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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.

Eight Runs In

I invite my godson, Joe, to a Los Angeles Angels game, the first of a three game series with the Toronto Blue Jays. I am a Red Sox fan but it is evident this year, 2015, they are going nowhere so I transfer my loyalties to the Angels, a team I have come to like, living in Long Beach, California. But I also know that the Blue Jays have vastly improved since the beginning of the baseball season and will be no easy team to defeat, especially with their ace pitcher, David Price, starting.

So the game begins with Hector Santiago of the Angels retiring the first Toronto batter on strikes, and I begin to think that this may be an interesting pitcher’s duel.   But after that Santiago proceeds to walk three batters in a row. He can’t manage to get a third strike on any of them as they each foul off several pitches. Then the next batter lifts a pop fly to the infield and now it looks like Santiago may get out of the inning unscathed. Russell Martin, the Blue Jay catcher. is now up, and once more he like the other batters swings at a pitch and misses but when there are two strikes he starts fouling pitches off and the count goes full to 3 and 2. He fouls off another pitch and on the next pitch he walks with bases loaded letting in a run. There has yet to be a hit in the inning: A strike out, a pop fly to the infield and four walks.

I look over at Joe and say: “This reminds me of a game I saw with my dad and brothers sometime in the ‘50’s when the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in New York at Yankee Stadium. Things might get ugly here like they did there.” I remember the first inning of that game so well. It’s traced indelibly in my mind. The Red Sox pitchers walked batter after batter, gave up hits to batters, but failed to get three outs.

CRAAAACK!! The Blue Jay batter hits a ball to left field with Shane Victorino coming in on the ball as it is beginning to sink in front of him, dives forward with the ball landing in his glove but as he hits the ground the ball bounces out. The umpire shows the safe sign indicating the ball has not been caught and suddenly another two runs come in. I later find out that this is Victorino’s first error in a year and a half. Now the Blue Jays are leading 3 to 0 without getting one hit. Santiago can’t seem to control his fast ball but finally finds the strike zone and the next batter smacks it to right field for a single. So it is now 3 to 0 with bases loaded, one error on the Angels and one hit for the Blue Jays. Somehow Santiago escapes giving up any more runs by getting the last batter on a routine fly ball to the outfield.  But the Blue Jays go on to pound the Angels and win 9 to 2.

So I ask my godson, tech experts that all kids his age are, if he can locate online the inning by inning plays of the game the Yankees had with the Red Sox when the Yankees got 8 runs in the bottom of the first inning.  How many games would have a score like that?   Sure enough, he found that particular game and sent me the box score with the inning play by play: The game was played on Sunday, August 15, 1954 with the Red Sox losing 14 to 9.   I was 9 years old at the time.

Prior to the game, Red Barber, the Yankee announcer of old, was interviewing fans–where we were seated in the bleachers–for the sports station, which was then Channel 11. My older brother, at the time 12 years old, who knew zilch about baseball, had no stage fright, so when he saw Red with a mike in his hand promptly went over and was actually on T.V. attempting to answer questions like how many home runs did Babe Ruth hit in his lifetime (714).  My brother didn’t know any of the answers, so he looked over in my direction, guessing I would. I did. Interview completed, he sashayed over to my father, younger brother and me, and  in an unabashed manner inquired: “Did you see me on television?”

“Start the game,” I’m thinking, because in the eyes of a child the wait before the game is endless. I sat, restless, wishing this one would. Finally,  Bob Grim, the New York pitcher, finished his warm-ups with his teammates taking their positions.  25,000 avid Yankee fans and one died-in-the-wool Red Sox fan, inasmuch as my family hardly shared my devotion, rose for the National Anthem.  The scratchy recording ran its course, and the last notes faded to perfunctory applause.  As we turned to our seats, the home plate umpire motioned to Grim to start the game as Jimmy Piersall, the Sox lead-off hitter walks up to the batter’s box. I want to see everything as my body is filled with excitement.  Jimmy hits a single but Ted Williams, prized above all others, grounds into a double play. Billy Goodman, the next player up, grounds out to short to end the Red Sox half of the inning,

