WHAT I OWE TO FREUD

 

I “discovered” Freud as a high school student, in the years that were not eaten by locusts, to use the expression of the well-regarded Serbian novelist Borislav Pekic. For me, these were years of intense growing up, of seismic movements in the deep layers of the mental field. My inner self mostly remained interior landscape unknown to the world. I did not have a partner to establish a relationship of trust on the intimate level, where information is exchanged that either resides in a virtual subjective space or is written on diary pages kept under lock and key, hidden under a mattress, or in some other secret place. I found relief from the need to understand the unmanifested in the way available to me, by reading books. Unrestrained freedom of choice revealed the personal worlds of others written on the pages of novels, stories, and poems. I remember the feeling of detachment and timelessness behind the closed door of the room, on the couch that housed my outstretched body immersed in a physical object held by hands and read by eyes.

In those days and nights, I met Freud for the first time. I well remember the set of selected works in a hardcover dark orange binding. It was sitting on the shelf of the National Library in Pancevo. I pulled out a book Introduction to Psychoanalysis. I thought if an introduction is in the title, it must be the best way to start reading Freud. And I wasn’t wrong. Intuition led me in the right direction. It was written for lay people in the form of lectures, in the velvety style of the master narrator. Concepts that logically build a house of cards (or steel) of the psychoanalytic theory of neuroses, dreams, and errors of speech are easily presented. For me, as the saying goes, a balm for the soul, an in-depth psychology of revelation, a scientific presentation of Viennese middle class sexual preoccupations at the turn of the century; an unknown environment in which I recognized myself. An adolescent with erotic tension and thoughts finds an intellectual home and explanation of sexual drive as the leading energy (libido) in the psychology and psychopathology of everyday life, without shame and disgrace, evolutionary and civilizational inevitability present in all pores of society, though often hidden or denied.

And now what? I threw myself with all the passion of the Slavic soul to understand the personality of Freud. I read a lot and identified myself with him even more. I searched for and found a strong male figure whom I admired for the courage to dive into the depths of his soul and, through self-analysis, emerge with the discoveries he presented to the conservative Vienna Medical Society, which had viewed him with suspicion because of his Jewish origin. Over a period of ten years, he underwent an intensive personal, clinical, and intellectual development that transformed him from a scientist and neurologist to a clinician, psychiatrist, and scholar. In his relatively long life, he never stopped revising and editing his theories, although many accused him of dogmatism and rigidity, which speaks more about his followers than about Freud. It is true that he endeavored to preserve the main premises of his theory, but he remained curious and open to the contributions of science. He was broadly educated so that psychoanalysis had easily grown from a method of treating mental disorders to a civilizational phenomenon evident in language, art, literature, social and natural sciences.

Freud helped me to get to know and understand myself better and to find a guiding post that would direct my mental energy in a certain direction. His theories and psychoanalytic method of treatment were popular in the former Yugoslavia. I became a member of a tribe with which I identified and found a common language. I possessed knowledge that separated me from the “ordinary man” and gave me confidence (almost an arrogance) in understanding everything that exists. The circularity of this nearly closed school of thought sometimes aroused my skepticism, but the seduction and reliance on more experienced members of the psychoanalytic family were too appealing and satisfied my need for belonging. Of course time does its thing. The expansion of horizons and knowledge strengthened objectivity and critical thinking and reduced the “infatuation” with classical, Freudian, psychoanalysis. I wanted to enroll in the postgraduate training after completion of Medical School and to continue education in the field of psychodynamic psychotherapy, a child of psychoanalysis, but the need to find a job and provide financial support for the family thwarted those plans. When I was interviewed for a job in America, I almost didn’t get it due to my interest in psychoanalysis because it had lost relevance it had in previous decades.

Despite my own evolution as well as a pendulum shift in psychiatry, I still believe that there are many lasting merits of Freud’s psychoanalytic method.  I am personally enriched and professionally better equipped due to my “first love”. I owe to psychoanalysis the orientation towards psychotherapy and the understanding of the importance of the unconscious, transference, and defense mechanisms, to single out these three concepts which I will briefly present in the continuation of the text.

 Freud placed the study of the unconscious at the center of the treatment of neurosis because he correctly understood the power of instinct, desire, timelessness, irrationality, and dominance of this psychic structure where the principle of pleasure rules and social and objective reality is an unknown component. He used the metaphor of an iceberg to pictorially depict the mass of the unconscious immersed in the inaccessible depths of the psyche such as an iceberg largely drowned beneath the surface of the ocean. Freud writes: “We live in the shadow of a forgotten past that colors the present. The first decade of life is a time of intense drama that has been largely repressed. Some of these experiences are based on fantasies rather than real events.

Manifestation of the unconscious through the symptoms of illness and dreams is proof of its existence, and the method of free associations and interpretations is a way of gaining insight into fears, motives, immoral aspirations, shameful and traumatic experiences, and other repressed contents unacceptable to Ego anchored in time and space of the surrounding culture to whose requirements it is constantly adapting to. Just as Copernicus dealt a blow to human narcissism by moving our planet from the center of the universe, and Darwin did not give us a special place in the living world, Freud proved that man is not even the master of his “own house.” Unconscious processes determine our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. The contents of the unconscious are basically inaccessible, and are revealed to us only through dreams, slips of the tongue, mannerisms, and illness. Symptoms and behaviors are overt representations of unconscious instincts, fantasies, conflicts, and fears, which are unacceptable or unbearable for the conscious mind.

The most important aspect of psychoanalytic therapy is transference analysis. The first relationships in a child’s life are with people who are consistently present in its surrounding. These are usually parents, siblings, and other family members. The child establishes emotional relationships with them and as an adult tends to transfer those same emotions unconsciously and compulsively to the important people in the present life. When the patient comes to psychotherapy, the psychoanalyst creates the conditions for these emotions to be expressed as strongly as possible towards him (so-called transference neurosis) so that they can be analyzed and resolved because they represent the most important problem for the patient. The reverse process, countertransference, also occurs during therapy in which the psychoanalyst unconsciously responds to the patient and especially to his transference. This is a very demanding process and requires education and especially the training-analysis in which the future psychoanalyst undergoes psychoanalytic therapy in order to experience transference and countertransference reactions on his own skin. In addition, supervision by an experienced analyst must be practiced for many years.

A brief example of the transference is described in a recent article. A third-year medical student was treating a hospital patient ready to be discharged. Then the student fell ill and missed a day of work at the hospital. When he returned the next day, the patient was unusually irritable and depressed and claimed she was not ready for discharge. Our student was confused by this sudden change. The patient began to talk about the history of rejection by boyfriends, as well as the relationship with the older brother characterized by her unrequited desire for closeness with him. All of a sudden, the student realized that she experienced his absence as another rejection and thus transferred previous feelings for important others to him.

I did not undergo training analysis, but I was supervised by psychoanalyst, which helped me in my work with patients. Knowing the importance of transference and countertransference, I have always monitored the reactions and behaviors of the patient as well as my own emotions and used these observations in therapy. Positive transference is useful as well as controlled positive or neutral countertransference. The problem arises when negativity is the dominant state and dangerous if the transference / countertransference becomes eroticized. This happened to many psychoanalysts in the early years of psychoanalysis and rarely ended well if it was not recognized or was misunderstood as “true love.” I encountered situations of a similar nature but fortunately I have acknowledged the nature of such feelings and reacted in a therapeutic way. Sadly, several of my colleagues did not understand the power of transference and countertransference, which led to catastrophic outcomes. I think Freud’s courage to look into “transference love” objectively had led him to the important discovery.  He recognized the importance of the relationship with the patient and the therapeutic benefits when that relationship is properly analyzed and directed.

