Saturday, March 5, 2016

Slow and Steady Wins Someday

This story starts perhaps with my first-year college course in calculus. I was 17, and one of hundreds of University of North Dakota freshmen taking calculus that fall, including all the aspiring engineers, biochemists, and physicians.  A fiercely competitive knot of us sat in the first two rows, learning calculus from Prof. Metzger, who was the very model of the brilliant and absent-minded professor. Upper classmen would roar with laughter when they asked me whose section of calculus I was in, and I said that it was his.  He was on probation from the university at the time for failing too large a percentage of his previous sections of calculus I.  At that juncture, I was driven, as I’d been since at least the age of three, by a strong instinct for survival in the face of abuse.  It would take me many years to eventually understand the particular blend of spiteful survivor and self-perpetuating victim that had emerged from my upbringing and my experience theretofore. But arriving at UND from what many city kids viewed as a “crappy Class B school,” and further underestimated due to racist beliefs about the percentage of Native American students who attended there, I was determined not to perish in the winnowing system that separated four-fifths of self-defined “pre-meds” from their dreams of a career in medicine before the time came for final exams in May of freshman year.
There were people for whom calculus came easy (Kristin and Barb, if you’re reading this, I’m talking about you). I don’t know for whom else it came as laboriously as it came for me.  I sat in class, not really getting the principles that Metzger was trying to convey.  In my dorm room at night, I did all the problems at the end of the chapter, still struggling to understand a path to the solution.  My quiz scores were hit-or-miss, at best.  The night before an exam, I’d stay up all night, developing my caffeine addiction and reworking all the problems from every chapter. Usually sometime around 4:00 a.m., something would finally start to gel.  Given sufficient repetition, insight would finally start to rise from my confusion, and by the time I walked, sleep-deprived, into the exam, I actually understood the things we were being tested on.  My first major exam, I got a “B,” even after Metzger graded it on the curve.  By the last exam of first semester, my paper came back with a score of 112%. “What the hell?” I asked. Metzger explained that after he put the class scores on a curve, too many people were still failing, so he gave me an extra 12% to bring the class average up to an acceptable level.  He said “You can move the extra 12% to bring your first exam score up to an “A.” And so, by the end of the semester, I earned my spot on the President’s List, with my “A” in calculus the hardest won among the others.
I dropped out of UND that May and went to work as a volunteer for a group of religious priests and brothers who ran a soup kitchen in the inner city in Omaha. I hadn’t yet learned that escaping my role as a victim didn’t automatically make me a perpetrator, so I had to take a detour from the path I’d started on as a pre-med at my state university. I thought altruism might assuage my conscience, and I spent a year learning that my lack of doctrinal orthodoxy actually was a problem in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church—who knew?—before making my indirect way, through studies in English literature and creative writing and philosophy, back to a path into medical school.
That early experience of learning calculus would later be reinforced by a list of other experiences, which have taught me, in sum, that wonderful possibilities are open to the tortoise, not only to the hare, and that it is a privilege and a joy to live a long life so one can realize them.
My most recent such experience has been singing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC. The native talent and intelligence and musical training concentrated in this group in our federal city is truly astonishing, and I am lucky that my gay card won me even an audition to be admitted to membership. My relationship to music is a lot like my relationship to calculus—though significantly more imbued with love, and more enduring. Singing does not come easy to me.  I can’t hear a series of notes and repeat them back after first hearing. The repetitions it takes before it all sinks in are exponentially greater than the number required for the superior musicians around me. But by concert time, I have learned to get myself to a state much like the one I achieved the morning of my major exams in calculus, nearly 40 years ago.  No one whispers to me, as my elementary school music teacher did, that at the concert I should just move my lips.
I could say something very similar about the path I have taken through medicine.  A college classmate once said to me, “You’re the flakiest person I’ve ever known who said they were going to medical school and actually did it.” Thirty-three years after starting medical school, this tortoise has a great deal of clarity about how to build my division and our programs to meet the needs of the surrounding population over the next 15 years—which is when I expect to retire—and is ready to speak with authority to many people in power in order to see it happen. 
The paradigm of our education system and our extracurricular training programs for young people seems to be to identify the hares and to pitch them into competition with each other, for what we generally view as scarce opportunities for success.  I consider it one of my callings in life to counsel most everyone I meet to nurture the opposite perspective. One of my oft-stated observations to patients in psychotherapy is that life is too long to declare failure when it comes to revising self-defeating and neurotic patterns of thinking and behavior. To give up on change is to choose what could be a very long period of continued suffering and frustration stretching to the end of one’s days. I say this as a tortoise who has clocked a lot of years, and lived to see the benefits that accrue to those who make slow and steady progress, in one thing or another, even though things do not come easy.
Exactly six years ago I wrote about how I found myself thinking increasingly of the character of Antonio Salieri in the movie Amadeus, who in the last scene absolves the viewing audience of their mediocrity.  (
The crisis of midlife I was having at that writing eventually passed, and I find myself these years later thinking a different set of thoughts about mediocrity. To wit: sometimes mediocrity + determination + time can produce excellent results.  And I find that to be a richly satisfying reward, gleaned among the indignities of advancing age--which, from this particular perspective, are really trivial by comparison.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My Personal Thanatopsis

