THE VOICE OF AUTHENTICITY

 

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Nelson Mandela

 

I will start with the question I wrote in a diary early in the morning, soon after waking up.

“How do I manifest the voice of authenticity that springs from the depths of the soul?”

Usually my deep-thoughts hat rests comfortably on my head, carelessly sleeps and rarely wakes up from its pleasant dreams. But not this time. The awakened idea continued in the role of a spokesperson.

It asked, “How many unspoken and unwritten words are waiting for the audience?”

I answered with the question, “Is that the most genuine expression of who I want to be?”

And then quietly, to myself, I murmured that silent presence away from the public may be my wish; communication without words, existence learned from time immemorial for the purpose of surviving or avoiding conflict; “don’t get in the way” ideology. Maybe it was necessary because times were turbulent and dangerous.

The idea was dissatisfied and continued, ” You are honest when you write. You tell as it is.”

  I ignored this answer because I was already immersed in the fear-activated tendency of avoidance that I discovered early on but have strived to overcome, with great effort. It is not easy to cope with the adrenaline traversing though my body and signaling danger. When the alarm bell is loud, deafening, pulsating, it does not hear the voice of reason, it shouts, “Run! Save your life! Hide!” And I’m running; looking for a mother, a security base, because everything scares me. I am tearful, inclined to declare a photographer with an antique standing camera and a black cloak an intruder ready for evil deeds, hence running I must do, no matter what. But there is a brother who comforts and calms me. The photo was taken, and now a three-year-old witness is looking at me with a wide-open eyes, a worried expression and barely wiped away tears on his face. There is a brother by my side, who protects me with his closeness and arm stretched over my shoulder as an additional “seat belt”. I listen to stories of a forgotten early life when I avoided any unpleasant situation, and when I couldn’t, I cried for solace from my mother.

My thoughts are now captured by the desire to better understand the method of avoidance, often deployed because fear has “big eyes”. Avoidance is related to associative learning in the emotional parts of the brain (hippocampus / amygdala complex) that operate on the principle of surviving and remembering dangerous situations. The word association is related to this learning because neutral stimuli are associated with a feeling of fear, become “conditioned,” and begin to be avoided because of the irrational need to prevent the activation of an alarm (panic response). When such a fear-bound association takes root, that root branches and involves more and more situations, and avoidance is more and more implemented. The doors of free will action close one after the other and the weight of fear-induced coercion pulls down, prevents, and hinders every step forward.

For me, this association was related to social situations due to fearful thoughts that I will turn out stupid if I say something, blush, sweat under my armpit or when shaking hands, stutter or do not know what to say. This was in particular evident in the encounter with the girls, and especially with those I liked. I remember situation when I was talking with a friend and then we came across girls. A friend was cracking jokes, the girls were laughing, and I was speechless, mute. Afterwards, I was angry with myself. When it was all over, I had a lot to say, but it was too late. Maybe next time? But at the other times it was all the same, even if I was prepared. Somehow, I got tongue tied, so it couldn’t move.

  As an adult, a similar fear-induced reaction occurred when I was giving lectures or presentations, a public appearance. I couldn’t sleep, fidgeted all night, and repeated the material over and over. I tried to memorize it, and then, during the presentation, I ended up reading what I had prepared, not daring to look at the listeners, using filler words in abundance (“you know”, “like”, “ah”, “um”, etc.) after each sentence. A real torture because those were situations I could not avoid. I had to deal with the demon of fear, no matter what.  And it worked. I have discovered a method of treatment, exposure therapy, a treatment of choice for any phobia or other conditions where avoidance, both behavioral and experiential, is prominent.

As Nelson Mandela says, courage is a necessary ingredient in overcoming fear and reacting (running away) from situations that feed it. Because the more we run, the greater the fear becomes and the less is our self-confidence (courage) to resist it. If we understand fear as a warning signal and not a definite sign that we are exposed to life-threatening situation, then we can approach it much easier with fortitude and curiosity rather than with an act of avoidance, justification, and procrastination. In this way we do not allow fear to build into our existence. The more we avoid instead investigate, the more convinced we are that there is something dangerous to avoid. The circle gradually closes and the inner prison with the locked door and the guard holding the key becomes the only reality we acknowledge.

But not completely. For most of us fearful people, there is a ray of hope, a motivation to experience a different reality and broaden our horizons, get out of house arrest, because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. The prison guard is not omniscient. He only exists to warn us and not keep us in jail, so if we ask him to unlock the door with the promise that we will be careful, he will gladly do so. This is the first step towards a “brave new world” in which we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort of bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories. We practice courage by starting with baby steps, little by little, like a baby, we learn to walk without fear. To be successful, daily practice is necessary. One step at a time, with a break, rest, relaxation, deep and slow breathing, and then we continue. By practicing courage, we build tolerance towards the feeling of fear, and the ability to walk becomes easier and faster. Some of us are even so emboldened to decide to run a marathon but that is not the goal. The goal is to get out of prison, try new things and not avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and situations. The more we practice being brave, the braver we become.

  And so, I became a great lecturer and presenter, after countless hours of practice, mistakes, feelings of embarrassment, and anxiety. But now I can run a marathon and enjoy the process. As for other avoidances, they are still possible, but more as a choice than as a coercion. I still dislike certain social situations and small talks but not out of fear, but out of a desire for authenticity. My introverted nature is not conditioned by fear but by taste. And so I accept myself and respond to the idea from the beginning of this text:

“You are right, I am honest when I write. I narrate what I think and feel without fear, and with the desire to express my authentic voice that springs from the depths of my soul.”

THE WAY OF NOSTALGIA

 

As we mature and retire, time puts all things in the right place. No man is born wise. – Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

 

Journeys into the past have become more frequent with age, as if the center of gravity has shifted and is pulling backwards with increasing force. The chronology of the past years, the gift of life given by nature and shaped by the mind, has led to a mental shift that cannot be denied. Nostalgia creeps in imperceptibly and the year of birth is reflected on the black background of the inner space that only I could see when everything calms down and the flicker of daily activities subsides. I realize that the brain is a time machine and without that ability, it would always live in the present, frozen in a narrow gap of consciousness. But because of the extraordinary brain characteristic, I immerse myself in the spirit of time and place from the distant personal past. I enter the faded existence of the five-year-old, the first memories like flashes that briefly illuminate the darkness of oblivion.