The last concept that I will briefly addressed is the defense mechanisms, the self-deceptions of the mind that provide various illusions for filtering pain and calming the unbearable anxiety. Defense mechanisms are involuntary mental regulatory processes and strategies. They can change internal psychological conflict by denying or distorting the original desire or need, conflict with people, reality, or conscience. Defense mechanisms are for the mind what the immune system is for the body. As such, they serve to regulate the disturbed state, but if not used wisely, they lead to an untoward outcome in a similar way an overreaction of the immune system is unhealthy, and development of the autoimmune diseases could be disastrous. Much of what is referred to as mental illness simply reflects the unwise use of defense mechanisms. They are divided into psychotic, immature, neurotic and mature. Psychotic defenses profoundly change the perception of external reality. Immature defenses are used by people with severe character disorders. Neurotic defenses are encountered in neurosis and under acute stress. They are the most common defenses encountered by psychoanalysts. Finally, mature defenses are seen in healthy people because they integrate reality, interpersonal relationships, and private feelings. Mature adaptive defense facilitates healing, not disease. An appropriate response keeps us healthy by reducing strong emotions or pain without anesthetizing them, redirecting the feelings instead of blocking them, orienting towards a long-term goal rather than offering a temporary solution, and attracting people instead of repelling them.

For contemporary mental health professionals, defense mechanisms are the least understood concept of psychoanalysis. We all have them. They are built into the matrix of our mental apparatus, hidden in the deep recesses of the mind, deployed imperceptible without awareness to protect us from the overwhelming power of emotions and realities of life. In meeting with patients or acquaintances, we can see them in action, but we must not use this insight carelessly, because the defense they use is purposeful and uncovering it can do more harm than good. A careful approach is necessary using the tools of confrontation, clarification, interpretation, and elaboration. Regrettably, I have to confess that I often witnessed when professionals respond to patients using their own defense mechanisms rather than the above mentioned and proven therapeutic techniques. The rule of thumb is that if the defense mechanism used by a person is more intense, rigid, exclusive, and lead to distortion of reality, the reason for the defense is more urgent and the person is more vulnerable and unable to cope without it, hence extreme caution is necessary.

 In this brief account, I focused my attention to the profession of a psychiatrist as it relates to the contribution of Freud to the field. I didn’t discuss many other important elements of Freud’s psychoanalysis such as the theory of personality, the psychosexual development and infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, Eros and Thanatos, and so on. Many of his conceptualizations have become obsolete or are discarded. Also, this text would get too long and that is not my intention, so I will stop here with the remark that the beard, I have been wearing since the end of high school, may also be my debt to Freud.

TRANSGENERATIONAL TRAUMA (UNCONVENTIONAL THINKING)

 

“I don’t live in the past, the past lives in me.” – Olga Horak, Holocaust survivor

 

I asked my daughter what she thought of the Tree of Life text and the metaphor I described in it. She said that she liked it, but contrary to the metaphor in which the tree represents an individual life that branches in different directions depending on the decisions we make, she liked the one in which the seed grows into a new tree, which symbolizes a breakaway from “unhealthy ingredients” transmitted from one generation to the next. By separating, the new tree “makes a decision” not to repeat the patterns that afflicted the previous generations (trees).

This thought of hers reminded me of theories related to the transgenerational transfer of information in the mental health domain. A classic example is childhood abuse that causes a cycle of abuse and anxiety in future generations. Other types of intergenerational trauma are related to extreme poverty, sudden or violent death of a family member, crime against the family, a parent who fought in the war, and torture of a family member. In addition, there are so-called “collective traumas” that affect many people or even an entire generation such as slavery, genocide, famine, natural disaster, war, terrorism, exile, etc.

  I grew up in a family and a country where the traumas of war and other calamities are almost a norm. Grandfathers on both sides of the family were prisoners of war during the First World War. After many years of imprisonment, exposure to terrible conditions, the daily threat of death from starvation or disease, they finally returned home to start families and a new life. My mother’s father became an alcoholic prone to violence. He died early on from the consequences of drinking. My father’s father was better adjusted but he suffered from anxiety and died prematurely from cancer. My parents experienced significant traumas during World War II by fighting in the war (father) and living in exile (mother), respectively. I wonder how these “shadows of the past” affected my parents and were passed to my brother and me, and do they extend their long dark reach to my daughters too? Trauma has a powerful effect in ways that are not always visible. Those affected by it often experience depression and anxiety, unstable or bad relationships, higher mortality rates, and an increased susceptibility to violence and substance abuse. On the other hand, it can lead to resilience and “wounded healer” life direction. I know that I was either born or early on sensitized to be compassionate toward my mother. I remember listening stories about her traumatic childhood due to her father’s alcoholism and death when she was only 9 years old, witnessed the conflictual relationship with her mother and ambivalence toward her older sister.  Many decisions my parents made were not fully rational but are remnants, emotional “carry overs” from transgenerational trauma. I am sure that choices I made had a stamp of a different sort related to these patterning.  For one thing, a positive effect, is that I chose early on to be in a healing profession and use caring nature for the benefit of others. Negative side of the coin is that I lost a good measure in caring for my own needs and setting appropriate healthy boundaries with others.

Conventional thinking about the transmission of traumatic information is related to the external and internal environment in which children are born and raised. For example, during pregnancy, the mother’s diet, exposure to various toxic substances (from nicotine, alcohol to drugs), psychological stress, and infections affect the development of the fetus. At birth, external environmental factors related to nutrition, the mother’s mental state, the quality of attachment to the child, and early traumatic events determine the child’s health. These effects are indirectly related to familial and transgenerational trauma. More direct factors are learned by observing behavior, listening to family stories, living in the presence of unspoken secrets, being exposed to the “survival messages” based on fear, and reading books related to the family or group with whom they identify with (nation, race, historical events, etc.). The standard approach to this topic is summarized in the words of psychiatrist Volkan: “Transgenerational transmission is when an elderly person unconsciously externalizes his traumatized self to the personality of a developing child. The child then becomes a reservoir for unwanted, problematic parts of the older generation.

  The non-standard approach is related to epigenetics, a science about thirty years old that investigates the influences of environmental factors on the activation or deactivation of genes that do not change the basic DNA sequence of nucleotides. This mechanism is different from a mutation in which gene is changed structurally. To clarify this, I will say that epigenetics deals with the function of genes (as physiology deals with the function of the organism) and genetics with the structure of genes (as anatomy deals with the structural elements of the organism). Or to put it in computer language, the epigenome is the software, and the genome is the hardware of the organism. There is a great excitement among scientists about the potential benefits epigenetics can have in explaining the mechanisms of aging, human development, the origins of cancer, heart disease, mental illness, and other important fundamental processes. But in this text, I will only focus on research about hereditary epigenetic mechanisms related to the transmission of trauma from parents and previous generations to children.

Research shows that our experiences, especially those that are traumatic, violent, or disturbing, can have a profound biological impact by affecting the functioning of genes that regulate stress hormones. There are many studies about PTSD that consistently implicated DNA methylation and gene expression changes in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and inflammatory genes. * It is less investigated if these epigenetic changes are transferred to the offspring.  I looked for the latest research on the topic and was able to identify a recent review study describing the transmission of stress and anxiety via epigenetic markers in the sperm. ** An older and better-known publication is related to Dr. Rachel Yehuda, director of the Department of Traumatic Stress Studies at the Medical School in New York. It found that children of holocaust survivors with PTSD had lower rates of DNA methylation (the most common type of epigenetic mechanism) at a particular stress-related glucocorticoid receptor than children of survivors without PTSD. *** Based on these and other studies, it is obvious that stress and trauma can leave a chemical mark on the genes of germ cells, which are then passed on to future generations via reproduction. This mark does not cause a genetic mutation, but it does change the mechanism by which the gene is activated. I will let the words of Dr. Yehuda, the pioneer in this field, complete this section. “We are just beginning to realize that being born with a certain set of genes does not mean that we are in a biological prison because of those genes – that the way these genes work can change. The idea is very simple, and you hear it from people all the time. People say that when something cataclysmic happens to them, they are no longer the same person. Epigenetics gives us the language and the science to start unpacking that.”

  Epigenetic changes are not permanent so that various therapeutic methods and healthy lifestyles lead either to increased resilience to the effects of trauma or reverse the biological markers of trauma. The most effective therapies are prolonged exposure to trauma through conversation, virtual reality, videos, detailed writing, etc. This method is very demanding and is not popular with patients, although it is very effective. A similar method that is being used more and more due to its ease and acceptance is the EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). The material of trauma (images, sounds, affects, sensations of the body, etc.) becomes “stuck” so that the memories are encoded in a disturbing state of excitation. In this condition, the trauma material is easily activated by internal or external stimuli. EMDR protocols and procedures are intended to activate the brain’s information processing system and transform traumatic memories through “reprocessing”. Subsequent integration into adaptive brain networks leads to symptom resolution using bilateral eye movements. Alternative stimulation methods can be audible or tactile. Last but not least is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, especially use of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), known as ecstasy in the treatment of PTSD. This drug is on the verge of approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a study that resulted in a cure of two thirds of those treated.

