able to travel and interact with family and friends, she started to become extremely jealous of Vronsky and his ability to enjoy himself.  In the past, he would be able to reassure her but as her condition worsened, she refused to believe him, though there is no evidence for her to believe that he was seeing other women. Thus, she became extremely paranoid only thinking that he was cheating on her to the point that she could not and would not believe anything to the contrary. Tolstoy is quite able to let the reader enter her mind and be guided with this paranoid way of thinking in which she seeks revenge on Vronskly by planning her death. Toward the end of Anna’s life, Tolstoy injects a stream of consciousness in the manner in which Anna begins to plot the end of her life. To Tolstoy’s credit, the style of writing changes to closely shadow the paranoia that takes over and grips the tormented mind of Anna.

But there is more to Anna Karenina than her fatalistic death. There is the side story of Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, who often has been considered Tolstoy’s alter ego. In fact, Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, said that Levin was like her husband but without the latter’s talent. In contrast to Anna and Vronsky, the love between Levin and Kitty, the woman he marries has a much happier ending. Although Kitty, somewhat like Dorothea, is young and naïve when we first meet her, she lacks the depth and moral values that the latter demonstrates throughout Middlemarch. In fact, as we come to understand the moral complexities that Levin finds himself in, we wonder what so attracts him to Kitty.

Levin, most notably stands out, from the rest of the characters because of his dubious sense of reality. His doubt is forever present in his interaction with others who appear to have the answer to the economic and political problems that are a part of everyday life in Russia. Moreover, the corruption in government jobs alluded to by Tolstoy throughout the novel, very well could be viewed as the precursor to the subsequent Russian Revolution and the advent of communism.

Throughout the book, Levin is struggling with his ideas never quite coming to a conclusion on his version of truth unlike the other characters who voice more absolute arguments that he cannot fully understand. Implicit in what Tolstoy is saying is that Levin’s lack of understanding is more a reflection of the superficial values held by others in the novel such as the the brother of Anna, Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky and Levin’s own philosophically inclined brother, Sergei Ivanovich.

The last paragraph of the book summarizes Levin’s feelings: He recognizes that he will forever at times act inappropriately with his wife and others and later regret these actions, but above all he will be able to realize that his life will not be meaningless. Rather, he alone has the power to direct his life, while committing these human errors, toward the good.

Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality Sports

One Wave Too Many

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, my parents would take us to visit an old classmate of my father and his family in Beach Haven. We would rent a cottage in the summer, and it was there that I learned how to body surf. When I relocated to Southern California in 1978, I lived with a cousin briefly. I taught him how to body surf, and so we shared many memorable moments riding waves into shore. It felt good being the teacher, the one with the expertise as to knowing in advance which wave would give you a good ride and when to swim out to it and, at what point to start swimming toward shore just at the moment it was being to break.

Sometimes one can overestimate his/her knowledge and experience. It had been a windy day with signs of a storm very possibly approaching the coastline of Southern California. I’d made plans to meet a friend of mine that I had worked with in the past in Santa Monica on the beach after work. When I met him, there was virtually no one in the water: The waves were breaking madly against the shoreline and to me it was a challenge to swim into them and ride them back to shore. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was evident that the beaches were really off limits to the public that afternoon. The blackening sky matched the black flags that indicated danger and a warning to bathe at your own risk.

If I had been rational, I would have known better. But I was gripped by the fearlessness of youth, although I was already in my mid 30’s. My friend, who was a good swimmer like me, did not want to go in the water, and I chided him for meeting me at the beach and not wanting to take part in the fun. To myself, I said “poor Richard, here he goes being overly cautious once more.” And so I entered the ocean with all caution thrown to the wind. I was a lone body in the surf.

It started off as great fun as I rode some huge waves but suddenly———a wave hit me hard and I did a somersault and as I tried surfacing was hit by another wave that took me under. Now I was out of breath, having swallowed some water before being able to surface. But worse, after I’d been in a wave heading toward shore, an undertow pulled me back out. I found myself in water well above my head, a taboo to those of us that know the ocean. If you can stand in the water, you can usually, without much difficulty, get yourself back to shore, even in severe conditions. Fighting an undercurrent, and caught between two sets of breaking waves—one close, the other farther out from shore—I couldn’t get any closer to the shoreline.