Flash: throwing the children’s magazine Kekec from the balcony; delight.

Flash: playing on a nearby hill, winter, wet, red in the face, mother taking off my clothes; joy.

Flash: brother and I in the basement, pretend doctors with syringes, give injections to girls; mischief.

Flash: evening, father and I returning home, full moon, I thought of planet Earth; curiosity.

  I look at the black and white photographs taken out of the dusty album. Loved ones look back at me. The feeling of coziness and the smile on my face warm me on a cool autumn day awakening closeness and belonging to that time and space, nostalgia. A comforting emotion when I was accepted and loved unconditionally. Impressions of the past and longing for the “good old days” that entice the promise of a simpler, healthier, and more humane life. The connection with mother and brother and the days when we had conversations about those years and analyzed in detail the individual and collective memories provoked by images made or imagined.

It is obvious that in addition to physical time, which we measure by clocks, there is also psychological time that refers to the subjective experience of time. If we think about the passage of time from this point of view, we generally see the past in a light that seems logical from today’s perspective. We choose what we remember to correspond to the current state of mind. Some researchers say that the key to emotional health is the way we deal with the past. Orientation to that time perspective gives a sense of personal continuity and a stable identity, a sense of rootedness, in which the past experiences come to life and become a part of the present. Most research suggests that nostalgia is aligned with or correlated with prosocial emotions such as compassion, empathy, and altruism. Thinking about the days that are no more, offers life lessons that we adapt and use to cope with the inevitable changes we are going through and serve as an incentive for a more optimistic approach to the future.

  My initial thinking about nostalgia is that it reaches its peak in old age, but research has not confirmed that. Young adults are most susceptible to it. Most studies concluded that the reason for this increase is related to the transition during that key developmental period where a person is with one foot in childhood and the other is step away from the independence and responsibility of adulthood. Because of that, many have anxiety expressed with a thought whether the future would be as beautiful and rosy as the past was. A similar but different nostalgia occurs in the elderly, who face changes due to retirement, health problems, loss of loved ones, etc. and for these or related reasons become nostalgic for happier times.

If we want to broaden our perspective on this topic then I will turn to Philip Zimbardo who in his book The Time Paradox identifies six independent categories, two related to the past, present, and future. As for the past, they are a positive and a negative category; the present is either fatalistic or hedonistic; and the future, ordinary or transcendental. Of course, nostalgia, if we define it as the longing feeling for the past, belongs to the positive category of the past, where Nietzsche’s famous saying “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” describes this attitude well. People who have experienced negative events, but remember them in a positive way, become more resilient and optimistic. This perspective contains unspoken wisdom that wants to tell us that while we cannot change the events that have taken place, we can certainly change our attitudes and beliefs about them. Zimbardo affirms, “Attitudes toward past events are more important than the events themselves.” His research demonstrates that people with a positive outlook on the past are less aggressive, depressed, or anxious. In addition, they are more conscientious, creative, energetic, friendly, happy, and confident. This positivity is crucial in the development of gratitude towards the present. It is obvious that reinterpreting the past in a positive way is good for health so instead of being controlled by negative events from the past, we climb into the saddle and ride the horse of the apocalypse that obeys our commands.

One of the most successful methods for transforming the past is described in the book Getting Past Your Past, by Francine Shapiro, using therapeutic methods of eye movements desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Releasing negative emotions, beliefs and memories and moving forward does not mean that the past is forgotten – it just becomes more pleasant and integrated with far-reaching positive benefits for mental and physical health. Thus, it is possible to put the past in its “place” and avoid excessive and obsessive rumination. Forgiving yourself and others removes the “Sisyphus boulder” from the shoulders and allows you to fully breathe the fresh air of freedom. Even Freud wants to help with the words, “But the less a man knows about the past the more insecure must prove to be his judgment of the future”. It is as if he wants to tell us to use the power of the past to create a secure base from which to imagine the future and make healthier, better, and more meaningful decisions. With mindful intention fill yourself with memories of happy times in order to become immune against the intrusion of negative thoughts and thus create a path to a happier future. The perspective of a positive past gives us roots. A center of self-affirmation that connects us with ourselves over time and space, provides a sense of continuity of life and enables connection with family, tradition, and cultural heritage. One of the healthiest forms of nostalgia throughout human history has always been to link the previous generation with the next. In this way, it is passed on to the next generation, the best from the past. Since differences can cause divisions, nostalgia is binding because it does the opposite, it unites.

In this text, I focus my attention on nostalgia as a representative of the positive perspective of the past, but we should not completely ignore the perspectives of the present and the future, because human happiness depends on all three perspectives. If we agree that nostalgia is important and useful, we may also agree with the view that the present filled with acts of kindness, positive human relationships, meditation, and activities in which we are fully committed, increases our happiness. As for the future, if we approach it with optimism, positive goals, and the cultivation of spirituality, that score will be completed.

  I will end this text with an autobiographical quote in which I look back on the earliest years of my life in a sentimental and poetic way.

“My experiential self has emerged awakened from the primordial sea of universal consciousness, looking around in orientation to a strange place and people, using instinctive survival tools to establish itself in this individual life. Quickly the world of enchantment has revealed itself to my nascent mind as if to say, stay around my little one, we welcome you with love and blessings. And indeed, my contemporary mind when it looks back to this time of magic through fog of faded memories feels the warmth of the heart, smile of the face, and adoration toward family, people, and other living creatures met on the path of this current manifestation of life.” 

TRAVEL WITH MY DAUGHTER

 

My wife and I recently watched the Netflix series Travels with My Father, a comedy shows in which Jack Whitehall and his father, Michael Whitehall, travel to various countries around the world, encountering comical and interesting situations. We enjoyed their interactions, funny jokes, as well as interesting cultural specifics from the countries visited. This program reminded me of the travels I undertook with my daughters touring different countries or regions of America.

Both daughters are now adults with all the benefits and responsibilities that adulthood brings with it. My relationship with them have changed due to a spun of time weaved from the threads of different life circumstances. We are not in geographical proximity, so our encounters are rare, especially in the last two years, due to the pandemic. When we see each other, it’s a big celebration. Over the years, there were opportunities when I went on a trip with one of them. Special events that carry a deep meaning and experiences that are very different from gatherings in a larger family group. I never had similar happenings with my father or my mother. The situation is probably similar in other families. My wife tells me that this is almost the case with her as well. She never traveled alone with her father and only once with her mother.