A healthy lifestyle enhances strength to offset trauma. Family and community play a dominant role in increasing an individual’s resilience. Basic elements include the promotion of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Music, art, dance, and communication through storytelling about past events reduce anxiety and increase cohesiveness among participants. It has been known for a long time that exercise is associated with various health benefits. It is valuable for regulating reactions to stress, sleep, and negative mood thanks to increased levels of galanin, a neuropeptide associated with the regulation of norepinephrine and other stress hormones. Regular mindful meditation increases awareness of the present moment, self-compassion and strengthens the ability to self-regulate.

In this text, I referred to the importance of understanding transgenerational trauma, especially its transmission by epigenetic mechanisms. Scientific research is becoming numerous and convincing in this regard. I have also outlined the best treatment methods that are effective in relieving the symptoms and biological changes caused by trauma. My writing is informed by scientific literature and clinical practice. This time I did not include theories that are further away from the official science. They include the theory of chaos and fractals, the collective unconscious, the morphogenetic field, the reincarnation, as well as the luminous body described in Shamanism. Writing about them may follow future inspiration.

 

*Mehta D, Miller O, Bruenig D, David G, Shakespeare-Finch J. A systematic review of DNA methylation and gene expression studies in posttraumatic stress disorder, posttraumatic growth, and resilience. J Trauma Stress. 2020;33(2):171-180

**Xingyun Xu, et al “Epigenetic Mechanisms of Paternal Stress in Offspring Development and Diseases”, International Journal of Genomics, vol. 2021, Article ID 6632719, 10 pages, 2021

*** Rachel Yehuda, et al. “Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects on FKBP5 Methylation”, Biological Psychiatry September 1, 2016; 80: 372–380

THE ART OF LOVING (TRIBUTE TO ERICH FROMM)

 

 Recently, Erich Fromm’s book Art of loving caught my eye. I took it off the shelf and remembered that I had read it while studying psychology about fifty years ago. At that time Fromm was at the peak of his fame in Yugoslavia, especially with the book Escape from Freedom. We used the above-mentioned book in English classes. I decided to open it again. I wanted to remind myself how Fromm handled that topic. About ten years ago, I studied it intensively from the point of view of evolution, attachment theory, psychopathology, and couples’ therapy.

But before I continue in this direction, I would like us to take a look at the personality and work of Erich Fromm. I first heard of him in relation with the Korčula Summer School and the Praxis magazine, which advocated “socialism with a human face” and the study of Karl Marx’s “early works.” He was one of the first participants in those summer talks in 1963. Meetings of left-wing intellectuals were possible in the relatively tolerant intellectual and political climate of Yugoslavia in the late 1960s. But as it is known, all that openness changed in the first half of the seventies. As a result, the free forum, and the work of the Korčula School, together with the magazine, were abolished in 1974. In the same year, I enrolled at the University of Philosophy in Belgrade. Unfortunately, the following year eight university professors, participants in the above school and the magazine, were removed due to their critical thinking as well as active and direct action in society and social events.

To get back to Fromm. He attracted me as an emissary of the so-called the third force in psychology, humanistic, which emerged in the 1950s as the opposition of the first two (psychoanalysis and behaviorism). Together with other main representatives (Maslow, Rodgers, May), Fromm advocated the importance of the individual, personal freedom, the harmony of the individual and society, the study of human potentials, and the development of love for life. But before he arrived in America, he was born (1900) and lived in Germany. He came from a Jewish family turned to orthodox Judaism.  Fromm studied the Talmud and the Old Testament in preparation to follow the family tradition and become a rabbi. But gradually, while studying in Heidelberg, he was directed toward sociology, philosophy, and psychology. He later began studying psychoanalysis under the influence of Frida Reichmann (who briefly became his wife). Fromm was involved in psychoanalysis for many years, especially in association with “neo-Freudians” and “Marxist” psychoanalysts such as Wilhelm Reich. In the thirties, he belonged to the Frankfurt School (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse) at the Institute for Social Research with an ambitious program of critical theory of society that coincided with Fromm’s main interest, the relationship between the individual and society. The fruitful collaboration lasted for several years and then Fromm turned to existential and humanistic currents in psychology especially after coming to America.

The opus and breadth of Fromm’s work is evident in many books, lectures, and political engagements. Fromm extensively studied and was influenced by the works of Freud and Marx, respectively. At the same time he reinterpreted their understandings of human nature. His optimistic nature led him to the idea of ​​freedom as the central human characteristic and the potential for overcoming the constraints imposed by biological and social determinism. One of Fromm’s most valuable contributions is the notion of social character. He has successfully integrated an approach to the problem of the relationship between personality and culture from a philosophical, sociological, historical, anthropological, and psychological point of view. Fromm “discovered” five types of social character: receiving, exploiting, hoarding, marketing, and productive. These types represent different ways in which people relate to the world and to each other. The first four orientations (characters) focus on consuming, obtaining, and possessing. They are defined by what they have. The productive character, on the other hand, is oriented towards being rather than having, the person without a mask. The focus of this orientation is on building loving, nurturing and meaningful relationships with other people imbued with responsibility and freedom. According to Fromm, a society that creates a productive character type does not yet exist. He envisions it as a society oriented toward humanitarian ideals, made up of small communities as opposed to big government or corporations in which everyone is responsible for the well-being of everyone else. His humanistic credo is contained in these words: “I believe that a man who chooses progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human strengths: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom.”

His connection with Yugoslavia began in 1961 when he came to Belgrade and gave a lecture on the “social unconscious” and Marx’s understanding of man, warning of the “falsification” of Marx’s teachings. He advocated humanistic Marxism, which is evident in Marx’s philosophical “early works.” He taught socialist humanism which rejects both Western capitalism and Soviet communist socialism and sympathizes with the interpretation of socialism of the Yugoslav group gathered around Praxis magazine. He was a member of the American Socialist Party and actively participated in the international peace movement, fighting the nuclear arms race and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Fromm’s popularity in Yugoslavia was great during the 70’s and 80’s which led to the translation of many of his books. The crown was a publication of a selected works in 12 volumes in 1986. I bought this representative collection and read it until my departure from the country in 1988. I left it in the care of my brother. I hope it’s still in his possession.

  I will now return to the book that inspired me for this text, Art of Loving. It was published in 1956 and experienced great popularity around the world, which speaks of the importance of this topic. The title of the book indicates Fromm’s premise about love, which is not related to the emotional state (falling in love) but to the capacity that we nurture in ourselves and express towards others. It is a desire for connectedness in order to overcome existential separation. He says, “Love is the active care for the life and growth of what we love.” He believes that love is “a child of freedom and not dominance”. Care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge are the basic elements of mature love. He connects love with character orientation, an attitude that is not directed towards a certain person, but is manifested towards everyone and everything. It is true that the book identifies five types of love and their specifics – brotherly love, maternal love, erotic love, self-love, and love of God – but he considers the object of love to be secondary to the presence of the capacity for love.

Brotherly love is the basis for all other types of love because it is tied to human solidarity, humanity, and concern for the well-being of all human beings.

Maternal love is an unconditional confirmation of a child’s life and needs. One aspect of that love is the care and responsibility that is absolutely necessary to preserve a child’s life and growth. The second aspect is the attitude that infuses the child with love for life, which gives him the feeling that it is good to be alive and live on this earth.

Brotherly love is love among equals. Maternal love is love for the powerless. Both loves are not exclusive. If I love one brother, I love all brothers. If I love one child, I love all children. Unlike them, erotic love is by its nature exclusive, not universal. It is the pursuit of unity, but not only through sexual act, but through loving, tenderness and experiencing the essence of another person through the essence that springs from the depths of our own being. “Love is a voluntary act, a decision, a promise, not a spontaneous emotional reaction based on a strong feeling.” The paradox of erotic love (which is not easy to understand and experience) is that it contains an element of universality (each of us is a part of One and therefore we are One) and an element of differentiation (each of us is a unique, unrepeatable individual).