I came to an immediate realization: If I let myself be dragged out beyond the farther breaking waves it would be extremely difficult to get back. What I immediately knew was that I could not let my body be dragged out beyond the waves that were breaking farthest from shore because it would be extremely difficult to get back. I don’t remember there being a rip tide but rather a very rough ocean carrying waves of gargantuan size. I swam desperately, thrashing with swim strokes, perhaps like that of a whale just harpooned. I looked above at the darkening sky, no blue and no sun in sight, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, whether this was going to be it for me!

I no longer tried to ride waves in to shore for fear if I went out too far I would not be able to come back. I swam as hard as I could to get to the waves that were breaking close to the shore. All of this occurred in just a few minutes, but felt like a lifetime of unending agony. I had no idea how to escape the ocean’s wild, untamed ferocity. I felt as if I was being devoured by Nature, then taken to a place I had never been and did not want to enter.

Exhausted, I continued to swim between the two sets of waves and, as I approached the set breaking closest to shore I felt sand under my feet. It was if my prayers had been answered. With both feet on the ground I galloped as a wave hit me and drew me closer to shore. I plunged onto the wave and glided safely on my belly to shore. I lay there for perhaps two minutes, dry heaving water and once more looking up at the colorless sky. A teen-age boy, who perhaps had seen me struggle, came up to me and asked me if I was all right. I told him “yes.” I’d drifted some 50 to 70 yards away from the point I entered the ocean. I discerned a distant figure approaching. As it came closer, I realized it was my friend.

As I thought about my dangerous escapade, I understood: “masculine” bravado? In actuality, it was youthful foolishness. With no life guards in sight, I’d performed on a trapeze without a safety net. It was adolescent but very much male what I had done. If I had been pulled out beyond the farther set of waves, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story. As they were out that day, a helicopter may have sighted me. But the ocean is a huge expanse. Given how tired I was once ashore, how long could have I lasted in the deeps? Would I have been spotted before it was too late?

Never again did I body surf at an unguarded beach.

Life Lessons Psychology Religion Spirituality

Shavout: Reflections on My 70th Birthday and Second Bar Mitzvah

Honored Rabbi Cantor, a person I have enjoyed knowing these last few months and Cantor Sofer, family and friends and fellow congregants, let me first give special thanks to Ted Hirschfeld for the excellent teaching he provided to me on my Haphtarah today. My wife Lisa also deserves special thanks for encouraging and enduring the time I spent learning and practicing my Haphtarah. To those that asked: Yes I did have a Bar Mitzvah on May 25, 1958, on Sunday the first day of Shavuot. Remembering what my mother, may she rest in peace, said to me many times: “Bernard we are a strange people, we eulogize the dead and criticize the living.” As I remembered the sense of exhilaration I felt, going through the process of practicing my Bar Mitzvah some 57 years ago, especially, that very last week, I decided to repeat the process that I had experienced in my early adolescence. In so doing, I wanted you, my friends and family, to join me in this celebration.

Let me begin by going back in time. It is the week of my Bar Mitzvah, 1958, and suddenly out of nowhere, I who rarely ever got sick, had developed a rash that within a couple of days covered my entire face. You can imagine my mother, fraught with fear: Her first thought being that I had German Measles as it was thought contagious and was making the rounds in the neighborhood at that time. Asking if I was okay, I repeatedly told her I felt fine except for the fact that I had a need to itch my face where the rash had spread. My father, as always the optimist he was, told my mother not to worry as I would be fine. But the rash spread and worsened to my mother’s distress and, I continued to feel the need to itch. When my face became covered with red marks my mother decided to have me stay home on Friday and on to the doctor I marched. I did not mind missing school because by this time I was feeling pretty uncomfortable in my own skin. How this could be happening, I wondered, on my Bar Mitzvah week. Why was God doing this to me? What was He trying to say to me?