I recently visited my younger daughter together with my wife. At the same time, the family of her boyfriend came to visit. A full house. Eventful time spent in getting to know each other, socializing, exploring tourists’ destinations, joint dinners, and rare moments alone with the daughter. So I suggested I visit her again, this time alone, with the idea of ​​the two of us crisscrossing the state of Maine, her new home. She was thrilled and soon she threw herself into planning our itinerary. Finally came the long-awaited day, which began with my long journey from southwest to northeast of the North American continent.

  The ten-day stay was filled with walks by the ocean, going to the Monhegan island, visits to art galleries, bookstores, a national park, and a museum of gems, minerals, and meteorites. We enjoyed the woods with leaves featuring a palette of autumn colors, restaurants with a variety of specialties, and a tour of the city of Portland endowed with cobbled streets, old brick buildings, the waterfront, many shops, bars, and museums. I marked the trip with numerous photos and videos, a kind of visual diary.

Now I am sitting at the airport in Portland, waiting to board the plane that will take me back to Arizona. I write a note in the diary about impressions of spending time with my daughter, meeting of two adults. I wonder if I behaved differently than when she was a child or a teenager? Of course, there are still patterns established in the past that are easily activated, where my parent’s ego-state wants to dominate and is mirrored by my daughter’s regressive ego-state of a child. But I became aware of another core, somewhat hidden but still present, the core of a new relationship in which she wants to be treated as an adult who does not need the protection of her father; independent, competent, able to make mature decisions, and to express her views with confidence. I was interested in her opinion on this topic. She briefly commented that she was the one who had arranged all aspects of our trip and managed the navigation system so as not to get lost in the forests, mountains and valleys that permeate the state of Maine. I immediately agreed with her assessment and praised the efficiency she frequently demonstrated, adult in action.

How did I cope with this new adult to adult type of relationship between two of us? By nature, I am not a person who has a tendency for control and dominance, which is the case with my daughter as well, so we easily resolved situations by communicating and negotiating. We tried to respect the unique aspects of each other personality, which my daughter calls “bubice”, using Serbian word for “bugs”, and approached potential conflicts of this kind with humor, instead of reacting with frustration and anger. There were times when I projected worrying care she sensed and openly let me know when my anxiety affected her state of being at the moment. I was grateful to her and praised her ability to react in a timely manner. It’s not easy. We both have a tendency to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings, which is not a good strategy because unresolved conflicts accumulate, and the charge of energy does not disappear but lead to future explosion when the “glass is full”.

This tendency of ours was especially tested in a situation in which her boyfriend demanded one thing from her, and I demanded the opposite. She found herself in a crossroads between the two most important male figures in her life. How to satisfy both (impossible), and not hurt either (again impossible)?!! An unenviable position, a dilemma that would lead almost every person to a suffering state. Neither her boyfriend nor I gave up on our demands. The daughter’s emotional state was at its peak, but she reacted in the best possible way after a long telephone conversation with the boyfriend and my somewhat calmer and conciliatory attitude. I think that we have all learned from this situation, and do not “carry” in ourselves a “toxic grain” which, if it settles in the inner psychic space, tends to germinate and grow into a poisonous plant ready for mischief.

Separation from our life partners was a novelty for both of us, as well as, for her boyfriend and my wife. That is why we understood the mutual need for daily telephone contacts with them. Although we have not discussed this in detail and explicitly, we have implicitly understood that it is a healthy way of acknowledging the reality and importance of these other relationships in our lives. I did not feel possessiveness and prying curiosity. I respected her privacy and loyalty she has towards the boyfriend.

  We had many conversations that helped me better understand her worldview, philosophy of life, interests, plans, and psychological structure. I share an interest in books with her, so we found ourselves in the bookstores with old and new books and spent hours immersed in browsing and reading. Non-acceptance of the culture of corporate America, commercialization, environmental pollution, and the desire for a healthy life was a frequent topic of our talks. I admired my daughter’s knowledge and ability to organize her life by adhering to the principles of connecting with the natural world, relying on food produced with her own hands or by the efforts of local organizations, crafting her livelihoods, and living with intent, purposefulness, and sustainability. Her passion is the desire to work towards a better future for herself, the community, and the planet. I could not help but look back at the life decisions I made guided by other people’s desires, the urge to survive, and adapt to the currents of contemporary dominant culture, and compare them with the decisions she made and still is making. For example, after graduating, she began a career in the Hollywood film industry but soon realized that was not in line with her true desires. Her health deteriorated under the influence of California traffic, long working hours, stress, and pollution. She began to dream of living in a place where the natural environment is closer, people are authentic, the corporations are absent, and local food plentiful and affordable. So at the age of 25 she left a lucrative job with good prospects and moved to Maine where in a short time she created a life that fills her with joy and rootedness.

I had known from before that she was a good dreamer with vivid dreams influencing her daily life, but I did not sufficiently understand the meaning and importance of her dreams. After waking up, the first thing she does is write down dreams, sometimes talk about them, analyze them with trusted people, listen to messages coming from the depths of the personal and transpersonal dimension, and incorporate them into the creative writing process. Night and daydreams have contributed her personal development, influenced the direction of her life, and reflected the symbolism of a personal and universal nature that often surprises me. Compared to her, my dream life is scarce and uninspiring.

  I am a little surprised that she distances herself from the modern worldview. When I asked her about it, she said, “I think this might be because I’ve lately gone through a phase of feeling disillusioned with the modern worldview because I used to hold it so vehemently. I’ll probably change in the future, but I find it to be a hyper-masculine way of looking at the world, and I’m trying to grow from that.” And not by advocating feminism, because she believes that feminism uses masculine methods in the fight for equal rights for women and men. She identifies more with the divine feminine archetype as the embodiment of the highest expression of feminine energy represented through virtues such as beauty, love, sexuality, motherhood, creativity, and fertility. It is a universal, timeless, and mythological representation of a woman that is not tied to any culture or political moment. Names from Greek mythology such as Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena, Gaia, Hera, and others come to mind. Of course, many other religions and traditions have their representatives, but I will not deal with that in this text. She recommended the book The Way of the Rose, which I bought with the desire to start reading it as soon as possible. It will be my introduction in the divine feminine energy hidden in the rosary, the ancient devotion tapping into the powerful healing rhythms of the natural world.