Self-love is a consequence of the capacity for love that is directed not towards others but towards oneself with the affirmation of life, joy, growth, and freedom.

The need for love is related to the need to overcome separation through connection. In this sense, religious love for God is no different from other types of love except that God takes on different meanings related to the degrees of evolutionary, historical, social, and personal development. In “mature” religiosity, God becomes a symbol of the highest aspirations related to the principles of justice, truth, and love.

In the next chapter, we find Fromm a critic of a capitalist society in which alienation from oneself, others, and nature is prevalent because of a system in which the market dictates all values ​​and relationships, including love becoming a commodity and where investing in another person is profit-based. Consumerism is the highest principle supported by the system through overt and covert propaganda methods. Love as mutual sexual satisfaction, love as “teamwork” and protection from loneliness, are two “normal” forms of love disintegration in modern Western society, a socially conditioned pathology of love. He cites many specific examples of “pseudo-love” based on treating others as commodities, possessiveness, selfishness, idolatry, and lack of tenderness. He concludes: “Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence. Only in this “central experience” is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love. Love, experience thus, is a constant challenge. It is not a resting place, but the moving, growing, working together. Even when there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves. There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned. This is the fruit by which love is recognized.”

The last chapter is devoted to practice of love. The practice of love requires discipline as an expression of one’s own will. The modern man learns to practice discipline only at work. Outside of work he just wants to relax through infantile self-indulgence. The next requirement is concentration, which is also lacking in modern man evident by his difficulty in being alone with himself. To learn to concentrate is to learn to listen, live in the present, have sensitivity through relaxed alertness of your own inner experiences. Patience is another necessary element in the art of loving. The supreme concern with the mastery of the art means that the art of loving becomes the most important activity. Thinking objectively with reason and humility is the best way to overcome narcissistic orientation. The practice of rational faith is the quality of certainty and firmness in our own convictions, rooted in productive intellectual and emotional activity. Fromm states, “While irrational faith is the acceptance of something as true only because an authority or the majority say so, rational faith is rooted in an independent conviction based upon one’s own productive observing and thinking, in spite of the majority’s opinion. Only the person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others. The basis of rational faith is productiveness. The faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is the act of faith. The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awareness and enhanced vitality.”

With this review, I returned to Erich Fromm after thirty years of neglect but not oblivion. A few years ago, I bought illustrated biography written by a great connoisseur of his work, Rainer Funk. I often looked at it and waited for the right moment to open it, which I did on this occasion. I became aware of how much I owed to this engaged intellectual with whom I shared my fascination with Freud and Marx in the youthful zeal in the search for truth and understanding of the society in which I lived. His words still radiate freshness and relevance today, especially warnings of character orientations foreign to our true human nature, activism, and the demonstrated life of purpose. Fromm’s short book on love is a treasury I reopened to drink fresh water when thirst weakened my body and clouded my spirit. I invite you to this source of wisdom where the inexhaustible power of an extraordinary mind awaits you.

COMMUNITY AND TOGETHERNESS

 

We are affiliated with or were affiliated with various communities. Some are important and some less so. In some we ended up without having a choice and in others we belong with complete devotion. Usually the most important communities are with the person or persons with whom we share good and bad, live in the same space, or are related by blood. In such communities, love, cooperation, communication, helping and caring for each other enable optimal functioning. Sometimes it is necessary to have a leader who makes important decisions and directives and sometimes the community is constituted in a democratic way where decisions and problems are made and resolved through discussion and mutual respect and listening.

My high school community was initiated by the action of Zivoslav Miloradovic through a website. He has launched many other activities aimed at gathering, growing and enriching a group of people who attended the high school “Uros Predic” in Pancevo in 1969-73. I joined that commune 10 years ago when, driven by an internal need I “discovered” the site of our generation that Zivoslav had started off a few years earlier. That happened on Monday, July 11, 2011. I was at work and during a break I googled high school graduates in Pancevo, but I did not get access to the site (blocked by IT of my work organization). When I got home, I started the search again and with great excitement discovered the “treasure” of our 102nd high school generation.

With youthful zeal, I threw myself into getting to know everything that was posted and sent an e-mail to Milijana Stojanovic because Zivoslav’s address entered on the site did not work. She answered immediately. She was glad I contacted her. During our high school days, we were neighbors and occasionally hung out and visited each other. She also contributed to the development of the site with pictures and information. At the end of her message, she asked, “Is your search nostalgic or are we getting old?” My answer followed, “As for the search, it is probably nostalgia and curiosity towards self and others. I am professionally interested in the human psyche. I intensely experienced the high school years when various intellectual and interpersonal needs had developed. I often think about the fragments of memory related to these years.”

Immediately after that, I established correspondence with Zivoslav. He wrote about the reasons for starting the site: “I felt an urge to do something like that and I have been trying to keep it alive for several years now. I feel it as a personal debt, so I don’t ask for help from anyone except those who feel called to help me somehow. If I were where we are from, it would be much better and much more meaningful, but I have been living in Italy for 16 years and I got all the data I have collected so far online.” As for the question of how I can contribute to the site, he answered: “What would interest me more than anything and what would be the real value of this site, not only for us but for a wider audience are memories; memories in writing of someone or something that happened to us at that time. Descriptions of people, friendships, joint adventures, memories of professors, going out, excursions. Well, if you could muster the strength to help me that way, you would do a really great thing. And one more thing: I think I will run this site as long as I live. Therefore, there is no time limit, but it should be said that it would be foolish to wait for the first contribution until our eventual retirement. Therefore, if you think that I have done something that is worthy of attention, you can help me to make what was started even more valuable and richer.”

That’s what I did. I sent “tons” of photos from the high school years, and then I grabbed a pen and wrote, as best I could, memories of those days. I connected with several high school friends who had email addresses and Facebook profiles. Correspondence was established and continued sometimes more and sometimes less but never stopped. Belonging to this community has become important as if I was reclaiming the first part of my life I left behind after I emigrated to America. When I traveled to Serbia, I met several friends in person. I deepened my connections with some and not with others. All this has enriched my life and I believe the lives of those with whom I interacted in this way. Zivoslav continued to enhance the site with the support of others. There were new contributions, writers, photographs, etc. I will forever be indebted to him for the monograph of the high school “Uros Predic” published in 2008 in honor of the 140th anniversary of its founding, which he sent me in October 2011.

  Shortly after establishing association with Zivoslav, he started a Facebook group (November 12, 2011) which grew to number 94 in ten years period. It is a closed group and Zivoslav appointed me as an administrator with all the rights and duties required by that role. I did not ask for it, nor did I use it, except to accept requests for new members. From the beginning, I have been an active member of the group, which helped me to develop a sense of community that gradually deepened and expanded. Although it is the minority who regularly engage in comments and other contributions, it is still enough to create a sense of belonging and connection, importance, emotional security, and fulfillment of the need to communicate with people with whom I share a precious part of the past.

Belonging to virtual communities is different from gatherings in person. Virtuality is an inevitability and a blessing that allows me and many others to connect, hear and see each other, exchange thoughts, and experience a sense of closeness despite the geographical distance. In order for such a group to grow and develop, frequent and honest communications are necessary to help build a common intention, inclination, need, and sense of security. Each member contributes to the cohesiveness through participation. The exchange of thoughts and feelings is important, but it should reflect things that will benefit everyone. Sharing is risky because it involves vulnerability. Yet I believe that we are in an age in which we have experienced and learned enough so that compassion and understanding prevails. I am convinced that the opinions expressed are related to good intentions. I would like to encourage others to do what I do by writing from a personal perspective. I hope I serve as a positive role model by sharing what I think and feel because I do it with sincerity and for the benefit of others.

TREE OF LIFE

 

My daughter and I often talk about books. She recently read The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. Since I had just finished the voluminous and demanding 11/22/63 by Stephen King, I decided to start the book my daughter recommended. She said it was an easy read, so I took it with me during a visit to my wife’s parents in Las Vegas. I woke up in the morning at exactly 3:11. I knew it because I looked at the watch after a restless night’s sleep. First, I drank freshly squeezed orange juice, ate blueberries and a banana mixed with cashew yogurt, and “sweetened” it with coffee. I was ready.