The box score my godson sent me yielded the following account of the Yankees’ half of the inning: Rizzuto walks; Collins flies out to center field; Mantle walks; Berra walks and now, without a hit, the Yankees have bases loaded. Noren walks scoring Rizzuto (1-0); Slaughter singles scoring Mantle (2-0); Carey singles scoring Berra and Noren (4-0). Brewer, the Sox starter, is now out of the ball game replaced by Hurd. A passed ball by the Red Sox catcher allows Slaughter to score (5-0); Hurd walks Coleman and then pitches to Grim, the Yankee pitcher, who hits a single scoring Carey (6-0); Rizzuto fouls out; Collins hits a single off of Hurd scoring Coleman (7-0). Hurd is now replaced by Brown. Mantle hits a single scoring Grim (8-0). Berra strikes out, and guess what, the inning is finally over.  It took three pitchers to record three outs. With the inning ending as it did, and with Berra’s uniform number being 8, I am thinking the baseball gods must have planned it all this way. eight runs on five hits: The New Yorkers always had a knack for taking advantage of the misplays made by other teams; in this case several free passes or walks issued to Yankee batters.

I have a vague memory of having to sit through this torture wondering if the bottom half of the first inning would ever end. When it finally did, I sighed, recognizing that the game was already over after only one inning of play. The Yankees went on to take an 11 to 0 lead before the Red Sox scored. Although the Red Sox were finished at the end of the first, they actually fought back and scored 9 runs, though my idol Ted Williams had a hitless game. Four days later, on August 19th, my youngest brother was born. The New York Giants who were my second favorite team after the Red Sox, went on to win the World Series that year by sweeping the favored Cleveland Indians, 4-0. I had the pleasure of seeing live on television the incredible catch that Willie Mays (another favorite of mine) made on Vic Wertz’s drive to deep center field in the Polo Grounds, a catch that I believe may have been one of the greatest of all time.

In 1978, I had just moved to California. That August the Red Sox blew a big lead they held over the Yankees and were forced into a playoff game against them at Fenway Park for the American League East Division title. The Red Sox were winning 2-0, when suddenly Bucky Dent of the Yankees hit a 3 run homer in the 7th inning, putting the Yankees in the lead.  They went on to win the game 5-4. After Dent’s homer, the silence in Fenway was deafening.  To add insult to injury, Bucky Dent was not known for his power and that home run was only the 5th he’d hit that season. Dent’s home run not only put a dent on Red Sox hopes but also led to another Yankee World Series.  Everyone knows what happened when the Red Sox played the Mets in 1986. The Red Sox looked like they were going to win the World Series in the 6th game until once more the baseball gods intervened.  Bill Buckner, Red Sox first baseman, could not field Mookie Wilson’s ground ball.  This error forced the Series into a 7th game which the Mets won.

Fifty years after the first inning fiasco of unfond memory–2004, a baseball season all Red Sox fans remember. With the Yankees ahead in the American League Play-off Series for the Pennant 3-0, the Red Sox went on to win the next four games in a row–a first in baseball history–to capture the Pennant. I sat glued to the television in disbelief those last four games.  The Curse of the Bambino that had hung over the Red Sox team finally had been broken. The Sox then went on to beat the Colorado Rockies four games in succession to sweep the World Series. I had the good fortune to be alive to see it all. To this day I am not sure whether those 50 years took more or less time than the bottom of the first inning at the game I, a 9 year child, saw with my family on August 15th, 1954.

A Memory That Refuses To Fade

Fifty years have passed, and yet the moment remains as clear as yesterday. For most of us, high school graduation meant an emotional severing of the umbilical cord.   But that moment, November 22, 1963 had an immediate impact on all of us who lived through it: The shot heard around the world.

At the University of Pennsylvania, I had been studying all night for a freshman chemistry exam scheduled for that fateful Friday afternoon. My mind rambled toward the end of the exam, the end of the weekend and, finally, to the following week when I would go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends.

It was about 1:30 the next day when I donned a black poplin jacket and left Bishop White, my dormitory. My first steps outside forced me to shield my sensitive and still dry eyes from the sun’s glare. I ceased drumming the numerous equations into my consciousness and plodded numbly toward the Physical Sciences building. My body and mind seemed disconnected as my legs propelled me forward.