  My daughter is 40 years younger than I, athletically built, a runner, a swimmer, and a horse rider. In her youth she was also a ballerina, so as a result she maintains a proper and graceful posture. Her physical fitness is better than mine even though I am quite active. This was especially evident on the island when we went on a circular hike along the edge of the ocean, using the so-called goat trails. It was a risky and arduous journey, and fortunately it passed without injuries but for me with muscle soreness from which I am still recovering. The daughter has become somewhat aware that our difference of forty years affects my vitality, although she would like me to increase it and find in myself the energy and playfulness of my younger days.

I will continue to think and build a “the house of bricks” from my experiences of this journey, but I will stop writing and end this text with a recommendation for all parents and children. I advise you to find the time you spend alone (one parent with one child) regardless of life circumstances. It is a unique experience that will be etched into the emotional regions of the brain as a particularly memorable experience that lasts a lifetime. As can be understood from my writing, the age of the child and the parent is not important, the time spent together is always blessed and imbued with love and deeper understanding.

THE RETURN TO EDVARD MUNCH

 

 

“As long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I have tried to express in my art.”   – E. Munch

 

 Do you know who is the person from the title?  Some of you do and some of you don’t. Much better known is the name of the painting The Scream, rendered in several versions by a man with the name from the title. That painting is found everywhere as an imitation, a parody, a postmodernist version of everything, an icon of a culture marked by fear and existential crisis, a representation of the 20th century characterized by “scream of nature”. Eight years ago, it was chosen as one of four paintings by the Norwegian post office for a series of stamps on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch.

How did I come to be interested in this unusual and brilliant artist? To explain this, I have to enter the psyche of the past, 27 years younger, dedicated to the profession of the psychiatrist and understanding of the expressive nature of the visual art. With the ambition,  to penetrate the essence of the creative process. Where did it lead? To a lake in northern Minnesota, in the late fall of 1994, in a complete isolation, with books, two weeks, maybe three, for the preparation of a series of lectures. My desire was to find an answer about the process of creativity in the art of the mentally ill, famous artists, in psychoanalysis, and the art of my wife. These preparations were rewarded, a few months later, in a public appearance, at the college, with weekly lectures in February 1995, which was usually the coldest month, but fortunately, that year, warmer than usual, so the attendance was undisturbed by the weather.

The success of this endeavor gave birth to an idea, an analysis of Munch’s life and work. A painstaking process. In an era when it was not easy to make slides. The computer was still not used for this purpose. Taking photos of what was wanted and making positive images in the photo lab was the only way. I opted for slides without text, just reproductions of paintings and photographs. I provided narration, a lecturer of high style, unconventional, for listeners, mental health professionals. C’est la vie. The desire for a lecture that would be memorable prevailed. And so, day after day, a compulsive commitment to collecting everything written or available about his life. Especially relevant was the death of his mother at the age of five, the death of his sister, who replaced his mother, at the age of fifteen, and a father who did not understand him and who also died early. In addition, diseases followed him all his life.  He wrote in his journal: “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.”

But that did not stop him from displaying his artistic talent that led him to the metropolises of Europe, Paris and Berlin, where new artistic movements flourished at the end of the nineteenth century.  He contributed to this trend and further development of post-impressionism, symbolism, and especially expressionism. For the next twenty years he lived intensely in every way which brought him to the brink of insanity. He expressed his artistic manifesto with these words, “I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

Hence the main themes of his art were human emotions, fear, melancholy, grief, love, and death. He often took himself as a subject and an object using events from his life that triggered strong feelings. Numerous masterpieces were created during this period, including the aforementioned The Scream (1893), which is the most striking and original work breaking away with all traditions. This image has been interpreted in many ways, but the majority agree it is an universal expression of existential horror.

He knew he was in the clutches of a mental disorder, but like many other artists he believed, “My sufferings are a part of me and my art. They are no different from me, and destroying them would destroy my art. I want to keep that suffering … “.  Nevertheless, he went to sanatoriums several times, voluntarily or at the urging of friends, due to paranoia, alcoholism, depression, and suicidality. But nothing had changed until he developed a severe psychosis with hallucinations, which forced him into a seven-month treatment in Copenhagen, after which he retreated to a peaceful and solitary life, away from the lights of the metropolis.  He lived alone for the rest of his life in the remote part of Norway, with his paintings he treated as living beings and had difficulties in separating from them.

My Grand Rounds lecture aroused great interest because it was not typical for a psychiatrist to talk about the art in a type of lectures  usually dedicated to topics of how to practice the “craft” in the field of mental health. But perhaps because of that unexpectedness, it was remembered and 13 years later I was contacted by a member of a local philosophy club to talk about Munch again. As a reward, I was given the latest biography book (Edward Munch: Behind The Scream by Sue Prideaux). And now, after another 13 years have passed, I return to Munch with this text to remind myself of a time when my interest in creativity was at its peak.  For the next ten years I gave many lectures about creativity, especially the relationship between mental illness and creativity, using examples of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Robert Schumann, and others.

As a result of my learning I concluded that mental illness is not a prerequisite for creativity, although it is true that certain mental states can inspire it by the unusual ideas, unconventionality in thinking and behavior, as well as through increased, and sometimes obsessive, motivation. Creative activity is pleasurable due to subjective experience of beauty, sublimation of drives, integration of inner dissonance, and adaptation to the demands of social environment. Although the names of celebrities with mental disorders resonate in the collective consciousness, my research has led me to believe that creativity is related to health and that nurturing a healthy personality encourages creativity through self-actualization, positive feelings towards others, development of original and critical thinking, and commitment to lifelong learning.