The book begins with a chapter in which we encounter the main character, 16-year-old girl Nora, in the school library in a conversation with a librarian about life options. Mrs. Elm is 60 years old and speaks with wisdom appropriate to her age. She advises the teenager that the whole life is in front of her and that she can do whatever she wants. The next chapter continues 19 years later. The teenager is now a 35-year-old on the verge of suicide. She lives in the same city, alone, her beloved cat has just died, she loses job in a music store and the only student she teaches piano, and her brother does not contact her. She realizes that she is a loser and that she has “gambled” all the good things in life. She gave up swimming even though she could’ve gone to the Olympics. She dropped out of the band about to sign a contract with the recording company. Completed studies of philosophy did not yield an academic career, and the termination of the engagement made it impossible to open the pub her fiancé dreamed of. She believes that no one needs her. She drinks a bottle of wine and overdoses on depression pills.

Then we enter the chapter that describes her existence between life and death. She finds herself in a fantastic version of the library at exactly midnight with bookshelves of the same color and size, but different weights. Her guide is a vision of Mrs. Elm who tells her to open and read a book of regrets in which are written all the decisions, small and large, she regrets. If she wants, she can change them now to have a different life. Nora hesitates at first due to the severity of depression and desire to die, but finally agrees. She chooses to marry Dan, with whom she broke off engagement in her “root” life. When she opens the book, the librarian has given her, she immediately exists in a new life with Dan, now an alcoholic, in an insolvent pub in a remote corner of England. She quickly realizes that she no longer regrets the original decision, which immediately returns her to the library, and this regret is erased from the book. She continues with the next life and so on until she notices that none of them meet her expectations. At that moment, she selects to live her “root” life, wakes up from a coma, makes herself go to a neighbor who calls an ambulance, which takes her to the hospital. After psychiatric treatment, she is discharged with a changed perspective without a shred of regret and with a determination to live with zeal, hope and gratitude.

I will end this review with a quote from the book written by the writer’s hand and attributed to Nora when she learned how it is to be “a nobody who has been everybody.”

It is easy to regret and keep regretting until the time runs out. But it is not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It is the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. We can’t say if any other version would be better or worse, but what we need to focus on is the life that is happening now. While we are alive, we always contain a future of multifarious possibility. So let’s be kind to the people in our own existence. Let’s occasionally look up from the spot in which we are because wherever we happen to be standing the sky above goes on forever. Yesterday I knew I had no future and that it was impossible for me to accept my life as it is now. And yet today, that same messy life seems full of hope. Potential. The impossible, I suppose, happens via living.”

  The short synopsis of the book cannot convey the nuance and richness permeated with psychological, philosophical, metaphysical, and scientific aspects that emphasize the states of consciousness of the main protagonist of this interesting novel. I will look at just one nuance. It is a metaphor about the tree of life. Many religions and mystical traditions use it for their purposes. Even Darwin in On the Origin of Species writes, “The affinities of all beings of the same class are represented by a great tree.” In this book, Nora speaks about the tree of life that represents individual life.

Think about how we start, like a tree planted in the ground. And then we grow and grow and first we are a trunk, and then the branches, which separate from it at different heights. Imagine those branches becoming other branches. And think that at the end of each of them is the final twig. My life is like that. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from my perspective, from the perspective of all of you, it looks like a continuum. Each twig has only one path. But there are other twigs, different lives if you’d take a different direction earlier in life. It is the tree of life.

The tree of life blog is slowly emerging from the mind of the reader of The Midnight Library. It is formed into a metaphor of life itself, the particular life form, and its manifestation under the influence of choice at every juncture (branching). Freedom of choice varies from abundance at the beginning of life to gradual narrowing based on the gravitational force of previous choices. The choice is always possible because it is built into the basic structure of reality. Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson says, “The capacity to make choices is to some extent inherent in every atom.” This statement has far-reaching consequences. Things that at first glance seem like coincidences are not. Making choices is an integral part of the universe.

Even the smallest twig on the tree of life is connected to the trunk and the root. And the root is not isolated, although hidden. It branches underground and connects with other trees and the underground “internet” -mycelium and becomes an integral part of the ecosystem. In this way, our individual twig receives the necessary life sap through other branches, trunks, roots, other trees, constantly directed by connection, through the mycelium, with the wider living community. Sometimes instead of life juice it is exposed to poison, so it dries up and dies. Doesn’t this happen with our lives when we receive information over the Internet that pollutes and poisons us, so that instead of connecting with the vital energy of everything that expands and deepens perspectives and freedom of choice, we enter the “rabbit hole” where darkness resides?

Many books and studies have been written about freedom of choice and free will in various domains. One of the authors is Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist who emphasizes that one of the freshest ideas derived from existentialism is that we are free to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of our lives. He gives an example that the first marriage, which ended in divorce, can be considered a “failure” or seen as a circumstance that allowed us to develop in a way that is crucial for future happiness. This freedom of interpretation suggests different ways of thinking that have different consequences. Some thoughts are depressing and disenfranchising; others inspire us. With intent and focused attention, we choose to remove negative thoughts and feelings and replace them with positive ones in a similar way Nora decided to accept and live her life as it is at this moment with the freshness of a person filled with life force that began to flow again to the almost withered twigs of her tree of life.

RETURN (DAY ONE)

 

I left Yugoslavia in 1988. I wrote about it in the text Coming to America. I lost citizenship in 1992 due to the collapse of the country. I became a stateless person. That same year, I received a green card. My status changed from a visitor to a permanent resident. I was able to work but couldn’t have a passport until I was granted a citizenship. So, I applied. I went through a lengthy process that was successfully completed in 1999. Which called for a great celebration, in the presence of friends, with music, food and speeches, and unbelievable joy. In the country of immigrants, the benefits of a naturalized citizen were well understood, including the ability to obtain a U.S. passport.

But soon, within three weeks, my joy came to an end because of the NATO’s attack of Serbia, in which America was in the lead. Telephone conversations with family in Belgrade were rare and short. Caring for their safety at the peak. American friends divided into two camps, for and against the attack. And bombs continued to fall and fall destroying all that is valuable and killing the innocent. Diplomatic ties, abolished. Isolation of Serbia, complete. NATO ground attack, in preparation. Three unforgettable months, with bombs. Finally peace! The scars of war heal slowly, but they remain. The instability lasts. The overthrow of Milosevic. New government. Hope. Suffocated by the assassination of premier Djindjic. And I was still waiting for the much-anticipated moment, the return.

I started preparations in 2003. Long lasting, systematic, and instilled with longing and fear. The country I left had been transformed. Nothing was the same, not even people or me. “To be or not to be” moment was in front of me. Sixteen long years passed before I touched the country of Serbia again on February 29th, 2004. An event I recorded in my diary and later expressed in poetry.

“I felt the excitement in my chest. Airplane was approaching its destination I left 16 years ago.  That long?  I was looking through the small window. What was there?  Physiological reaction in my body was difficult to interpret. Was it fear or thrill?  The airplane’s door had opened. I was entering this phantasmagoric world, mixture of familiar and strange.  It reminded me of Capgras syndrome, delusional misidentification in which familiar objects and people were perceived as being subtle different, replaced by a nearly identical duplicate or impostor.  I studied it professionally and treated patients who believed that their sons, daughters, wives, mothers were not who they claimed to be.   Now I was standing at the Belgrade airport, I visited many times in the past, filled with apprehension.  Nobody was waiting for me.

Cab driver was waiving. “I need to go to the city.  I won’t charge you much”, he said reassuringly sensing my reluctance.  I allowed the man to put the luggage in the trunk while I set at the back seat.  Driver quickly drove off.  Panicky feeling ensued, got stronger, almost catastrophic. I imagined being kidnaped or murdered for “a fistful of dollars”.  My mind was working fast, thinking about believable excuse to stop the car, and not upset the driver.  “Please stop the car.  I need to go back to the airport.  I forgot a suitcase at the customs”, I said anxiously.  Driver did not hesitate.  He turned the car and quickly returned to the main entrance of the airport. I told him not to wait because it might take a while until I cleared things with the customs.  I was telling a lie but at that moment fear was determining my decisions.  Driver helped me with the luggage and left.  I usually feel compassion for others but not this time.  Adrenalin surge was gradually diminishing. My life was saved. I would see my family.  I looked around and spotted the airport bus waiting its designated time to carry tired passengers toward the city.  Driver of the bus readily opened the front door.  “Did he tried to rip you off? “, he asked.  Obviously, he saw the whole event from his elevated seat.  I didn’t want to say another lie. “No, I feel safer in the bus”.