I can still feel that hand thumping on my shoulder, invading my lonely privacy, and I still hear that troubled and tremulous voice beckoning to me: “Hey you! Hey you!” he was saying, “The President was just shot.”

President shot? My mind ran: “What President?” He answered my thought: “Yes the President—Kennedy was just shot.” My already dazed mind was spinning like a roulette wheel, not wanting to stop to take in what he had just said. “He’s crazy,” I thought. I was in no mood for joking, and I became angry.

But the stranger tugged at me relentlessly and that wild look in his eyes changed my anger to fright. I ran ahead to the nearest two students and saw similar agonizing looks. Those with radios turned them up and suddenly the city was on the air.

My mind was searching for an escape, not an exam room. I walked on, weak and nauseous, by force of habit. When I arrived at the exam room, my instructor’s smile betrayed his ignorance. I blurted out the news, but he did not want to hear it. “If it’s not true, you fail chemistry for the semester,” he said. I cried out: “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”

Because I was alone with him, I really wanted someone to come in and tell him it was true (yet hoping somehow that what I had heard was not so).   They did come, and they did tell him, and when he came over to me, his sad look of embarrassment was, by far, the most poignant apology he could offer me.

Somehow I controlled my emotions for the hour exam. Later in the dormitory, a friend from Marblehead, Massachusetts, red with tears, was whining incomprehensibly. He was drinking along with the others. I joined them. We tolerated the intolerable by drinking. As I channeled all my energy into deep prayer to save a dying leader, I was amazed at how insignificant my own problems suddenly had become.

That night I sought solitude. To be alone was the only way I could grasp the meaning of what had occurred. I walked into one of the study rooms in the dormitory. Nobody was there. There were papers with bold print strewn all over the floor. A campus guard walked slowly toward me. He walked as if he were sinking in quicksand with little strength or desire to keep his head above the quagmire. When he reached me, the sorrow in his face reflected his words: “It’s a damn shame, a real damn shame.” He pointed to the headlines and started to sob. We looked at each other. Our grief was so intense that we forgot who we were: He was no longer a campus guard and I a student. The events of the day had bound us together.

Before my time, there was World War I, the Depression, Pearl Harbor and Hitler. But for me the day that John F. Kennedy was shot is etched indelibly in time: That day was a precursor of the madness that the ‘60s would bring. The security and serenity of the ‘50s and early ‘60s were suddenly shattered by this tragic event.

Each year at Thanksgiving I cannot taste the turkey and dressing without also reliving the impressions of that fateful day: a few chemical equations, that strange hand pounding on my shoulder, my instructor’s look of disbelief and, one campus guard, a solitary figure with tear–stained face. It is still vivid in my mind, and I suppose it always will be.

Inside Out

As a psychologist, I have noticed that that it has been a challenge for film directors to describe the vast complexities of human behavior on a movie screen that the public will find entertaining. Movies, as visual productions, limit the presence of narrative description so essential in character development. But with the help of technological advances, what is lost in narrative description can be replaced by scenes filled with visual narration. The Pixar Disney production of Inside Out does just this, in a brilliant display of emotions, taking place within the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley.

Because my view of what a traditional movie on the big screen should look like, I have not been too excited with animated movies. However, despite this bias of mine, I found Inside Out to stand alone on its own merits of innovation by demonstrating how an 11 year old girl’s emotions may cause her to act in certain ways. The animated features, in effect, magnify the conflicting feelings that Riley is currently experiencing.

The catalyst that triggers this girl’s emotions occurs when her parents relocate from Minnesota, where she had played ice hockey, to San Francisco.   Departure from one’s familiar surroundings is hard for anyone but, without a doubt, much harder for a child or adolescent. Years ago, when I was doing some consulting work for LA county, one of the clerical workers, although having never attended college, was well read and to me appeared as bright, if not brighter than a college graduate. Like college students in an English Lit class, we would discuss the finer points of some great books that we both had read. I wondered why he was a clerk, a position well below what I considered his academic potential.