(Written for my 50th birthday, three years ago. Still salient)
One could look in the mirror today

And wonder if he has loved enough

And in the right way

Regret his foolishness and his failures

Wonder what lies ahead

What the sum will amount to


But why engage in vanities?

Should this moment be wasted on such things

As a puddle of fears?


Time is inescapable

As soon as I lift my gaze from the immediate

From this particular carrot I’m peeling for dinner tonight

And thinking of how it will taste with butter and lemon

I know it will not matter tomorrow

It hums its melody only today

And only to we three who share a table

And, come mealtime,

Will any of us even be paying attention?

Time claims its markers

Five decades!

Surely a person must do something, say something

Think something particular on such a day

Even he who wakes up alone

Making his best case for feeling useless and unloved

Must give it note

Feel more defeated than on other days, perhaps

Accept ignominy notably, not heedlessly


And what will I note?

Fifty years pass into the ether

Leaving so many traces of what was loved

And has passed on

Tragically or quietly or simply through neglect

We each can count the ways to oblivion


I walk my ten acres on an Indian summer afternoon

My son playing games of imagination

In the teepee he has made of fallen branches

And dried weeds and grass

Where he collects and caches the baby frogs of autumn

(So seemingly ill-prepared for coming hibernation)


And captures the mammoth praying mantis

Who, having laid her eggs for spring, munches the last leaves of senescent fall

And awaits the stopping of the clock

Is she the image in my mirror now?


The eastern white pine and the weeping willow

I carried to this place

In the Chrysler I bought to ferry my son in his car seat

Have grown improbably big

Defy me to remember the 2-gallon pail

And the stakes that nurtured them

While the car has meanwhile met its obsolescence

And lies barely in the reach of recollection


I prune the beginnings of a hedge

And curse the deer, my enemies

Who leave me gaps where my effort must begin afresh

New seedlings must be planted


I dream that the hedge will line a driveway

And the driveway lead to a house

Where days of retirement might be spent in some version of bliss

If only time grants me that circumstance


But really there’s just today

And the single aspect that fully lives now

Some talent I cultivate and consecrate

For keeping an image in my head

Of things that matter

And might be brought to pass

With enough devotion and faith

And conviction that it connects to someone else

Even if they have to be cajoled


I find it hard to believe in a heaven or hell

Where a tale will be written of my actions today

Or actions of a lifetime

Where eternal and particular consequence

Attaches to something so anonymous as the fleeting days of my life


And while the poet urged me take my solace

In company with the molecules of the earth

Where all the living come to communion, in time

(And where, in time, I know I’ll gladly go)

Part of me still seeks a moral resonance

A difference in the world that might proceed

From what I have chosen or done


And the only one I am assured of is this:

That I can hold a picture in my mind

And insist on a frame

And say to someone who might listen, “Look at life!

Smell the leaves of October!

Take note of the company one can choose to keep.

Just for the asking.”


My son says he’s adopted

And I am his guardian only for the present

But someday he might admit

There was more to it than captivity

And someday he may choose and frame

His own October day

And look at it with love and hints of celebration

And feel gratitude in a deep way

That the day was given and well-spent


I will be with the worms and the molecules

Not with him or the company he keeps

Except, perhaps, in the imitation one might see

In the movement of two hands

Holding a frame up to an aspect of the world

And thinking the words

“Precious.  So precious to me.”