  Creativity is an innate characteristic of the brain, necessary for the development of the human species and cultural evolution. Exceptional people are endowed with exceptional creativity conditioned by a set of specific circumstances. One of my mentors in this field (Arthur Ludwig) in the book The Price of Greatness came up with the “template” for the eminence: special talents or abilities as children; parental support in their development; early opposition to established beliefs; ability of loneliness and self-confidence; physical disability or severe illness in early life; striving for dominance and supremacy in the chosen discipline; and a restless, obsessive state of psychological discomfort that seeks relief. I think that the hero of this text, Edvard Munch, fulfills most of the determinants of this “template”.  I encourage you to take any illustrated biography dedicated to him and enjoy the images of his paintings that entice with the power of feeling, dark resonant colors, as well as depiction of a human figure in various tonalities. He left a lasting mark in the history of art, especially due to the expression of individual psychology through intense color and semi-abstraction.

MOVIES AND ME

 

The pale image leads me to the early childhood memory of the movie theater, I frequented in a weekly ritual in which the entire city participated. One cinema, one movie, and a long line of spectators with the desire to set foot in it as soon as possible. The obstacle in the way was the ticket controller at the entrance, uniformed, authority. I envied him so much. He could watch any movie, for free and multiple times. My first ambition and answer to the question “What would you like to be when you grow up?”

The merry chitchat of the full hall quickly subsided with the lights going out. The film news began the program with a music that draws attention and exudes seriousness. Television was not yet present in our lives, so it was “a window into the world.” But wait, not before we saw and heard where Tito went on vacation, or how many bears he shot at the hunting resort Karadjordjevo. The featured movie was a black and white film, but more and more in color, on a wide screen, cinemascope.

 In those pre-adolescent years, I admired westerns and filmed fairy tales (before Disney came to Yugoslavia). It was a time of heroes such as Hercules, Davey Crockett, Tarzan, Prince Valiant and others. But I watched every movie genre that was shown, historical spectacles, biographical, children’s, science fiction, adventurous, biblical, romantic, and others.

This world of moving pictures influenced the development of curiosity, which was further directed by reading books, school, and other activities. The exuberant imagination of the child’s psyche also led to the game of cowboys and Indians, reading comic books, reconstructing film motifs using improvised toys, and daydreaming about America. It started then, by collecting pictures of Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Richard Widmark, and many others. But what I was most striving for was to “enter” the story that took place on the movie screen, so striking, close and afar, tempting me with its reality and ambience, more than any other art form.

Moving to Pancevo and the vicinity of Belgrade have expanded the repertoire and selection many times over. There were still crowds for tickets, depending on what was shown. I became a real movie buff. Although at that time the presence of television became a significant competition for cinemas, I remained a loyal visitor, the trusted audience, now even more serious, with a specially purchased notebook where I recorded every movie I watched. I could continue this text by listing the films, directors, actors, who influenced my sensibility, with which I identified with, and visited places and periods unfettered by the laws of physics. But I will stop.

I will not talk about the cultural and artistic significance of Yugoslav and world cinema, the “black wave” movies of the 1960s, film censorship, the significance of the international film festival in Belgrade, the “Czech school” of talented movie directors in the mid-1970s. I will only mention the personal significance of the “film city” on the Tamis river, which hosted Carl Ponti and Sofia Loren, as well as many cult films shot in Pancevo in the 1980s. When I arrived in America in the late 1980s, I entered for the first time the multiplex movie theater and encountered the Hollywood film machinery. Of course, around that time, video stores changed everything.  Watching films in a home environment on a TV screen predominated. Nowadays, streaming has become the most popular way to watch any movie at any time. One can say “You’ve come a long way, baby” to emphasize the advance in technology of movie making and watching, but at the same time we are in danger of losing the magic of the darkened movie theater that attracted me as I grew up.

 I’ll explain the wondrous intimacy of the movie theater taking as an example the 100-year-old historic building in Fargo, where the Fargo Theater is housed. It is located in the center of the city and renovated 22 years ago with the return of the former splendor and elegance of an old lady who deserves respect and proper behavior. The facade attracts with its brightness and enormity. This architectural experience is enough to make you open its doors, the kind of portal that transports you to a world away from everyday life, the world of moving pictures. The interior is flooded with blue and pink art-deco style lights complemented by curved lights, the so-called “light fountains” and a thick red curtain that hides the movie screen. The original Wurlitzer organ from 1926 is still in good condition. Upon entering, you are greeted by organ playing that characterized the time of silent movies and now resonates like a heartbeat with an impressive sound contributing to a magical atmosphere. When the music stops, it is a sign that a projection will follow, and the organ and musician slowly disappear from the view into the darkness of the basement guided by a pneumatic mechanism. The lights go out and the projector turns on. We are ready to immerse ourselves in a new world, in communion with others, with whom we share an aesthetic experience, undisturbed and focused, in silence, in the darkness disturbed by the ray of light that gradually spreads from the depths of the hall to the movie screen, the exclusivity of our field of vision.

In her own way, my daughter Simone described her thinking on the topic:

  “Going to smaller movie theaters like Avon and Cable Car in Providence allowed me to see more independent films, and often more artistically creative films than those that I would see at a major cinema. At a place like Avon, a theater that has been in operation for nearly a century, you can still feel the weight of cinema history in its halls. Its largely unchanged decor, furnishings, and seating reminds me of the golden age of cinema. It is reminiscent of a time when movies were a novelty, a rare luxury worth dressing up for to attend. At Avon, people still clap after the showing, which I think is a wonderful appreciation of the filmmakers. Watching independent films, where the personality of the writer and/or director could shine through more distinctly, allowed me to relate to and imagine myself within the creative process of filmmaking on a more personal level. Nowadays, I fully enjoy and embrace what can be considered the golden age of television, though nothing can quite compete with enjoying a classic cinema experience. Being immersed in a dark room with no distractions, a large screen, surround sound, and the captivated energy of strangers around you is incomparable. With the lived reality of COVID, plus major shifts in the movie business, it is rarer and more difficult to have the opportunity to watch great films in a theater. The way we tell and experience stories is evolving, and for me that comes with balancing my nostalgic longing for the past with my excitement and anticipation of more modern forms of entertainment.”

After this description, the associative memory drags me back to Pancevo, Sunday mornings, a walk to the cinema, matinees, with my daughter Iva. A time of togetherness, candies, children roar in anticipation of the cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and company, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, who elicit unbridled cheerful sounds produced by children in response to what was seen and experienced. Happiness on the daughter’s face could be seen “from the airplane”. Her hand squeezes me harder, and her excitement conveys the joy transmitted from the movie screen. And my heart is filled. An event etched in the memory store is still expressed with a smile on my face and nostalgia for the passage of times.