This event was traumatic and resulted from anxiety and wild imagination of a man who heard a lot about the Zemun mafia, murders, and the transformation of country from once the safest in Europe to the most dangerous. A man who now lives in America, a country that had caused so much suffering and misery in this area. I didn’t know what was waiting for me. Uncertainty immersed in fear is expressed by a question mark at the end of each stanza of the poem that emphasizes the event described above.

Sixteen years

Have ended

Metal bird has landed

Into familiar sight?

 

Open city gates

At night

Is anyone in the light,

Anyone?

 

Stranger with a car

Offering a ride.

Is this a kindness or

A danger?

 

Agreeable nature

Leads the way

And we speed away,

Away?

 

Drama in making

Fear in full bloom

Makes me tearful,

Is this the end?

 

Survival instinct

Acts fast

Shrewd command,

Would it be obeyed?

 

Safety is in sight

Breath of relief

With loud sound,

Right?

 

That mini trauma, remembered and described, affected my stay and encounters, perhaps magnified by the gloomy weather. The beginning of March is usually not attractive in Belgrade. My thoughts and feelings preceded the experiences and colored them with various colors, sometimes cheerful and sometimes dark. In this text, I emphasize the emotional experience of an impoverished state, a bombed-out city, traumatized people. The gray color expresses the depressed space I entered. The poem is about the city faced in the early morning hours with a projected feeling of sadness, trauma, and numbness visible on the faces of passers-byes.

Ravages of time

Palpable,

Wounds of war

Visible,

Smileless faces

Displayed,

Grey color

Outstanding,

Thickness of air

Tormenting.

Above is a description of the first hours of the first day of my return to the country of my birth. Sixteen years of waiting ended, suddenly, like the sharp sound of a zipper, closing an opening in the fabric of time. A mysterious force encircled me, erasing lines of past and present, déjà vu revealed at the airport in Belgrade. The pace was gradually slowing down as if becoming enveloped in layers of familiar and strange images competing for supremacy. The mind was soaked and heavy with a need to get bright and light for the encounter with those who waited this long for me, their forgotten kin. I came back to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. As a place for that occasion, we chose Hotel Jugoslavija, built at a time when Yugoslavia was at the peak of power and glory. Now it was in decline, almost abandoned, on shaky ground as the country itself. But we found ourselves in it, united, as a family (not the country) longing for the past, but also experiencing the joy of the moment and togetherness.

 

HEALTHY AGING

 

“The tragedy of life lies in the fact that we get old too quickly and wise too late.” – Benjamin Franklin

Once a week, I talk to my mother and brother via Skype. Mother has often commented on my graying hair and especially the white beard. She doesn’t like it and when my wife is present, she takes an interest in her point of view, looking for a like-minded person to convince me to shave it. She states that I appear like an old man and that I should look up to my brother who is beardless. Her remark inspired me to start this text about the physical, mental, and other changes that come our way with the galloping years. They are difficult to count due to the speed of the relentless time that leaves enduring traces (unless we undergo cosmetic surgery).

I didn’t pay attention to birthdays and the number of candles on the cake until I got to number sixty. I decided to celebrate this jubilee birthday in the most meaningful way for me, in the company of my wife, daughters, and Adam (Iva’s longtime boyfriend) in the golden city, San Francisco. Iva and Adam called it home in the year 2014. So, there were five of us in this wonderful ambience. We had a fantastic time, visiting the sights and the hidden treasures of the city, which has been declared the jewel of Northern California and one of the most beautiful cities in the USA. Situated along the ocean, with hills and the famous Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is full of history, parks, beaches, museums, and a whole host of entertainment options. We celebrated my birthday at an Indian restaurant. I was happy because all my birthday wishes came true.

The problem arose after that. I suddenly realized that I had entered a “danger zone” and that my years were numbered. I was faced with mortality and limited time extending linearly in only one direction. I thought about the purpose of life and how it was expressed in my existence. In this state of mind, I began work on an autobiography that forced me to look at my life in a more objective and positive way. This endeavor lasted several years, and its completion coincided with the end of my “official” working career. Retirement was another indicator of the “third stage” of life, but unlike my 60th birthday, this time I welcomed it with joy, noticing the benefits including the increased freedom of choice.

During the memoir writing, I reflected on the changes related to aging, positive and negative, and the developmental process as described by Eric Erickson. Then, one of my intellectual mentors, the psychiatrist George Vaillant, came to mind.  I “met” him thirty years ago through a book that left impression on me, The Wisdom of the Ego. Unlike Erickson, who was primarily interested in child and adolescent development, Vaillant spent his career exploring the developmental trajectory of adults. The results have been published in several books and in many articles. His latest book Aging Well is directly related to the topic of this text. People who participated in the study were regularly monitored over the course of their lives. Consequently, Vaillant was able to identify factors that contributed to good health in later years.

Six factors measured by age 50 have been found to be excellent predictors of a happy and healthy life in old age: a stable marriage, a mature adaptive style, no smoking, minimal alcohol consumption, regular physical activity, and maintaining a normal weight. To age well physically, the most important choice is to avoid heavy smoking before the age of 50 or to stop at a young age. However, alcohol abuse not only damages the body but leads to regression in the process of personality maturation. Vaillant says, “Alcohol abuse destroys both health and happiness.” Years ago I was compelled to completely give up alcohol and follow the “wisdom” of the body because of the headache that followed even the minimal consumption.

What will surprise many is that genes are not important for good health. Education that leads to healthy lifestyle choices is crucial because it activates longevity genes and shuts down disease promoting genes. Epigenetics is the science of the future because “our genes float in an ocean of influences that determine their expression through a rich array of epigenetic mechanisms.” The “lanes” of influence that give the most profound clues about both disease and vibrant health are seven biochemical pathways related to oxidative stress, inflammation, immunity, detoxification, lipid metabolism, mineral metabolism, and methylation. If you are interested to learn more about them, I recommend book Change Your Genes Change Your Life, by Dr. Kenneth Pelletier.

Mature adaptive style refers to emotional and social intelligence that contributes to removing barriers between people and create intimate relationships characterized by gratitude and forgiveness rather than resentment, spite, and regret. So surround yourself with people whose dominant energy is love, compassion and kindness for a healthy and happy life. In addition, the orientation towards continuous learning, openness to new ideas and concern for the well-being of others is affirmative towards a good life. It is known that humor and play enhance joy and flood the body with positive chemicals.

Spirituality is intertwined with these aspects with its emphasis on nurturing positive emotions through prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Topics related to life and death, personal and transpersonal, and the interconnection of all that exists are of particular interest. The special place is devoted to transcendental experiences with the power of personality transformation that removes psychological barriers for the optimal development.

And now as I approach my 67th birthday, I look at aging with a new outlook where faith, love, hope, joy, forgiveness and compassion reign and fear of the future and grief of losing youth are hiding in the corner. My desire is to become a “keeper of the meaning” of everything I have learned and understood that can be useful to future generations. This text is a small contribution to this end.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON PARENTHOOD

 

“The most important things in children’s lives are security, love, acceptance and encouragement.” – B. Miller

 

I “jumped” into the role of a parent at 25 years old. It was back in the year 1980 that brought with it a torrent of life events. Even now when I think of them, I feel amazed and puzzled so many were “packed” in the short period of twelve months. Was I ready for them? Probably not, but my memory tells me that I “surfed” on a wave of “adulthood” with all the risks and benefits. I’m a good swimmer but I needed a break first. The best preparation came during my military service because it separated me from the hectic pace of studying medicine and unsettled life circumstances. After a six-month schooling at the Medical Officers’ School in Belgrade, I was assigned to serve as a military physician in the opposite part of Yugoslavia, in a beautiful corner of Slovenia on the border with Italy. My military obligations were minimal. I was a doctor in charge of the border guards’ health. I filled my free time with basketball, reading, relaxing, hanging out with other soldiers, enjoying nature, exploring the nearby town of Nova Gorica and in other fun activities. Due to the easy carefree military life I felt ready for a new beginning.