Ah, how we can sometimes miss the obvious. The doctor immediately diagnosed my problem as a bad case of poison ivy. I had played stick ball with a friend, Marc Goldblatt, who is among us today in the congregation and on our block was an undeveloped lot. I went to fetch a ball he hit into the lot and I had stuck my head into a clump of what had turned out to be poison ivy. I took liberal amounts of calamine lotion and by Sunday my condition had cleared up to the point where I looked like a normal acned adolescent.

On a broader and more universal level, I remember being in the 4th grade in 1955 when I was 10 years old and the teacher saying that the likelihood of Israel surviving was small inasmuch as she was surrounded by its enemies among which was Egypt’s Nasser and, thus would more than likely lose its statehood. Saddened, I talked to my parents about that and they somehow reassured me not to worry. Obviously, the world underestimated the people of Israel as indeed, they are still here, stronger than ever. Besides which, Nasser had to put up with the likes of Hollywood in 1956, when Charlton Heston, as Moses, crossed the Red Sea unharmed in Cecil Demille’s epic: The Ten Commandments.
1948 was a huge turning point in Jewish history when Israel gained its Statehood and became a nation after its battle for independence. It had been 2100 years since the Jewish people had won a battle. when the Maccabees stood up against the Greeks in 163 b.c.e. 2100 years and, here I thought 86 years was like an eternity, when the Red Sox finally won a World Series in 2004. 86 years may seem a long time but compared to 2100 years it is a mere speck of time.

And now what about this holiday called Shavuot. Shavuot is the Hebrew word for weeks and has been referred to as the Festival of Weeks. By custom, we as Jews count 50 days from the 2nd day of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot which would be today. 50 days represented when the grain was ready to be harvested by the farmers. Shavuout is sometimes referred to as Pentecoste from the Greek work meaning 50. Shavuout represents the time, when Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt crossing the Sea of Reeds and entering Mount Sinai in what is now the Sinai Peninsula, receives the Torah or 5 Books of Moses from Genesis to Deutoronomy from God at Mount Sinai.

Today I read a haphtarah. A haphtarah is a series of selections from the books “Prophets” each of which corresponds to the Torah reading of that day. And so, my haphtarah corresponds to the Torah reading of today describing Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai. My haphtarah dates back to the time the Jews were in exile, after being conquered by the Babylonians, and comes directly from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot he had in which he sees heaven opening up above with four heavenly creatures, each having four faces: 1) Human; 2) Lion; 3) Ox and an 4) Eagle. Each has wings extended upward at once human with other characteristics that are not human where he sees faces of humans and animals combined with wings that appear to turn into the angels of God. When he sees what he believes to be the image of God on a throne above the creatures, he falls to the ground; he then hears a rumbling voice believing that God has made him a prophet with the goal of leading his people back to the Promised Land. Ezekiel has this vision in Babylon after he is taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar who seizes Jerusalem in 598 b.c.e. where Ezekiel was born of a priestly family. The vision occurs in the 5th year of the Babylonian Exile which would have been around 593 b.c.e.

Now in ancient times, when a people were conquered they had two ways of understanding or reacting to being conquered: 1) The people that conquered them must have had stronger gods so let’s accept or believe in their gods and abandon our gods or for Jews their one God or 2) We are being punished because we have sinned against our God so we must correct our sins of the past to once more gain favor in the eyes of our God.

Around this time, carbon dating in areas where Jews lived, were rife with figurines and objects showing that Jews shared the practices of idolatry (idol worship) with other peoples. As a result of his vision, Ezekiel told his fellow exiles that the captivity was but temporary punishment for their disloyalty to God. He rebuked them for their ways and told them that their fellow Jews in Judah (Israel of today) would suffer the same fate if they did not change their ways. And sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar and his armies in 587 b.c.e destroy the Temple of Judah in Israel. Ezekiel has another vision and then is asked to record the date and the event. When the sad news was confirmed, the Jews in Babylon realized that Ezekiel the priest was truly a prophet of G-d: Ezekiel assured his people that they would survive as long as they worshipped God and followed His laws ceasing any practices of idolatry. The result was truly phenomenal inasmuch as after the destruction of the Temple in 587 b.c.e., carbon dating has shown that the Jewish people gave up the practice of idolatry. The giving up of idols and truly accepting a monotheistic God, I believe, to be a watershed in the history of Judaism.