As we came to know each other better, he told me that when he had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, it had been a devastating blow to his emotional growth. He had to give up his relationships with close friends and, he encountered great difficulty in adjusting to the change in his environment. I listened and could see the pain reflected in his face as he talked about this sad event that had occurred some twenty to twenty five years earlier. I wondered whether it was this event that had kept him from going to college and actualizing what I considered his very high potential inasmuch as this memory appeared so vivid in his mind.

In the movie, Inside Out, we see how Riley, the 11 year old girl, deals with the heart breaking experience of leaving her hometown through her emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Throughout this journey, the two primary emotions are Joy and Sadness and, consequently I will focus my review on these two emotions. One of the basic tenets of the movie is the important role that Sadness plays in helping Riley cope with the stressors that her new environment bring. Some of these stressors are peer pressure as seen in the classroom and, when she tries out for ice hockey as a girl.   She is so overwhelmed by her emotions that she decides to leave her family as she proceeds to steal her mother’s credit card and board a bus heading out of San Francisco. But once again her emotions come into play recognizing the hurt she would cause her parents.

Riley’s turning point comes when her Sadness, the flip side of Joy, becomes her dominant emotion. When she is able to express the Sadness that her departure from her old home in Minnesota has caused, her parents, who all along have been preoccupied with the details of the move, become aware of what she has been facing and are able to embrace and bond with her in a supportive manner. If the emotion of Sadness does not emerge, we sense that Riley will somehow not be able to successfully complete her transition to her new environment. As Riley begins to be more comfortable in her new environment, Joy, once more dominates her other emotions and the movie ends on a happy note.

What is most remarkable about Inside Out is that the movie has innumerable possibilities for sequels. For example, how about a boy Riley’s age or older who faces peer pressure along with the added difficulty of getting along with his siblings. In the film, Riley has no siblings. Another possibility would be how a child copes with a traumatic situation such as being beaten up by a bully or observing a parent being abused. We are beginning to know so much more about how the brain coordinates our emotions that, presently, such situations could be visually enlivened with the use of animation the way Inside Out did.   The beauty of Inside Out is that it is an entertainment that can be shared by adults and children both insofar as adults can surely remember the bumps in their own lives that may have made growing up not always such a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.

Is there room for changes in the structure of inside Out that would improve on the content and what it has to offer? As a psychologist, I know that the driving force behind human emotions is thoughts and, it is the ability to think that distinguishes us from other primates. Perhaps a future movie can deal with two fictitious characters experiencing the same situation (such as moving from home) in a different way. The key here would be to show how one character copes better with the other because his/her thoughts are more accepting to the change than the other character.   Accordingly, the character shown to cope better would be more likely to have joy as a predominating emotion than sadness in contrast to the other character.

The Meaning of Mazel

Although I understood that the word mazel is the Hebrew word for luck, I could never completely accept when my mother would say:  “Bernard, in life, you have to have mazel.” Was she saying that any good future or good life I would have would be dependent on luck? I had difficulty accepting these words inasmuch as I wanted to believe that in growing up and making decisions,  I would not be limited to a predetermined destiny, but rather that my actions would determine my fate.

When I told Yetta Kane, a holocaust survivor, what my mother had said to me when I was younger, she put it differently by saying: “You make your own mazel.” As a holocaust survivor, losing much of what she had and seeing the worst of humankind, she was not inclined to rely on luck to turn her life around.  She and her late husband relied on mostly hard work along with their wit and intelligence to carve out both a happy and prosperous life in a new country, the United States of America. From a psychological point of view, making your own mazel occurs when a person takes on an internal locus of control perspective of the world. Because I can choose what I want to do with my life, I rely on my skills and abilities to achieve happiness and success. On the other hand, a person that sees the world from an external locus of control, views his/her life as determined by fate or luck and exerting little or no control over the events that may occur in life.

Of the many couples I have seen in my private life and my practice as a psychologist, often both partners will say that the way circumstances evolved it was pure luck that they met and became a couple. I will agree with them that their first meeting one another may have been based on luck, but I will then comment that it is not luck that both of you are still together years later as a couple. So it was mazel that they first met, but in staying together as a couple, they have made their own mazel or good fortune.