R. S. Hoffman

October, 2011

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Sigmund Freud lived from 1856 to 1939.  And, as we all know, from the science section of the New York Times and the psychology coverage in Time magazine and the introductory courses in psychology we took at community college, Freud has not only passed away, but he is dead, really, really dead.  He is not merely an iPhone 4s in the era of iPhone 5, he is Alexander Graham Bell, 12 years after Bell Atlantic decided they preferred to go by the name Verizon.  What in heaven’s name, in 2013, is a psychoanalyst?  And if one has been cloned from the DNA in the marrow of a fossil psychoanalyst’s bones, what, exactly, might a psychoanalyst think? 

Read on, if you must, for a word or two (or two thousand) of what a psychoanalyst might think, after years spent listening to the web of relatedness that emerges from patients on the couch, and in this particular essay, the encounters those patients have had with pedophilic and sadistic perversion, and, from this psychiatrist psychoanalyst, years also of listening to the vicissitudes of psychotic experience in persons with schizophrenia. 

I was a psychiatrist before I became a psychoanalyst, and continue to spend half of my week in a community mental health center performing explicitly psychiatric care. The widespread call, at the moment, for better mental health services in the wake of Sandy Hook school shooting of 20 first-graders leaves this psychiatrist psychoanalyst feeling deeply ambivalent, because of its potential to inaccurately identify a certain kind of illness sufferer as the problem.  Surely, the public mental health system in which I work is in need of better resources—the clinics where my agency treats 5000 outpatients lose money in the average month, which is made up only by the slim profit earned in the agency’s other programs that are slightly better remunerated (residential and day programs).  Some months the agency budget overall is in the red and some months it’s in the black.  My CEO bends the ear of the board about how the money-losing clinics are central to the agency’s mission and to the survival of the other, money-making services.  So far, he’s won that battle, but don’t ask him or me to predict our future 5 years out.  An enormous portion of those seeking mental health care in our country can’t access it. So I will be the last person ever to say spending more resources on mental health care would be a wrong turn for America.

But it shouldn’t be characterized as the single solution, or even the primary solution, to the Sandy Hooks in the headlines.  Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, at his recent press appearance, described the type of person who unloads a semi-automatic rifle on his mother and on an elementary school full of children and their teachers, as “so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them.”

So, stop right there.

The illness with the most frequent presentation of “hearing voices” is schizophrenia, but my patients with chronic or periodic auditory hallucinations are not the individuals most likely to perpetrate our next Sandy Hook.  Many of my patients who hear voices raise their children and work full-time jobs as grocery clerks and medical records department directors.  When schizophrenia is disabling, it is just as likely or more likely that the disabling symptom is dearth of motivation or decline in cognition, which can and frequently do present relatively independent from any hallucinations, and are less responsive to the medications we have available.

Paranoia in schizophrenia is sometimes more dangerous.  It can be well-organized, persistent, and compelling to the individual.  But in schizophrenia, it more often than not remits with one of our current antipsychotic medications, and the majority of my patients with schizophrenia do take their medications, because the presence of such symptoms is distressing to the individual, and they seek relief from such distress.

Yet Christmas Day in the New York Times, psychiatrist Paul Steinberg wrote an op-ed pointing the finger almost exclusively at schizophrenia as the cause of mass killings.

When I hear of a Sandy Hook or an Aurora or a Name-the-next-eruption-of-mayhem in the news, it is not my patients with schizophrenia that come to mind, or that I worry about. 

In the other half of my life, away from the mental health center, I maintain an office where I conduct psychoanalysis and analytic psychotherapy.  And the parallel that comes to mind when I hear about shooters like Adam Lanza is to the pedophiles and sadists I have heard about fairly incessantly since I started out in practice. 

It is not the pedophiles and sadists themselves who come to lie on my couch and sit in the chair in my consulting room, of course.  It is their daughters and sons, sometimes their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren and neighbors’ children.  They are the living victims of perversion just as the children of Sandy Hook’s first grade are the dead victims of perversion, the difference being, in part, that it is a sexualized perversion rather than a violently sadistic one.

But the commonality lies in the type of brain and the type of sickness that makes the rape and murder of children possible. 

Paranoiacs and psychotics of the schizophrenic type, when untreated or when not responding to the medications they are taking, frequently become so chaotic in their behavior or so out of touch with reality that they come to the attention of other members of their families and communities and to the police.  They lack the filter for their thoughts and actions that would keep them out of trouble.  There is still a need in the current field of psychiatry for better drugs, which would help those with active psychosis that is chronic—despite available medications—to attain remission, and there is still a need for outpatient commitment laws, which would help families and psychiatrists compel treatment for certain patients who won’t take drugs that would work.  But neither of these will in fact eliminate the problem we have with mass murderers.