We know from history that in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus, the Good king of the Persians, enters Babylon and gives back to the original cities the sacred objects carried off to Babylon. In 538 b.c.e., the Edict of Cyrus is proclaimed allowing the Jewish exiles to return to the Promised Land. In 537 b.c.e., the foundation of the Second Temple is laid and between 520-515 b.c.e. the Second Temple is erected.

Moses, receiving the Torah or having written it is, of course, more symbolic than historic. There really is no specific date as to when the Torah was written inasmuch as the event itself transcends any one point in time. Modern religious scholars believe that the writing of the Torah started sometime after the reign of King David in 1000 b.c.e. and, it was edited during and after the exile of the Jews in Babylon. With good fortune, when the Jews went into exile in Babylon, they were able to take the scrolls of parchment that the Torah was written on. In the 5th century b.c.e., the Pentateuch or the Torah, that is the five books of Moses, becomes recognized and accepted by all Jews. Ezra, a scribe, was said to have read this accepted version to his people when they have returned to Jerusalem. Acceptance of the Torah is then the binding force that kept the Jews together till present day after other tribes and peoples disappeared from the face of the earth.

So what then is the significance of the Torah? It would take an Irish Catholic, Thomas Cahill, to address this question in his wonderful book: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. This is a book I recommend to both Jew and Non-Jew to read as it is a fascinating study of the Jewish Bible or the Torah. So now, let me highlight a few of the main points Cahill makes about the Torah that is the 5 books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Most importantly, the Jewish Bible changed history by literally creating history. Prior to the wonderings of Abraham outside of Ur, where he was believed to come from, every religion and culture in ancient times saw the world in cyclical terms with no movement forward. Humans simply followed the cyclical pattern of nature with no event being unique but rather being enacted perpetually. These cycles were marked by: 1) The phases of the moon; 2) the cycle of a woman’s body and 3) the seasons. Humans were believed to have no control of their fate as it was predetermined by their gods. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. Nothing is considered new. But if everything is a circle repeating itself, there is no such thing as a future. With no future in sight, if all is a circle, there is little purpose to life because the pattern will repeat itself and the future cannot be influenced if everything happens over and over. The Israelites became the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, and they also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise.

As Cahill points out, the Bible is distinctly different from anything else written before or after ancient times, because it lists individuals’ names “including names of women” thereby saying that every one of these persons was uniquely significant. No such listing of commoners’ names exists in pre-biblical literature. Other writings such as the Greeks, for example, have gods and humans mixed with the fate of the characters often predetermined by Fate. The lack of free will in the writings of these ancient cultures is evident, for example, in the famous Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles written in the 5th century b.c.e. In this tragedy, Oedipus, from the outset, is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother.

Rather, as Cahill puts it, the Bible is history, not mythology. Each episode fits into a logical progression of events so that it is told against the background of everything that has come before it giving it a natural sense and unity.

The second transformative Jewish contribution was its understanding of God. The Hebrew God, unlike every god before, “cannot be manipulated,” as this God “is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.” The Torah’s account is grounded in its monotheism, a concept at the heart of the religion of Israel and promoted in Christianity and Islam.

Third, the Jews gave the world the notion of human freedom on two levels: The first and more obvious is the Torah’s rejection of slavery in the human condition, a reason why black Americans took so much solace in the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. The other point I discussed above: The Bible’s complete rejection of the cyclical view of life. “We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free but are as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds” in their exodus out of Egypt.

Fourth, through the Ten Commandments, “for the first time human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code no justification is required for who but God can speak: Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt not without such authority that no further words are needed.”

Fifth the Jews gave the world a day of rest. “No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest.” Even today you can hear many of us say: TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday. Those people, who work seven days a week, even if they are paid millions of dollars to do so, are in the biblical conception, slaves.