Thanks to an internship at the general hospital in Pancevo, in the obstetrics department, I attended the birth of Iva. At that time in Serbia, it was not allowed for a father to participate in the birth of a child. Due to a fortunate circumstance, I was given the opportunity to take part in that extraordinary moment, but only indirectly. I was not allowed to be in the delivery room but in the next room. Nevertheless, the physical proximity helped me to quickly “jump in” to the parental role. And as is often said with the arrival of a child, everything changes drastically. That came true in my case as well. It was a life in a fast lane full of excitement. Fourteen years later, a new tour of parenthood awaited me. This time it was in America, so I was present throughout the birth process. I even cut the umbilical cord and in this symbolic way welcomed Simone into this life.

Is it easy to be a parent? I would answer with an expression I heard from a colleague at work: small child, small problem, big child, big problem. I don’t know if this statement is true in every situation, but there is probably a reason why I remembered it. Relying on instinct and an innate talent for caring for others, aided by the hormonal change characteristic of parenthood, I readily accepted the role of father. And so, carried by the life drive, I participated in joys and sufferings, ups and downs, sleepless nights and unplanned days, as well as in all other activities the parent is exposed in raising a child. I consider children to be the most important life teachers. I learned about selfless love, care, growing up, separation, diversity, mistakes and forgiveness, and many other life lessons.

Do you need to have good parents to become a good parent? A question that is not easy to answer. What developmental psychology claims is that the parenting model is embedded in the psyche as a lived experience. It becomes a reality when we draw energy from it (positive or negative) and transfer it to children through our actions. This model can help or hinder, but I think the more important ingredients are personal maturity and commitment to parenthood, good mental and physical health, physical presence of both parents, their mutual agreement and harmony in raising and guiding the child, flexibility, insight into own behavior, capacity for empathy, constant encouragement and positivity, accessibility, and many other characteristics. But I want to emphasize that the most important factor is unconditional love. If a child feels radically accepted and loved, it develops basic trust in self, life and other people, and the parent becomes “good enough” no matter what other flaws and virtues, hills and valleys, and unforeseen life circumstances limit the manifestation of “ideal” parenting.

Can a parent achieve such an approach to a child? Yes, but only if he really wants to. Open and constant dialogue and a desire for understanding rather than judging is the most important ingredient. In addition, patience and the suspended expectation that the child follows the pattern created in the parent’s head are necessary. It should be noted that the child learns the most by modeling and not by preaching. So if you want your child to be successful, be successful. If you want to be honest, be honest. Parents need to love and support their children and constantly improve themselves by being consistent with the values ​​they adhere to, with kindness to themselves and others. In this way, they set an example for their children they are more likely to follow instead the one expressed in the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do.”

I will end this brief reflection on the topic with a poem I wrote to my daughters on Father’s Day.

 

FATHER’S DREAM

 

I had a dream about my daughters.

Beautiful flowers I nurtured

To blossom in their individual ways

Full of colors and smells of glory.

 

I had a dream when they were little

Holding my hand and looking at me

Being happy with simplicity of the moment

For love was the bond that united us.

 

I had a dream when we met in Orange

Greeted by perfect weather of spring

Excited about vegan diet we shared

And enjoying togetherness at last.

 

I had a dream of Father’s Day

Honoring fathers past and present

For unique role and responsibility

They manifest in lives of their children.

 

My dream is over and I am waiting

To celebrate summer solstice

The day of gathered sun’s energy ready to glow

And to be a gift to fathers all over the world.

 

ABOUT LIBRARIES AND WRITING

 

I arrived in a small town on the west coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Reason? The first visit to a younger daughter who came to Maine two years ago after leaving California and the stressful environment of the Hollywood film industry. The initial reason for writing was the library in Camden, which is on the national register due to its architectural beauty and design. I have always loved libraries, so it was easy to decide to visit this important institution. The original building was founded in 1928 and a new wing was added in 1996. It is located next to the bay with a beautiful view of anchored boats and yachts, and a park that entices natives and tourists alike with the calmness of the morning and leisurely pace. On the north side is a grassy amphitheater, home to those who start the day with yoga or tai chi exercises and end it with an evening theater performance.

With my daughter, I slowly slip into the silence of the ground floor, where the circulating books are located. She invites me to the top floor, her favorite place, decorated with original furniture and antique shelves. Explains that this part of the building is usually empty. She sits in an armchair by the window, the place she uses to think and work on writing a screenplay for a future TV series. I admire the surrounding filled with valuable and unique books held by the hands and watched by the eyes of many visitors to this temple of culture. I connect with the spirit of the readers. I am immersed in this moment. I’m here and I’m not. Memories of the past times spent in libraries come to life and enrich the present experience. I think about the scope and significance of the books I borrowed from these institutions starting in the city of Foča 60 years ago from the school library located across the street where I lived. I silently thank the unknown librarians for the accumulated and cataloged knowledge available to anyone who wants to get involved in the current of human cultural evolution.

My daughter and I share a love for books. During my stay, I noticed her boyfriend was absorbed in reading the Stephen King’s book, Carrie, a novel that made him famous.  It took me back in time, the city of Belgrade, the Odeon cinema where I watched the film adaptation of the book. As a result of the movie I formed an opinion of King as “the king of horror”. Although I came across many of his books, I kept away from reading them, because I’m not a fan of that genre.

“What drew you to this book?” I asked Simon.

“I grew up in California in the company of many pretentious people and artists. This is not the case with Stephen King. I wanted to read the book first, digest it, and only then watch a movie. ”

His answer impressed me because I also have an aversion to pompousness present in so many communities. Because of such mental orientation, I was predisposed to notice King’s book On Writing, casually left on a coffee table. Intrigued by the title, I opened it at random and read a few pages. The master of horror explains how to become a good writer. Since I also cultivate that ambition, I made the decision to read it.

My visit was coming to an end. Returning home involved a 14-hour journey including a head-scratching drive from Camden to Portland to arrive at the airport on time. After that initial adventure, everything else went according to plan. The last leg of the trip from Phoenix to Cottonwood was accompanied by thunder. In a nick of time I avoided the monsoon rainstorm that flooded the roads I was driving on just a few minutes earlier.

The next day, Sunday, I rested, and on Monday, I “ran” to the library in search of the selected book. After the “find”, intensive reading began. In the first part of the book (King titled it C.V.) I read about personal life events that inspired some of his writing. The second part is devoted to easy-to-understand instructions on how to become a novelist. Although I have no desire for this kind of writing, I aligned with my daughter in the opinion that anyone who wants to write can draw useful lessons from this book. First of all, King advises us to read and write a lot in order to build our own style and through this process enhance the capacity to express thoughts through writing. This counsel reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell and his claim elaborated in the bestseller Outliers that goes something like this,

To become an expert in any field, it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years) of intentional practice that includes goal setting, quick feedback, and countless exercises to improve skills with a focus on mastery.

As for the feedback, King suggests writing with the “ideal reader” in mind. If a person with such a role is available to you (for King it is his wife), listen carefully to her comments made after reading your unpublished manuscript.

King’s productivity is legendary. He writes almost every day in the morning (on average 10 pages a day), and reads whenever he can in every life situation, no matter how short. He always has a book with him and while he is waiting in line in the store, at the airport, in the restaurant, he opens it and reads it. He claims, “reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” Through reading, the future writer learns to recognize bad writing, how to develop an interesting story, form believable characters, adopt an elegant writing style, and achieve honesty in narration. In the beginning, adopting a style of writers that delights you is useful because through this process, gradually and with constant reading and writing, originality is built through refinement and constant change. King calls “read a lot, write a lot” the writer’s first commandment, emphasizing the importance of this simple but crucial instruction.

King recommends that you write about topics you like to read by introducing your own style, personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially write about work, regardless of genre. For example, if you are a plumber who loves science fiction, write a novel about a plumber who boarded a spaceship and traveled to a distant planet. Do you think it’s impossible to create a story like that? Not according to King, because it has already been done in a very successful way in a novel called Cosmic Engineers. He says that book lovers can most easily identify with themes related to various types of jobs written by writers who in their previous careers were lawyers, doctors, police officers, politicians, etc. In many of his novels, King has as his main character a teacher or writer, occupations he knows intimately.