Many a mass murderer is more like the pedophile than he is to the schizophrenic  psychotic.  They both plot, which takes a high degree of intact reality-testing, and they elude detection while plotting, which is central to achieving their goals.

We shake our heads and say “crazy” when we hear of someone shooting a classroom full of first graders, and it stumps the capacities of our imagination to think of how a human being becomes capable of such evil. 

Well, think for a minute about the taboos in your own mind.  The taboos you take for granted being in your neighbor’s minds.  Those injunctions are not doors slammed shut because there’s nothing in the room behind them.  They are doors slammed shut to keep us away from what’s in the room behind them.  And under particular circumstances, when the mix of motivations is right, the mind opens one of those doors and walks into one of those rooms.  And what it finds there is not necessarily a rudimentary sketch.  The human mind that takes a simple desire to stack a taller tower of blocks and a desire to be big like daddy and makes of them, over time, an architect for the Chrysler building, can make from the rudimentary thoughts on the far side of the open door of taboo something equally elaborate.  It can make, for example, the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter and several of the children born of his incestuous rape of her in a basement dungeon for years.  It can make the father of one of my patients, who deliberately waited until other family members were away from the house and then just as deliberately broke his son’s bones, often with a baseball bat, passing them off later as “accidents” from clumsy falls.  (My patient kept silent, until telling me years later, for fear of lethal blows where these bone-crunching ones had landed.)  And it can make Adam Lanza, who plotted to get a semi-automatic weapon, kill his mother, and in a blaze of self-imagined glory take out a classroom full of six- and seven-year-olds, the adults who got in the way of his reaching that goal, and, for good measure, himself. 

If the perverse potential murderer or child rapist were sufficiently conflicted, he might come into the mental health system for assistance, might commit his energies to subduing his urges rather than discharging them.  But there are an abundance of murderers and pedophiles more invested in their own perverse behavioral goals than they are in any behavioral goals that might be suggested by  a therapist doing their intake, were they to cross the door to a mental health clinic.

I cannot and would not argue that a psychotic person suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar mania never killed anyone—I’ve had any number of them remanded to my care over the years who did just that—or that one will never kill again.  We should commit ourselves to providing the very best resources we can to provide the most effective intervention we can for these serious and tragic illnesses, and the resources to continue the research into more effective treatments, because God knows, we need them.

But we need additionally, to make the technology of mass murder less accessible to the Adam Lanzas already living among us.  And not delude ourselves into thinking we can identify them with a background check.  Lists of identified “mental patients” are not very likely to capture the future mass murderers among us, and will very likely dissuade many of those who could use mental health intervention from seeking it.  The disorganized psychotic patients will end up on the list, and the perverse murder-plotters won’t.

We need to actively intervene in the bullying of our young, who are vulnerable to turning it back on themselves or back at others in an aggrandized retaliatory way—to reduce, if we can, the number of future Adam Lanzas we might help create. 

We need to educate the young about the scope of mental illnesses and make access to mental health care truly available to any who seek it.

And we should talk frankly about sadistic violence and perverse sexuality as possible and very undesirable outcomes of development, if we hope to raise whatever veils cover our understanding of ourselves and cover our understanding of the difficulties in the human condition. 

It may seem odd for a gay man to be urging the country to talk more about perversion, since it took many decades for psychoanalysis to stop telling the world that my kind were, ourselves, perverted.  But perhaps because I had a need to understand how this came to be, in the profession to which I was certain I had a calling, and to figure out how the perverted in my own life experience escaped being labeled as any such thing by anyone who knew them, I took more than an average interest in the subject.  And then the patients came, one after another, struggling to make sense of the perversion they had encountered in the persons in their own lives, and to understand the silence and secrecy surrounding that perversion.  In sum, it has taught me that comprehending the possibility of sadistic and pedophilic perversion matters, that open acknowledgement of these possibilities matters, that silence only magnifies and multiplies vulnerabilities and the numbers of the vulnerable.

Mass murderers, on the whole, orchestrate murder suicides that cannot be understood in terms of conventional psychology.  Some can be understood in terms of paranoid psychosis, but many can best be understood in terms of what lies beyond the doors of taboo, and its attractions for a certain kind of person who is susceptible to imagining that transcendence of vulnerability lies in the embrace of sadistic power—and nowhere else.  If we can acknowledge this sad possibility, perhaps we can guide a potential Adam Lanza or many potential Adam Lanzas toward an alternative path.  But we have to do it as a culture, and not only as individual psychotherapists meeting with patients in our offices.  Because the evolution of an Adam Lanza too often takes place with deep immersion in the ideas and institutions of the culture as a whole and no acquaintance  whatsoever with the possibilities of help through psychotherapy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Finger on the Pulse


I resolve periodically to never again read the “comments” section of anything posted on the internet. Too much exposure to the unbridled id of our culture can, after all, make it hard to get up and go to work in the morning.