Was my mother wrong then, when she said: “You have to have mazel.” As we get older, what our parents said when we were younger, begin to make more sense. I began to see and read of family, friends and others becoming ill and dying at an early age, not because they were bad people or had not taken care of themselves but rather because they were simply unlucky to have had illnesses where there is no known cure. So really what I believe my mother was doing was equating mazel with health and fitness some of which we can control but much of which we cannot.

Even though I exercise and watch what I eat, I cannot control certain illnesses, such as cancer, entering and attacking my body. So far, I have had good mazel as I am in quite good physical shape. But there are elements of my life I can control: We know, for example, that car accidents are one of the greatest causes of death. Wisely, I never drink and drive. In a broader sense, the choices we make to improve on our life have an internal locus of control foundation. We may meet someone on a plane that gives us an idea to further our career and so, the meeting is luck based on that of external locus of control. But if we follow-up with the suggestions that we have received, I would maintain that that takes on more of an internal locus of control  inasmuch as we decided voluntarily to take action of our own accord.

I have found in my practice as a psychologist that people with a healthy understanding of what they can do (internal locus of control) and what they can’t do (can be external locus of control such as changing the weather or preventing some illnesses) are more likely to function well in their lives. Those that attribute luck to events they can control, such as studying for an exam and doing well on it, or responsibility for an illness that is really beyond their control function less well in their lives. When you go to Las Vegas the next time and throw the dice, it is purely luck whether you win or lose. The part that is not luck is: 1) Going to Vegas and 2) How long you stay at the craps table. You can leave when you are ahead or you can stay at the table until……..

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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.

Jeter’s Farewell to the Hub and Baseball

Derek Jeter made his last appearance in Fenway Park and, his last at bat resulted in a single and an RBI. Before going to the dugout, he shook Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz’s hand and then tipped his hat to the fans. Subsequently, he received a standing ovation by all of the fans and the players from both sides and proceeded to hug each Yankee player in the dugout. He then came out of the dugout and, he once more tipped his hat to the fans that were all screaming Derek Jeter.

How different Jeter’s farewell was from Ted Williams’ last at bat at Fenway on September 28th, 1960, a game I saw on television as a loyal Red Sox fan. This at bat and game was immortalized by the essay written by John Updike: The Kid Bids the Hub Adieu.   The Red Sox were not in contention that year but, still in all, we all hoped that Ted would deliver one of his blasts and, sure enough, on his last at bat he hit a home run. As he circled the bases, there was an explosion of cheers and, when he entered the dugout, the fans continued pleading for him to come out of the dugout and take one last curtain call. He never did and that at bat was, in fact, his last because he did not go with the team to New York for the Red Sox final away game series.

In contrast, Jeter after 20 years of playing with the Yankees, allowed himself to appreciate the good will he had accrued over this period of time.   Fenway Park was filled with Yankee fans, and if there were any boos from Red Sox fans, they were muted by the roaring chants of Derek Jeter. For so many years, I had viewed Jeter as the enemy, but recently, I came to respect him and actually started liking him as a person: I was beginning to see him as a genuine person more than just a New York Yankee.

Many might wonder why all the fuss about Jeter? When all we hear about is how athletes misbehave, I believe that we all want to celebrate a guy that has managed to keep his shirt clean for 20 years. Unlike so many other famous people, Jeter has stayed out of the news media which tends to taint the rich and famed. How has he done this? Like George Clooney and Warren Beatty, but unlike so many other athletes and movie stars, he did not marry early, thereby, avoiding inevitable divorce and bad feelings that often feed the rumor mill. He knew he was not ready to settle down, a judgment call that many men, especially famous ones, appear to be unable to make. And when he does settle down, the likelihood of him staying settled down will be high given the fact that he has been raised by very loving parents who have attended many of his games.

We know that Derek Jeter has dated some beautiful women and so, apparently, did the Yankee owner, the late George Steinbrenner.   Back in 2006, Mr. Steinbrenner was quoted in a newspaper article saying that Jeter’s bachelor lifestyle had affected his play in a negative way. What happened? Rather, than the Boss disciplining Jeter, the two of them were asked to do a commercial for Visa with the message that Jeter could go anywhere on his Visa card. This is an example of how an individual with good social skills could make what appeared to be a lemon situation into lemonade.