As for the structure of the novel, he primarily pays attention to three things: narration, description, and dialogue. In this way, the story develops, takes a shape, and the characters become authentic. As for the plot, King does not plan it, but allows the story to take place on its own according to some internal law. He compares this process to the finding of a fossil that is gradually unearthed until it is finally discovered in its entirety. He says, “stories are relics, parts of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” The most important thing is to find the right measure for the above mentioned three basic elements so that the story takes place at the right speed and is not “suffocated” by excessive descriptions, digressions, historical details and thus becomes boring. Your “ideal reader” is the best barometer that everything is aligned properly. In addition revisions of the initial draft are necessary to see “the forest for the trees”. King adheres to the rule that the first revision cuts 10% of the original text.

He is not a fan of seminars, workshops, classes, summer colonies, and readings in front of a group. He finds it pretentious and narcissistic and, in most cases, it interferes with the creative process. For him, writing is a lonely endeavor behind closed doors, without distractions. In this way the writer merges with the story and characters who gradually become alive. When the first version is finished, the door can be opened which facilitates creation of a distance from what is written. He says, “Many celebrated writers did not go to seminars but learned the skill of writing by working in the post office, during military service, in factories, and so on. I learned the most important lessons while working in the hotel laundry. Discussions in writing classes can be intellectually stimulating and fun, but at the same time they often separate you from the real craft of writing.”

Finally, let me mention King’s opinion about the muse. It exists and is a male for him, but he does not rely on him because the muse spends most of his time in the basement lounging on the couch enjoying food and watching television. He does his job and if the muse appears, unexpectedly and uninvited, a miracle of inspiration follows. In this way, I think, King reminds us to work in a disciplined way using the knowledge and skills of language and writing, rather than waiting for inspiration and complaining about the writer’s block.

I hope this short review radiates the enthusiasm I experienced with the discovery of Stephen King as a good writer worthy of our attention. Immediately after reading On Writing, I went to the library again and this time checked out the King’s 850 pages long book with a strange title 11/22/63. I’ve already read a half of the it.  The story line is engaging, and I am able to recognize the elements of a well-written novel. I plan to keep on reading and writing. How about you?

RELATE COMMUNICATE

 

Let me immediately emphasize that I rather talk to one person than to many at the same time. Is it a habit or a true desire for a focused one to one interaction? At work, I am usually in the office (and at this pandemic time on the screen) with one individual. My private life is less structured but, in this writing, the focal point is the communication between two people. I’ve determined that, because I can.  I am the one doing the writing.  So let’s explore what it looks like. During the encounter, we look each other in the eyes, monitor the dynamics of the facial and body expressions, voice inflection, and choice of words. One person speaks and the other listens carefully, and then the roles reverse. We are both enveloped in the pleasantness of exchanging thoughts and feelings and have the sense that we understand and respect each other. I feel stimulated, my brain is activated, the creative side dominates, the words swirl in all directions, with the resonant relatedness of two beings connected in the harmony of a dialogue.

What happens if the conversational partner is not interested in give and take model described above, but instead seeks a platform for a monologue? I assume in that situation the speaker has a need to hear himself, his voice, the desire to draw attention to his “greatness”. The other has a need for verbal “emptying”, especially in the presence of a good listener who is uncomfortable interrupting, or who is unable to leave the situation. When this happens to me, I feel my blood pressure raises, muscle tension increases and the strong urge to explode, shouting “I had enough!” is unbearable.  But I refrain from responding.  I silently tell myself this is an opportunity to exercise patience, and so I persevere until the other person is “worn out.” And then? Afterwards, I am angry with myself for allowing my life energy to be drained due to toxic interaction without true connection.

The scenario described above is somewhat exaggerated. In it, I pointed out two situations that lead to dissatisfaction in the meeting of two people when one of them dominates and the other has difficulty asserting. The third situation is related to me personally. Namely, from early childhood I have a tendency towards social anxiety. This became apparent during puberty, especially in the presence of girls due to an irrational fear that I would not know what to say. I was embarrassed by the blushing, sweating under the armpits or on the palms, and negative thoughts that “twisted the tongue” and led to confusion. I had a strong desire to communicate but internal inhibition prevailed. As a result, fatigue and self-loathing came on the scene. So I had to do something. And I decided. Next time it would be different. I would cross the boundaries that hold me back and free myself from the grip of internal isolation. So I started rehearsing what I wanted to say, often memorizing it, and in that way, I was able to overcome insecurity and self-doubt. I calmed my body with breathing exercises and meditation. I gathered courage and stopped avoiding uncomfortable situations, facing my fears, so whatever happens happens. Gradually, and more and more, I became a capable speaker and conversationalist with a strong and confident voice and calm presence.

To provide scholarly analysis of our connectedness, I rely on Daniel Goleman’s book, Social Intelligence. In it, he identifies two broad categories important for understanding human relationships: on one side is social awareness (how we experience others) and on the other, social facility (how we use experience of others to achieve smooth and effective interactions). According to Goleman, both categories are dependent upon the integrity of certain brain structures and networks that form two pathways: low and high.

The low road is responsible for experiencing another person’s emotions in a similar way how virus penetrates the body, without awareness, quickly, and contagiously. The low road is especially activated in social situations assessed by the amygdala (the brain alarm bell) as significant for survival. It could be said, the low road reacts with the raw emotion in pure form, unencumbered by thoughts or social rules. It is inhabited by the so-called mirror neurons responsible for the “contagiousness” of emotions and ability to “feel” another person and their intentions (empathic resonance) effortlessly and at the speed of light. Empathy means paying attention to the other person’s emotions, feeling those emotions, and reacting appropriately. In short, the language of empathy is, I notice you, I feel with you, and I act to help you.

While the low road is automatic and inflexible, the high road allows choice, because the main crossroad of that pathway is located in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) that connects emotions, thoughts, and actions. Their coordination takes longer time, is more precise, and includes evaluation that contributes to the refined response. OFC can be compared to a driver. He decides when and how to apply the brakes and stops the vehicle when it is moving at an inappropriate speed or is in the path of collision with another. The ability to use skillful means is crucial for safe driving. Similarly, OFC is a key ingredient in establishing and navigating communication with another person. The low road determines the first response, and the high road decides whether to accept it or not. Unfortunately, in today’s times when social media is the dominant mode of communication for many, the refined analysis of the high road is significantly diminished, and the rawness and automatism of the low road leads the way to conflicts that are sometimes deathly.

We need both roads for the successful verbal and non-verbal navigation in the field of human interactions. Sometimes intuition, speediness, spontaneity, and raw emotion are necessary for a connection between two people. In other situations, social knowledge, careful choice of words, ability to apply rules, norms and protocols are necessary and adequate.  I will quote Daniel Goleman here for the emphasis.  He writes, “Any conversation operates on two levels, high road and low. The high road traffics in rationality, words, and meanings. But the low expresses free-form vitality that runs beneath the words, holding the interaction together through an immediately felt connection. The sense of connection hinges less on what’s said than on the more direct and intimate, unspoken emotional link”.  The famous philosopher and theologian Martin Buber in his book I and Thou, eloquently talks about harmonious interpersonal connection where empathy, kindness, respect, affection, love, and other positive social emotions create the basis for a resonant emotional and mental experience of another person. A connection where mutual empathy leads to a positive transformation of both persons Buber calls intimacy (communion), as opposed to a connection where one person looks at the other only as an object, an instrument for achieving a certain goal. He believes that the predominance of depersonalized relationships in society leads to dehumanization and corrosion of quality of life and mental health.

It can be stated that the individual with high social intelligence listens carefully, communicates clearly, encourages firmly, displays sense of humor, demonstrates empathy, accepts the responsibility, makes decision, and models modesty.  In the recent survey the majority of people responded that the most important thing for a happy life was to be surrounded by warm connections with others. The people we care about most are considered as an elixir and ever-renewable source of vitality. Therefore, I believe that nurturing positive emotions and relationships is a key factor for a good and healthy existence. Let it be that way for all of us.