And then I slip for some reason, and find myself scrolling through the 172 comments on some political post on Facebook. And I resolve all over again to resist that temptation.

There is the well-worn story about six men in a dark room with an elephant, each asked to describe the animal from the part he touches in his hands. Political commentary on the internet, more than anything else in life, makes me wonder what part of the elephant folks are touching. For my part, it’s hard to imagine that the underclass, the aged, and the disabled that I see every day are the same underclass, aged and disabled that generate such contempt from certain vociferous people on the right end of our political spectrum. Because in America, the “freeloaders” so hated by those who would promote not just the survival but in fact the unencumbered freedom of the fittest among us, are mostly just these--the underclass, the aged, and the disabled. From what I read, the moral narrative goes something like “Those people are lazy, short-sighted, or drug-addicted, and I shouldn’t have to pull their weight.”

Yes, there are people in America who are lazy, short-sighted, or drug-addicted, and who leech off a society to which they would better contribute. But where in the dark room does one sit and with what fingers does one feel the elephant in order to think most of the folks along the financial margins are there through a process of their own election? It baffles me. I guess it’s because the thing I have elected in life is treating the mentally ill (and occasionally addicted) poor that my sense of proportion is so different. I am shoulder-to-shoulder every day with exactly this part of our citizenry, and after twenty years I harbor no hatred of them nor of the system that tries to provide for their care. And when they are the object of contempt, I not only take a contrary view, but I’m truly confused. Just as Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” was an apocryphal anecdote told over and over until I guess he actually believed it himself, it seems to me that this “culture of freeloading” so many are fed up with is more myth than reality. Yes, our Social Security and Medicare systems are a demographic time bomb in need of reform if they are going to survive. But a plague of miscreants? I am too intimately acquainted with the true causes of disability to easily buy any story that the majority of folks in our social safety net are just too willfully lazy or self-destructive to get themselves out.

Here’s the reality I know: One of my patients with schizophrenia, I’ll call him William, told me yesterday that he’d had a really good Christmas. About a year ago he got out of the state mental hospital on conditional release after several months’ detention, after getting arrested for some illegal behavior while in a grossly psychotic state of mind. What brought on this episode? Maybe he had stopped his meds, or maybe not. Any number of individuals with schizophrenia have a major break despite taking their meds, and despite the efforts of their doctors to catch the first signs of the episode in time to ward it off. When he improved again and came to live in a residential program, he tried for months to contact his girlfriend of 15 years, who is also someone with chronic mental illness who lives most of the time in one supervised housing program or another. When he first tried to locate her, after falling out of contact for a year, he found that she had moved, and no one at her residential program could tell him where. Finally, Christmas came, and he tried calling her mother’s house on Christmas Eve. Ordinarily, her mother doesn’t answer the phone if it’s from a number she doesn’t recognize, but on Christmas Eve his girlfriend was there visiting and picked up the phone. Since he’s found his girlfriend again, he’s been taking three buses every Saturday to the other side of the county so he can meet her at a McDonald’s for lunch.

Certainly, William is by any standard a person who lives on the margins of our society, and depends on Social Security and expensive psychiatric interventions to keep hide and hair together. But largely, his lot in life is not one he chose. One percent of every population in every culture on the planet will develop schizophrenia, so truly, there but for the grace of God go you, my friend, or your children, or your children’s children. And somehow, I think William’s commitment to his girlfriend, although they live without the benefit of marriage (since marriage would bring them an immediate decrease in benefits), is a bit more tried and true than the commitment Newt Gingrich has demonstrated to any of his three wives.

William’s story is not just a heart-warming anecdote I pull out, as antidote to the apocryphal Reagan story about his “welfare queen.” William is typical of the disabled folks I treat. Just like he’s typical, more or less, of the patients I see who have less profound mental illness, but still don’t work because of another condition, like their severe obstructive lung disease or arthritic knees or advanced age or frequent dialysis. Our agency runs a vocational program for anyone who’s willing and able-bodied and financially eligible, and I have seen dozens of markedly impaired individuals make their way gradually off disability and into the job market, with sufficient time, assistance, coaching, and encouragement. And enough of my attention, which, as it turns out, is costly. Rehabilitation of the mentally ill is expensive.