We applaud Derek Jeter, not so much because he was a great baseball player, but more so that he has had the heart and will to play the game to his best ability. His judgment in both his public life, as a baseball player, and his private life has been excellent: This, the unstained but real human being, is the type of athlete we long to cheer. It is sad that there are so few Derek Jeters left amongst our athletes of today.

Cultural Awareness in the Real World of Work

Prior to entering the doctoral program at Rutgers and, after I had earned a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology at Purdue University, I decided to take a year off from academia and see what the “real world” was like. It was here that I learned one of the most valuable lessons in my professional life. I was working for the Narcotics Addiction Control Commission (NACC), known also as the Rockefeller Drug Program, in the early ‘70’s in Yonkers, New York. This was a residential program that housed young male drug addicts. Although many were guilty of crimes, the law had allowed them to “cop” out to–what was at the time referred to–as The Rehab or glorified incarceration. Such amenities as pool tables and a large swimming pool were available for use by the residents.

During my first few weeks at the rehab center, I agreed to sit in on some of the groups run by counselors who were having difficulty controlling the behavior of the residents. I remember one group session lead by a female counselor with a background in social work. The addicts ate her up alive spewing all sorts of four letter expletives in her direction. At the end of the group she was in tears and, she besieged me for advice of which, at the time, I could offer very little. When I sat in on a group run by a black male therapist, I noticed how he had control of the group and, how he would immediately set limits when the residents asked him to do them favors. He treated the addicts with a firm hand, in contrast to the female social worker, who sucked up to their demands and manipulative requests.  I likened her lack of control over the addicts’ behavior to that of a substitute teacher in a classroom where the kids are going wild. Addicts, like adolescents out of control, I learned, needed the structure provided by setting firm limits on their behaviors.

When I first started working with the addicts as a group leader, I was like a fish out of water. I had never socialized with anyone like them and, their language and culture were totally alien to me. Fortune came my way when I befriended a black correction officer who came from the same environment as many of the residents, some of whom he knew.  He introduced me to the work of two black psychiatrists named, William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, authors of Black Rage and The Jesus Bag. From these two books and my friend’s own life experience, I came to understand the derivation of the “dozens,” and how it can be a harmless game of casual, good-natured jibes or an exchange of malicious insults that can be a prelude to physical violence. Later, the 1981 independent movie, The Dozens, depicted this culture most appropriately.

I suggested to my supervisor that this correction officer work with me as a co-leader when I first began to run my own groups. After watching him continuously cut through the manipulative tactics of the residents, within 6 months, I started to engage the residents in what I considered an effective therapeutic style as a group leader. In the beginning of each new group of residents I worked with, they would test me or my colleague with statements like “you don’t care about us, all you want to do is make money,” etc. Because statements like these became so predictable, I developed a standard reply that sounded something like the following: “You’re right I don’t care and in fact, tonight I’m going to eat the biggest rarest steak at the expense of you guys. Thanks guys.” I would say this with a straight face. I recall receiving the ultimate compliment from one of my group members: “He must be an ex dope fiend.”

Ironically, after my colleague and I would make statements implying we did not care about the residents in our groups, the old timers on the unit would convince the newcomers that, in fact, we really wanted to help them overcome their problems. One may label this approach paradoxical therapy but, in actuality, I was doing what Watzlawick et al. have called “speaking the patient’s language” by virtue of the fact that I had begun to use the idiom of the street known as the “dozens.”

To reiterate, I did not learn this approach in a day or a week.  It took about six months and, in the beginning, I was verbally pounded by the addicts in my groups, much like the female social worker I had earlier observed. But I had two things working in my favor: 1) The desire to help these young men and 2) The willingness to adapt to a therapeutic style, at first foreign to me that was much more efficacious than what I had learned in my clinical training. This was my first real understanding of how important it was to think in a flexible manner in tailoring one’s therapeutic stance to the language and culture of a given clinical population.