I go to another time and watch a homemade video of my younger daughter, two years old, staring intently at the TV screen, at the movie Pocahontas, animated, with music that captures attention with its melody and words. And from there, we go to a video store, a movie theater, and then she jumped to a college in California. Film studies, work at the Paradigm Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, and the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Then, moving to Maine, more film jobs, and now in the process of writing the screenplay for the admission to the graduate school in New York City. A career of a professional dedicated to film.

My brother, a film lover and collector, with a keen eye for quality, a companion from the early days of childhood, a family passion, with parents, and then two of us, from Pancevo to Belgrade, and across the ocean, exchanging films, impressions, recommendations, and descriptions. Sometimes even reviews like this one:

“I just watched the movie Serious Man. It differs from other Coen brothers’ films that I have watched. I don’t remember a single film showing Jewish customs like in this movie. Although it is only a framework, the story is universal, to find answers to life’s questions, to solve problems with oneself, family, work. The story of Job is one of the most compelling stories I have read in the Old Testament and in Jung’s books. Did you recognize that this was the story of Job?”

Writing on this topic is intentionally viewed almost exclusively through a personal prism. That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of both the pros and cons that film as a mass medium product carries with it. But I wanted to emphasize my unique experience and its relevance for me and my family.

THE NEW DAY

 

It’s almost seven o’clock. A new day. Tina fidgets in bed. Ready to get up.

“How did you sleep?”

“Okay. Nothing hurts me. And you?

“As usual. You know me. I got up at 3.”

“You should take something for sleep.”

“I know, but I like to wake up early. I accomplish a lot.”

It’s true. First, I make breakfast from freshly squeezed orange juice, black tea, and a mixture of banana, pineapple, and cashew yogurt. Afterwards, I read or write, go for a one-hour walk, take a shower, and come to bed to arouse Tina for a “pillow talk” and morning meditation.

I have been awake almost half a day and it’s only eight o’clock. How can I stop getting up early?!! Maybe I have to, because as they say, sleeping eight hours is essential for health. What about me? Basically, I sleep for five hours, sometimes six. Always did. The habit of the workaholic insomniac. A routine from medical school days, or maybe when I worked in Vrsac, waking up at four, catching a bus at five, arriving in Vrsac at half past six, walking to the hospital to start work at seven. Like that for eight years. Then, on call duties. Sleeping with one eye open, for years, decades. But it’s over now. My disturbed sleep is the “scapegoat” of a disproportionate life. And the consequence? Who knows?

Chronic stress is an inescapable companion of modern life. It is a signal of an imbalance between the demands we are exposed to and the physical and psychological capacities we have. As I stated, for me, one of the symptoms of stress is disturbed sleep, the presence of adrenaline and the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system that has become so deep-rooted that even now, after so much time, it still manifests itself. In an earlier period of life, work overload was too much. I made the decision to quit a well-paid job and start another one as the best way to stop the “burnout syndrome”. I used a well-known strategy, removal from the stressor. And it helped.

 For many of us, retirement, the inevitability of time passage, with all the changes that follow it, can be stressful. Recently, a colleague who is known for his dedication to work sent me a text message with the question: “I am trying to figure out my end strategy/retirement. Tell me, what do you wish you had known before you went through this?” My answer followed: “Thank you for reaching out. I’m glad you’re considering retirement from your daily job. When I made that decision, I was ready especially from the job at the VA. One good thing about the VA is that it is a well-oiled machine regarding retirement process. That was very helpful. I had a detailed plan what to do immediately after retirement; travel to Sedona with a desire of relocation, visiting family in Serbia and Croatia, preparing house in Fargo to be sold, finishing up writing autobiography and manual for residents. I was glad that I stayed busy. Also, I knew that I wanted to work part time when I move to Arizona. I don’t know if this is helpful, but it was relatively easy transition for me. If you want to talk in more details let me know. I wish you a good luck.” He didn’t call.

I had been preparing for this situation for a long time, so I welcomed retirement with open arms, and the feeling that in my work I had achieved what I wanted. It was time for a new phase of life. It helped that retirement farewell party was organized at the workplace. The importance of ritual cannot be emphasized enough, as well as the oral and written communication I established with many during that time.

My wife and I decided to move from “Siberian” Fargo to the sunlit Sedona and the surrounding area, where winter, in the form we knew it, does not exist. This decision was a bigger challenge for Tina than for me. I used to move almost every eight years and live under different circumstances, geographically and culturally, but Tina has always lived only in North Dakota. The relocation process took a little over a year, and she had time to mentally adjust to the idea, and to gradually transition her private practice. The Verde Valley is filled with newcomers who, like us, have made a conscious choice to move to this part of Arizona because of the extraordinary beauty of the red rocks, and swirling centers of energy that are conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. We met kindred spirits, enriched each other’s lives through conversations, lectures, group activities, yoga, qigong, meditation, and in many other ways. The decision to move paid off.

 But getting used to the new environment does not stop. The other day, my wife and I were walking down the street in the warm evening hours when visibility was reduced, and nocturnal animals came out of hiding in search of food. Suddenly, Tina stopped moving with one foot in the air. We both heard a loud rattle and hiss, and immediately afterwards saw the curled body of a rattlesnake with its head raised ready to attack. We have never experienced a situation like this, although we have seen rattlesnakes in the vicinity. This one gave us two warning signals that it was ready to defend itself and attack if we continued to approach. I calmly advised Tina to step back and go around the snake from a safe distance. Everything ended well. Another proof that peaceful coexistence in the nature is possible with respect to the limits of what is acceptable.

In essence, I enjoy the early morning hours of quietness, loneliness, a caffeine-soaked brain, a sharpened mind, and a humming sound of a computer as I type these words. The day continues slowly. I am not in a hurry, except on Fridays and Saturdays, working days of half-retired life. Deserved freedom of choice five days a week. Sometimes it is not easy to fill out the time. But I’m slowly getting used to this new norm, so I enjoy a relaxed awakenings on Sundays after the end of my work “week”. Delight. Obligation completed. And that’s why I didn’t agree to add another day to my work schedule when I was offered because “patients are piling up and your hours are booked.” The wisdom of the silver hair allows me to say the word NO more easily, which reminds of the name of the magazine with the same name during high school years in which students expressed the attitude of the rebelliousness, the resistance to the situation at hand and demanded changes, both in society and school, respectively. Similarly, the word NO symbolizes my need to put things in place when it comes to balancing environmental demands and my needs and capacities, so in that way I apply another important strategy against the chronic stress.