It seems as though there ought to be some lesson to be taken from the fact that I, who walk daily with the folks who are carried in our social safety net, do not harbor the contempt for them that one finds on the airwaves of talk radio and in the comment sections of online media. I pay taxes, too. And trust me, it’s not a matter of a knowing wink between me and the folks who enable me to keep my cushy gig sucking the teat of government largess. There’s got to be an easier bureaucratic job than the one I have battling schizophrenia with funding through Medicare and Medicaid. Schizophrenia is mostly the shits, and navigating Medicare and Medicaid is an exquisite torture for any soul.

I do not consider myself a Christian, but I definitely read once that the King shall answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.” Seems a little at odds with the narrative that the least among us are the worst among us, but then I guess I just don’t really get Christianity. At least not right-of-center Christianity.

So there you have it-—my part of the elephant. The lesson I take from the life I’ve seen is that it is important to speak out against the caricature that the poor and disabled are shiftless, and that caring for them is an erosion of moral justice. If your part of the elephant is truly different, I'm all ears. But Reagan’s “welfare queen” was always just a mythical creature, and I, for my part, will both model and advocate for charity and compassion in place of meanness and self-concern, for William, and for all of the Williams I know (which number in the thousands) probably until my last day on Earth. (After which, from what I hear, I’m off to burn in hell. But there's always that "what have you done to the least of these, my brothers" card...)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Devil in the Details

"But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away." –Ross Douthat, The Devil and Joe Paterno, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2011

After reading a column like the one Mr. Douthat wrote for today’s paper, I am left wondering if his failings are intellectual, psychological, or both. Since Anna Freud published The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense in 1937, professional and amateur psychologists alike have had no excuse not to be aquainted with the concept of identification with the aggressor, the role it plays in individual moments of psychic conflict, or how for some it becomes the basis for pervasive aspects of character.

It can be difficult for anyone, when faced with the immolation of a victim by an aggressor, to take up identification with the vulnerable party and not identify with the powerful abuser. This is a human frailty in a moment of stress, and it might make us understand the psychic fortitude it would have taken for Mike McQueary and Joe Paterno to go directly to legal authorities and report a crime where a crime had been committed. We should not, however, engage in the ongoing idealization that Douthat evidences when confronted with the unsalutary effects of this psychic operation as it played out in these men’s behavior. No, it is not in service to higher responsibilities that a usually-moral individual fails the test of siding with a helpless innocent human being who is being violated; it is in fact an identification with the wrong party that leads to this behavior.

When such a pattern of identification is habitual it is evident in sociopathic behavior, and in individuals with such character, actual generosity and sacrifice are rarely seen.

When such a pattern of identification is aberrant, we might understand that it occurred in particular circumstances, where the identification with the aggressor was already strong for other reasons, as it was with McQeary and Paterno and their colleague Sandusky. Such an indentification with the wrong party, morally, might be out of character for an individual. What it is not, as Douthat lamely offers, is in any way a product of heroism, or superior moral character. That idea is an insult to all the individuals who would have made the right choice and called the police.

In the movie Female Perversions, Tilda Swinton plays Eve Stevens, one of two sisters struggling with the effects of growing up in the milieu of their parents’ marriage. In a pivotal scene, Eve is talking with her sister, Maddie (played by Amy Madigan), about events of a particular day in their childhood, which have come up recurrently in her dreams. As she asks her sister about her own memories of that day, she describes the first details as she remembers them: The girls were swimming in a backyard pool while their parents played cards with another couple at a poolside table. Their father got enraged and tipped the table over, causing playing cards to end up in the pool. Later that evening, they witnessed their mother coming out to the living room in her robe to try to soothe their father’s hurt pride. When Eve relates the next events that occurred, she makes a factual mistake, and then corrects herself: Their father struck their mother as she approached him in his chair, and she fell to the floor. Eve says, “And then I went to her;” but stops herself. “No,” she admits to herself and to her sister, “I went to him.” For Eve, her original moment of siding with her aggressive father gives her an important avenue into understanding the way in which this identification became generalized and has plagued her throughout her life.