Divorce Mediation

Divorce mediation provides a unique way of bringing both marital partners to the negotiating table in front of a neutral mediator. Mediation perhaps can be accomplished best by of having both a therapist and an attorney present. This approach fits well with what Fisher et al. (1991) pointed out as the two major ingredients of a negotiation: substance and the relationship. During the mediation, the lawyer handles the substantive issues pertaining to economic matters while the therapist deals with the relationship issues, especially, if children are involved (Mercer and Pruett, 2001). This approach avoids the flaw of not dealing with emotions, and specifically, the potential anger that may occur during the mediation.

Because the negotiation process begins by establishing guidelines to be followed by both parties, prior to any mediation, phone contact by one of the mediators or an intake worker should be made to the parties involved. The purpose of this phone contact is to screen out inappropriate cases such as marriages where domestic violence or drug use might be occurring. The intake worker or mediator avoids the use of legal terms, such as custody or child support, but rather reframes these issues as “parenting plan” and “general finances.” In substituting a more neutral non-threatening use of language rather than legalistic terminology, the stage is being set for a successful mediation between the two partners.

After the phone contact is made, both parties are seen, either separately or conjointly, for a mediation orientation that lasts about one half hour. Insofar as this meeting will set the tone for the coming mediation, it is an essential part of the negotiation process. During this meeting, the intake worker or mediator will ask questions to see whether or not the parties are intent in following through with the divorce and going through the proceedings entailed in divorce mediation. The advantages of mediation over alternative means of divorce, such as litigation, are pointed out by illustrating that a successful mediation is far less costly than the adversarial alternative. Here the parties are shown figures that compare the cost and time of litigation as opposed to a successful mediation to help them better understand what their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) would be if they hired separate attorneys (Fisher et al., 1991)

When both the wife and husband come in for the first time, the mediators set the rules and guidelines, one of which is that the couple bargain in good faith. Intentional misrepresentation, the pitfall often seen in litigation, is not permissible in mediation. An example of this particular pitfall would be when one of the parties hides his/her assets.

Finally, as the mediation progresses, mediators tend to work on the least complicated issues first, thereby building trust and confidence with the parties, and making it easier for them to subsequently tackle the more thorny issues. Accordingly, mediators will address personal property, such as cars, first, avoiding the more complex issue of child custody until later on in the process. In this sense, early agreements will increase the likelihood of later agreements between the parties.

References:

Fisher, R. and Ury, William (1991). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin Books

Mercer, D. and Pruett, M.K. (2001). Your divorce advisor. New York: Simon and Schuster

Categories
Psychology

The Fight

Arthur Kovacs, a long time mentor in my private practice as a psychologist, once told me that “your problem Bernard is not commission but omission of behavior.” I have fought this particular character weakness of mine all my life. I use the word “character,” in this context, intentionally, because it implies a trait that has been with me since childhood, thereby, occupying a more than transient part of my being.

Dr. Kovacs’ comment brought back a vivid memory that very much substantiated what he had to say. I had just graduated high school and, I had procured a light construction job with Union County in New Jersey the summer before I was to start college. Although this was a summer job, the other summer employees had started earlier because they had returned from college about a month earlier than my high school graduation. I remember being assigned to Snuffy’s crew in which we were to do light repair work on bridges. Some of the bigger guys on the crew actually handled jack hammers, but only for short periods of time due to liability issues.  Everyone in the group was cordial and quite helpful to me, the youngest of all of them, treating me almost as if I were their kid brother. However, as luck would have it, after a week of working with that bunch of guys, I was transferred to another unit because I had begun later than the rest and someone, who had started working before me, had requested a transfer to Snuffy’s crew.

I was reassigned to Joe’s crew of three college juniors with myself being the fourth, a group much smaller than Snuffy’s gang of 15. I remember my first day overhearing one of them, Jim, tell his friend Billy that I was a faster and more efficient worker than the fellow I had replaced. It felt good hearing that and, I figured that it would not be so bad working with these guys despite the fact that I had developed a really good rapport with Snuffy’s crew members. The job consisted mostly of sweeping and cleaning the residue left on County bridges in addition to minor chipping and painting. It was toilsome but really not hard work and, I didn’t mind it at all as it paid pretty well for someone, like me, who had just turned 18.