 For more than three years, the New Day has been filled with a more balanced life, less stress, a more relaxed existence with interesting activities that occupy time and feed not only the body but also the soul. By living in Arizona, contact with nature and the sun is more intense, which mentally puts me back to early childhood in Bosnia. Then and now I am in a state of awe and admiration for the untouched nature where harmony is the normal state of affairs and the richness and diversity of life forms is present.

Physical activity, especially outdoors, is a decisive healthy lifestyle component. Our body is designed to move. Our brain also moves along with the body, internally, regulating our thoughts, feelings, emotions, bathed in chemical water filled with positive hormones and neurotransmitters. Connecting with everything that exists, especially with people, creating stimulating intimate relationships, with an attitude of gratitude and positivity, is the best antidote to stress. We all know that in this pandemic time, it is not easy to stay connected. We are witnessing losses and difficulties related to this situation, which seems to have no end. In the last year, I have treated many patients who are sufferers, lost and isolated, in existential nothingness, without physical touch, and close human contact. During that period, my wife and I intensified our virtual connections, with daily group meditation formed, thanks to modern technology, from interested people scattered around the world.

We have the most intimate contact with the environment through the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the liquid we drink. Our bodily mechanisms are able to ingest “material” from the environment and convert it into the energy necessary for body to live in the most optimal way. The problem arises when the mind gets in the way, conditioned by family and cultural customs, and the tendency to become addicted to substances that artificially offer “heavenly bliss”. The consequence is deteriorating health and physical stress caused by inflammatory processes and impaired immunity. The best strategy here is the knowledge and attunement to the signals from our body.  It will rebel when exposed to toxins from the air, food, and fluids, so sharpening “listening skills” is a must. It has been determined that the best diet is the one that imitates Mediterranean cuisine of Greece and Italy, where is the custom to enjoy meals with family and friends.  It is predominantly a plant-based diet with the main ingredients in the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.  I mostly eat like that without fish and meat, dairy products, eggs, and alcohol due to the known inflammatory effect and the presence of sugar, which is especially “deadly” in any processed form. Knowledge is very important when it is based on science, not paid, and promoted by the large corporations with a profit motive “sticking out of their pockets” and disregard for the health risks. Hence, I listen to experts like Dean Ornish, Michael Greger, Andrew Weil, Kenneth Peltier, Thomas Campbell, and others.

My wife came up with the formula for a balanced life that minimizes stress. She uses it herself and teaches others that:

I am valuable-nutrition and water

We are valuable-healthy connections

Life is valuable-breathing practices

Squash the ANTS (an abbreviation for automatic negative thoughts).

I am guided by the elements of a healthy lifestyle I always include in my treatment plan with patients, and which consists of regular sleep and rest, stress-reduction methods, physical activity, healthy nutrition for brain and body (spring water whenever possible, unprocessed and plant foods, avoidance of all toxic substances), meditation, meaningful activities and connections with others and the community. I believe that as a health worker who strives to live what he preaches, except for the poor sleep hygiene, I have accomplished a mission when the body and brain are integrated in a smooth functioning, relationships with others characterized by love, gratitude and trust, and the mind oriented to the present and capable of objectively assessing the reality.

LIFE ROLES

 

I will begin this text with questions I do not expect you to answer because they are meant to be an incentive for contemplation, not an invitation to a written dialogue. Do you think about the various roles you once experienced and the ones you now hold? For example, the role of a child, a sibling, a student, an adult, a spouse, an employee, a parent, a retiree. Have you easily jumped into some roles as in a well-tailored suit, and in others you fidget because you are itching all over? Do you experience yourself as a multiple personality because you change your voice, body posture, life energy, emotional state depending on the role you have stepped into? There are roles we are born with or are biologically determined (gender, age, health) while others are imposed by family or society. We chose some roles because they fit our personality characteristics or talent, while others are the result of peer pressure, or satisfy our needs and drives. In some roles we stay for a short time, and in others we settle for a “long haul” or become a life member. Do you consider some roles to be the primary, most important determinants of your life path, with which you have identified to such an extent that you cannot distinguish who you are if you are not of a certain gender, a child from this or that family, a member of a chosen profession, spouse, or parent? The questions are asked, the paragraph is read, and as far as the answers, if you wish, look within yourself. I will continue with the writing.

If I immerse myself in the “remembrance of things past” and force my mind to separate itself from the present and the day illuminated by the sun in the leisurely hours of an early afternoon, I “return” to another time. For a moment, I revive the past that resides in the virtual space and grab the first image observed by the peripheral vision of the inner eye. I try to discern the impression of a child running carelessly through fields, forests, jumping over ditches, going down a hill towards a river, running home at mother’s call, washing hands, sitting at a table where a delicious meal awaits him, feeling fulfilled and happy. Is it I, an eight-year-old, in the blissful state of a beloved child? So it seems, the role I was born in and still carry living my life with all the changes during the sixty years from the memory that resides in the timeless existential space of the “feeling felt” experience.

 I grew up in a family where father worked outside of home, and mother was a homemaker in charge of the housework and family. She was always there and available, with a warm meal on the table, clean clothes, a caring presence, ready to offer help if needed. It was probably not easy for her to oversee the welfare and upbringing of two restless boys ready for various mischief, in the wilderness of the Bosnian hills and mountains, and playing the dangerous games of growing up. The father was a military man, often absent, and when present, caught between the patriarchal tradition, he grew up in and the modernism enacted by the ideology of communism, which affected his roles of husband and father, respectively. Work and family were his priorities, and for me he modeled the head of the family in charge of economic prosperity by respecting the rules of society. He embodied the principles of proper living guided by universal moral code. Overall, the clearly defined roles of mother and father brought security and predictability, unwritten rules that were known and respected.