A number of individuals at Penn State need to ask themselves why they came to the aid of Jerry Sandusky and not the boy he was raping in the shower. I am sure they might find layers of rationalization and denial along with their core identification with the offending party. It is an error we all might fall prone to under the right circumstances of psychological vulnerability. What it would not ever be is a product of too much heroism and its effect on our view of daily events.

Mr. Douthat is free to live in a world where powerful institutions that have his sympathy are deemed to be worthy of moral authority. For the life of me, what I can’t understand is how he contrives to consider himself an intellect worth listening to when he lives in a world that is also doggedly pre-Freudian.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Am I religious? Should anyone care?


Wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, shall be my God. (The Book of Ruth, 1:16)

My husband and I recently bought our first house together. Now, more than ever, we are each other’s family. I not only lodge where he lodges, I pay a mortgage where he pays a mortgage. Our decorating decisions have taken on increased significance in this, our third actual residence together, because having bought the house, there are intimations of permanence where there were once intimations of transience. No longer is there a landlord in our midst whose ultimate ownership of the property might attenuate our ownership of the particulars, down to the size and color of the pillows on the couches. I suppose it is some kind of acknowledgement that we are a mixed-faith couple that the crucifix he bought in Croatia for his late mother and the menorah on our kitchen window sill has each found its place in our home. His people have become my people—a fact never more in evidence than it was last weekend when we flew to Wisconsin to attend the wedding of his youngest cousin, and my 10-year-old son reunited instantly after a year's absence with Jack, his 10-year-old second cousin on my husband’s side. But is my husband’s God, my God, too? One of the reasons I identify with Judaism instead of Christianity is because it leaves room for skepticism about the existence of an afterlife, and it does not consider such skepticism to be the very definition of “lacking in faith.” My sense is that my husband is not a skeptic on this subject, and retains much more identification with the Christian faith in which we both were reared. Whatever disparity there is between us, however, it is not one that causes us consternation.

On the other hand, I hear from my sister that a source of consternation to my 92-year-old Roman Catholic mother is that she might die and go to purgatory. It’s not that she can’t accept that the Almighty might think she has some faults in need of purging—her own righteousness is not a necessary part of her religious views—but instead the prospect that she will need the prayers of the living to help her get to heaven. She fears she’s not inculcated enough of this view in any of the living she’ll leave behind for us to spend the requisite time praying, after her death, for her admission into paradise.

Of this I am fairly confident: The God image that comes to my husband’s mind when he looks on whatever religious symbol he encounters in our home or out in the world is more similar to my image of God than it is to that of my mother, with whom he nominally shares a Christian faith. And this is true even though I identify with the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism most because it holds that God is not supernatural, and puts forth the fairly radical idea that religious traditions as we know them represent not God’s attempt to communicate His nature to man, but instead man’s attempt to articulate the nature of God for ourselves, and therefore that all religious precepts about God are more or less anthropomorphic, and only tenuously Divine. How can I say that my husband’s image of God is more like mine than it is like my mother’s? In the terms of normal discourse on the subject, his view is more like hers: God is supernatural, personal, and intends His own revelation. Furthermore, He created us as individuals for personal immortality. None of this do I share. But it is exactly this normal religious discourse—which would lump my husband with my mother as believers, in contrast to me, in the company of mere humanists—that I would have change.

It has long seemed exceedingly curious to me that so many teachers and leaders who claim for themselves the title of “religious” relentlessly draw a line of distinction between the faithful and the non-believing, when what seems to me much more compelling is the distinction between those who see God principally as strict, jealous, vengeful, and unforgiving and those who believe that any God worth the name must certainly be at least as loving and forgiving as we are at our best. Whether the latter group believes such a God is real or is a fiction, they seem to me to behave more in concert with each other than they do with those who believe in the other, darker God.

Sitting at that family wedding last weekend and listening once again to the familiar Pauline text from 1 Corinthians on the nature of love (Love is patient, love is kind; It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud; It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs; Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth; It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres) I reflected again on its inspired and wise description of mature and sustaining love. In this letter, Paul attributes anthropomorphic characteristics to God, for sure, and yet seems to think of God as being like us in our best moments, and to see us as created in His image, if only we could refine ourselves into our best selves, not our worst selves.

If my mother’s anxieties prove to be well-founded, it would mean on the other hand that God is a stickler for a game that is played according to arcane rules: She can be admitted to paradise only if enough entreaties come from the living for God to allow it; Mere good will, mere loving intentions would not move Him. It seems to be an image of an omnipotent but capricious Ruler, a “gotcha” God, not at all in keeping with the mature loving attitudes Paul exhorts us to emulate in 1 Corinthians.