Unfortunately, my honeymoon with those guys ended quickly. Two of them, Jimmy and Billy, were friends and hung out together all of the time. The third, Steve, was a big husky guy who hung out on his own, sort of away from it all, who I made an attempt to befriend.   Jimmy and Billy were both inseparable and impenetrable and, it soon became apparent, that in no way were they going to allow me to enter into their very private circle.

Although I went to an all boys’ public high school in Elizabeth, an urban area, I was very popular with all types of guys and rarely, if ever, had been bullied. In fact, I remember befriending a black football player two years older than I, who was said to be the toughest guy in the school. I’m not sure what he saw in me but I sort of idolized him and, when he responded in a positive way, I felt a boyish sense of pride. Needless to say, my experience in high school did not prepare me for what was about to happen with Jimmy and Billy.

Early on they began to tease me with words that soon after escalated to throwing water at me when I would sit in the truck with Joe, the crew leader. Although Joe was there in body, he was oblivious to Jimmy and Billy’s antics. The two of them had an interesting but very predictable relationship in the manner by which they went about taunting me: Jimmy would perform all of the offensive acts whereas Billy would instigate his friend by applauding and reinforcing Jimmy’s obnoxious behaviors. Why didn’t I react? This is where Dr. Kovacs’ observation hit a vital chord inasmuch as I almost felt paralyzed in not being able to answer back to them in some way. Steve, the other college junior, who was not part of their clique, would tell me “why don’t you give them the finger or do something back like I do?”   Easy for Steve to say that, I thought, he being much bigger than I was as Jimmy and Billy were bigger than I. Although I did not think so at the time, I later came to understand that size or physical build was not really the issue. Rather, it had more to do with an insatiable desire to be liked by all those around me: Having friends, being the popular one, had always meant an awful lot to me. I believed that if I fought back, neither of them would talk to me nor like me: It was this deep fear of rejection that prevented me from acting. Ah, but the mind plays funny tricks on us, does it not? I was afraid that they would not like me but by not fighting back their behavior toward me, in fact, worsened. And yet, somehow I could only imagine that they would like me if I remained passive.

How wrong I was! Each day the frequency of the bullying behaviors increased, and soon, I came to dread going to work. I found myself trapped in a hostile environment that felt foreign to me and, I hoped, with each night, that the bullying tactics of Jimmy and Billy would go away. But things only got worse until at the end of one day my black lunch pail appeared to have a leak. When I opened it up, it was full of water. I remember seeing a group of co-workers that I did not know well, because they worked on different teams, before spotting Jimmy, standing about 30 or 40 feet away from me, staring at me. I felt a pulsating heat under my collar, an anger I had rarely experienced in my life, taking control of my body. I did not fight to restrain it: My boiling point had been reached. I took the lunch pail and running toward Jimmy hurled the water at him. One of the guys standing there in complete awe asked me why I had done that. I did not reply.

We all cheer for the underdog: One of the guys, who had been friendly with Jimmy and Billy, decided to take my side. He beckoned to me: “You can soak him good with the hose. He’s in the group meeting room where the hose is.” As he said this, he led me over to the room where Jimmy was standing, started uncoiling the hose and quickly gave it to me. As soon as he gave it to me, he turned the water on and I aimed the unfurled hose at Jimmy. He ran at me as I doused him with water. For a moment all eyes were on us and, I felt an eerie sensation tickling my spine because I understood that my current behavior had no antecedents. Hell, if I knew how to fight. No, it was not a skill I had developed as I was too popular for that. As our bodies met, a couple of brawny foremen came out and stood between us stopping the fight and, when I was able to gather my wits some, I was quite thankful that they had intervened. As the rational side of my brain began to take over my being, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The next day Jimmy was transferred to another unit. His friend Billy, perhaps both amused and shocked by my gall, told me to be aware of Jimmy because he had said he would seek revenge when I may not be ready for it.   How strange that Billy was suddenly an ally of mine. I do not know if the smile I felt surfaced, but within me, I certainly felt that my actions had caused a chain reaction of people backing me: I was no longer seen as a submissive weakling, but rather now, I was viewed as someone who was willing to risk the consequences of a brave action. No, Jimmy never did seek revenge and yes, I had won the respect of those around me.