Sixth, the Bible’s “bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.” I would maintain that this principle, especially, resonated with the founding fathers of America as they were said to base many of their ideas of justice and freedom on the basis of their reading of the Bible. Certainly, at the start of the Revolutionary War, America was viewed as the underdog against British forces but we know how that war ended.

Let me conclude on a positive note: Shavuot is a time of gratitude as it is the time when Jews accepted the Ten Commandments from God and the Bible and, it also represents the time of harvest of the farmers in Israel. As a practicing psychologist, I know that gratitude is a very important ingredient of happiness. Those that lack gratitude in their lives are often weighed down by the everyday difficulties that life presents to all of us.

Studies have found that people who are grateful are likely to be happier, hopeful and energetic, and they possess positive emotions more frequently. Individuals also tend to be more spiritual or religious, forgiving, empathic and helpful, while being less depressed, envious or neurotic. And here I may end by saying: Let us all count our blessings.

Life Lessons Science Fiction

Listening: A Lost Art

In a recent video on leadership, Marshall Goldsmith, the renowned executive coach, pointed out that 80% of our success in learning from other people is based on our ability to listen.  What he called the art of listening, I believe can be more properly referred to as a lost art.

Years ago I was sitting in Heathrow Airport, in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for a connecting flight out of London.   Not having much to do, I asked a fellow traveler if I could borrow one of his books.  He tossed me a very used paperback anthology of science fiction stories and, he told me I could keep it as he already had read the entire book.  I thanked him and began reading some of the stories.

One story in that anthology I still remember to this day insofar as it made a lasting impression on me.   Because he was having difficulty adapting to his society, the protagonist of the story was considered a freak by those around him.  He seemed out of place when he tried to communicate with others as they all possessed an extrasensory mode of interacting.  The story ended by showing how this individual, regarded by everyone as an alien, was different:  He possessed the ability to hear, a sense that had been lost years earlier to modern man.

The above story came to mind when I heard John Lithgow, the actor, recite by heart, two stories, one from P.G. Woodhouse, and the other from Ring Lardner.  In reciting these stories, he role played the personal mannerisms and expressions displayed by each character within the context of each of these stories. This allowed the contents of the story to be more immediate to the audience.

I have to say it was quite an experience listening to Mr. Lithgow perform on stage the two stories he chose, one of which, Haircut by Ring Lardner, I had read long ago.  I wondered whether those people who attended this wonderful event were there to listen to the stories or simply to see a famous actor perform.

For many years, I have noticed that the art of listening has been on the decline.  Sound bytes, from digital information in computing and telecommunications, have begun to change the way in which we had communicated, to one another, centuries earlier.  These changes have reduced our auditory abilities, and so, I often find myself repeating to people what I just had said a moment earlier.

When I was in my teens 50 years ago, many of us would say you can’t trust anyone over 35.   Given how younger people have been raised on this new technology, an integral part of the information age, I would choose now to say:  You can’t trust anyone under 35.  Young people, who are involved with customers, are constantly making mistakes.  Instead of improving customer relations, the information age, I would maintain, has brought with it people, working for companies, that are more prone to mistakes than those who held similar jobs in the past.

As I am writing this article, my wife and I are presently experiencing, at this very moment, another error made: In this case, listening, in fact, was not a part of the equation.   About 6 months ago, I booked a trip online with Jet Blue as the carrier.  Upon printing our boarding passes the day before our departure, to both of our surprise, my wife did not have a seat assigned.  This, in contradistinction, to the fact that when I originally made the reservations, we both had seats assigned. This mistake made it necessary for my wife to wait 30 to 40 minutes to speak to someone that would only begin to rectify the problem.

The above mistake was not due to the inability of an airline representative to listen.  Rather, there simply was no listening involved.  Here is a case where a tool of technology is replacing the need for the representatives of companies to have to listen.  As computers have begun to replace the human ear, I would assert that people are gradually losing the ability to pay attention to the needs of others.  Are we then approaching a world where only a freak of nature will still have the capacity to both hear and listen?  O Brave New World!