It is not to trivialize my mother’s concerns about possible eternal deprivation that I point out that she could take a view of God that made Him even more imperious and peremptory: The news every week is full of reports of religious persons who believe piety demands that the righteous undertake immediate and harsh punishment—in this life, not leaving it to the hereafter—for offenses to Godly ways, from adultery all the way down to the lesser offense (as most of the planet’s population would see it) of dating a boy outside one’s own sect. But even the horrific reality of honor killings committed in the name of the Deity does little to sway the normal discourse about who gets to wear the mantle of faith and piety. What would it take for the dominant contrast drawn in discussions of faith to switch from belief and non-belief to the contrasting outcomes between equating Divinity with vengeance and equating Divinity with love?

What is the supposed importance of confessing belief in God? Could any God at least as loving and mature as the best among us really care? Why would He need it? And if the way we live our lives and treat our fellow man and make our moral decisions were otherwise identical to our belief-confessing neighbor, why would any but a self-preoccupied and most unloving God be hung up on us believing in His existence? Many of the doctrinaire would have us believe that it is faith that makes us moral, and secular existence that makes for amorality or immorality, but evidence is generally to the contrary—there are bad deeds issuing from the believing and non-believing in equal proportion. When the pope decries the secular West, why does the normal media discourse grant him the presumption that he represents piety more than our more liberal, tolerant Christian leaders? It seems to me that we abandon some depth of meaningful discourse when we implicitly accept that a punitive and intolerant view of human sexuality is more “religious” or represents a position of faith more than more tolerant ones. The Catholic hierarchy can say the pope speaks for 1.3 billion believers, and therefore represents the perspective of Catholic faith, except that on the morality of contraception, he clearly doesn’t speak for Catholic believers, since the vast majority disagree with him. The same goes for our habitual equation of Islam with Islamic “fundamentalists.” The very word gives them some presumptive right that is not logically theirs.

What does it matter if false distinctions are commonplace and other, more apt distinctions are lost? I think there is important value to be found in drawing the distinction between a mature spirituality and its immature opposite, for a lot of reasons. One is the evil perpetrated in the world in the name of certainty about a jealous, angry, vengeful, punishing and unforgiving God. Would that we could agree to name and to criticize these evils without having to accede to being the straw man the “true believers” would have us be, namely, an impious lot, who have no regard for Divinity or for morality. The flip side would be the ability to advance peace and human cooperation by positively preaching tolerance and the importance of entertaining sufficient doubt that we can defer damnation and punishment to the Deity, instead of taking them into our own hands. We could advocate addressing conflict in terms of competing interests and an explicit secular and religious consensus about the dignity and rights of the human person, and explicitly advocate that there is sufficient doubt about Divine imperatives for us to leave them out of our plan of action. Philosophers disagree about whether it makes rational sense to believe the human person is sacred if one does not posit the existence of God (see, but rational or not, what is empirically true is that atheists are just as likely to value human rights as are believers.

I personally find it hard to imagine that if there is a God, He is less forgiving and loving of my fellow man than I am. That He is less appreciative or capable of comprehending mutuality than the best of us humans. By mutuality, I refer to an idea technically described in psychoanalytic theory, but I think one fairly easily understood by anyone capable of the trait, which is regard for another with empathy and mutual trust, although we fully know they are themselves and are neither a part of us nor in fact just like us—only enough like us for us to know they should be treated as we would like to be treated.

Would most of those who, unlike me, believe that God is personal and that there is individual immortality after death, actually cast their lot with the man who seeks the “honor killing” of his own teenage daughter for dating a boy from another faith, rather than with me? Am I really the one closer to their idea of an enemy of the kingdom of God? If I am not, then let’s begin to change our discourse about faith so we can discuss the distinctions we actually believe are most important, instead of the often-specious demarcation between who is religious and who is secular. Am I a religious humanist or a secular humanist? It is a distinction truly in the eye of the beholder. If a God who is not supernatural is no God at all to you, then you’d say I am secular. It’s an issue of semantics to me, because I believe in my God, who isn’t a God who cares. To you it may be more than semantic. But if you care, have you asked yourself exactly why that is? And is it possible that we could start a discourse that unites us, you and me, against the influence on our world of the darker view of God, the God of our basest anthropomorphic projections, the God who is gratified by suffering and appeased by destruction? I am optimistic and hopeful that we can. We just need to find the words, and more than occasionally the gall to speak them.