I made important life decisions with confidence driven more by an inner need for perfection that meets my own criteria and less by external praise and expectations. I chose my future profession early on, who I would have fun with, whether I would be a believer or an atheist, a member of the Party, and so on. The problems did not discourage me but encouraged me to find ways to solve them. I was not a rebel, activist, spokesman, but I held opinions based on the desire to seek truth and looking at the situations as objectively as I could. I strived to behave in accordance with the moral compass I acquired by observing my father in the family circumstances as well as in a wider social context.

The previous three paragraphs describe a consideration of three important life roles, using examples from the life of a child and an adult, as well as a brief overview of my parents in their mother and father roles. It is intended as an introduction to the whole school of psychotherapy, which is based on the analysis of these roles using the concepts of ego-states. The transactional analysis was born in the head of Eric Bern, a psychiatrist with a desire to explain human behavior and relationships with others. This theory and practice claim that each of us has a personality structure (Self) consisting of three ego-states that are interconnected and make us feel, think, and behave in a certain way. It can be said that we wear three masks and use them depending on the situation and the person we are communicating with. They are the product of childhood experiences, temperament, and other factors.

 In the ego state of the Parent we imitate our parents or parent figures. When activated, we act in a role of a parent towards own or other people’s children, students, patients, employees, using an introjected model from the past. When we behave the way we behaved in childhood, we are in the ego state of the Child. The ego state of the Adult functions according the principle of here and now and is reality based. In this state we react to a situation or stimulus using the capacity of an adult to solve problems, in an honest, direct, and open way. The Adult does not rely on the past that lives in the ego-states of the Parent and the Child, but on the resources and skills appropriate to the present moment. If we use all three ego-states in an adaptive way and without “contamination” we are able to fulfill important life roles without major problems. But if the Parent or the Child dominates, it leads to a disturbed personality structure and the individual remains in an underdeveloped state with unrealized potentials.

A similar concept, which preceded Bern’s theory, was incorporated into Karl Jung’s theory of personality. It is the notion of Persona, the social mask we put on to adapt and conform. Some of us are adjusted so much that the mask sticks to the face and we never take it off. When I think of my father, this is somewhat true of him, but he still did not transfer military rules from the barracks to the house. Jung says: “Persona is a system of adapting an individual to the world, or the way he deals with the world. For example, each profession has its own distinctive mask. It is easy to study these things nowadays when photographs of public figures appear so often in the press. The world imposes a certain type of behavior on them, and professional people try to fulfill those expectations. The danger is that they become identical with their masks – a professor with his textbook, a tenor with a voice. Then the damage is done; they now live solely on the background of their own biography.”

 I was in a danger of identifying with the Persona of my profession. I remember that in many social situations people asked what I did for living and when they heard that I was a psychiatrist they often reacted with surprise and a change of attitude, sometimes with the words “You have probably already analyzed all of us”, or, “Now I have to be careful what I say”. For my wife, Persona is somewhat determined by the profession of her father who was a pastor because she had to re-shape her personality according to the expectations of the environment. There is even a description of a personality syndrome known as PK (Preacher’s kid) with two stereotypes: one is a perfect angelic child, and the other is a rebel without a cause. My wife is certainly closer to a second type, which had complicated her growing up years. In any case, the existence of Persona can lead to a split in the private and public personality with the risk of the impaired mental health we often observe in celebrities.

One role that I had no choice about is the male gender. Apparently, because of the genital characteristics evident at birth, but even more so due to cultural reasons. Most world cultures divide people into two sexes, male and female, with all the attendant consequences in terms of social status, expectations, socialization, occupation, economic position, life experiences, and this list can go on and on. I was born in a country where tradition gives males greater rights even though by law both sexes were equal. As I was growing up, I was unaware of these ingrained prejudices and privileges, as well as conventional roles. My family experience is an example of almost total segregation of gender roles. This was less evident in the peer group. At school, we were all the same. Our teachers were equally represented by gender, as were the administrators. It is true that I noticed some occupations were predominantly “male” or “female”, but I considered this to be “natural”. I did not detect that my classmates were discouraged by professors from choosing the studies of medicine, law, economics, which in other countries were destined for males. I adopted a modernist worldview where human rights were guaranteed for both sexes equally. This clashed with tradition, which was evident among the older generation and less educated. In my relationships with friends, women, romantic partners, I was guided not by what I experienced within my own family, but by the ideals of the egalitarianism.

The situation was different in America. I was surprised to hear and observe gender discrimination that has led to abuse and unequal treatment of women in many segments of society where tradition and religion dominated, regardless of the constitution, sexual revolution and feminism. America is still a country ruled by males. Fortunately, the situation is gradually and rapidly changing with the adoption of a postmodernist worldview in which even the role of gender is called into question so that the “third sex” and non-declaration of gender is legally accepted in some states and increasingly present in everyday interactions. Let me return to male and female gender. My wife, born in America, sensitized me to the transgenerational burden of the female gender that strongly influenced her life choices and imposed the identity role she has struggled with. Her mother has advocated for women’s equality in the workplace for years as a member of the American Association of University Women. Women still get only 83 cents for every dollar paid to a man, and men continue to dominate in leading roles and the highest paid professions. The progress has been made but the battle continues, and my mother-in-law is still a peaceful warrior even at the age of 93.

Our identity, personality, and life roles are an amalgam of biology, sociology, and psychology in a dynamic and ever-changing relationship, an open system where new information and energy flow affect the process. Throughout our lives, we wear various masks that fit us nicely or are uncomfortable, change quickly or are firmly embedded in our real face so that we cannot figure out what is what. These masks are an inevitable part of the communal life and are necessary adaptations for the complexities of modern society. We are social beings, and it is impossible to imagine us as hermits in a cave or an island in the middle of the ocean. Even Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, in order to survive, projects the need for contact and communication on a volleyball and calls it Wilson. When, after a few years spent on the island, he loses it, he falls into a mental state of grief for the loss until he is finally rescued. Roles are necessary but if we are not aware of them and don’t make a distinction between them and our authentic Self that exists in all of us, sometimes hidden in a corner and sometimes occupying an entire room in the metaphorical house of our personality, we risk our health and the health of others around us. I will end this writing with a mantra often heard by the members of the spiritual group I am affiliated with, AHO (which stands for authentic, honest, and open) as a guidance for a genuine life.

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.