Reversing the Decay of London Undone

Oh, it's a maximalist post, I guess, not terribly accessible, and not for the feint of heart.  Reflects that 911 mood.

Everyone needs therapy is a self-serving bias, you know, for a family therapist. But I look around and wonder. Would it really help society, if everyone talked to a professional, at least once, say, preferably, before the age of nineteen?  Think of it as immunization.

Late adolescence might be the best time to do it.  Get some perspective, look back at life, think about who you want to be, where you've been, where you want to go. When children reach late adolescence, families grapple with their launching.  Some make differentiation, individuation, leaving home, difficult.  All kinds of psychiatric symptoms pop up then.  Read Jay Haley's classic family therapy tome, Leaving Home.

Nineteen is about the age I got some therapy (group therapy-- strongly recommended for the unsure) and it was powerful, all about the tragic loss of a brother, how that affected our family system. He was twenty, I was eighteen; it was an accidental death. We think.

Why mention it? The London riots, of course.  Young, reckless people in the streets, doing what feels good. I can’t help but wonder what my brother would have made of it. We would have shared memories of times gone by, were he alive today.

We wore black armbands in our day to protest a war. And thousands came to Chicago to change the world, rearrange the world (Crosby, Stills, and Nash), and to congregate in Grant Park as delegates congregated at the Hilton for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Mayor Richard Daley, grasping at control, made his famous Shoot to Kill order to Chicago's Finest, the police.

The National Guard readied to fight off the long-hairs in the park.

A different time, but a riot nevertheless.

Those times marked the beginning, according to Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, of the end of morality.

But Reversing the Decay of London Undone isn't about the detritus of the recent riots.

Rabbi Sacks tends to be a deep thinker.

In a pile of papers on my desk, I still have his December 11, 2010 thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, Vayigash (that favorite about that family reunion in Egypt, the one with Joseph and his errant brothers).  I printed it out and saved it to blog about one day.

Writes the rabbi:

What do porcupines do in winter? asked Schopenhauer. If they come too close to one another, they injure each other. If they stay too far apart, they freeze. Life, for porcupines is a delicate balance between closeness and distance. It is hard to get it right and dangerous to get it wrong. And so it is for us.

That kind of stuff we talk about here! But the piece for the Wall Street Journal, the one about decay in London, is less philosophical, less about intimacy, more of what we would expect from a clergyman admonishing return to the fold. Not that it isn't relevant, but it isn't especially new. The disappearance of morality didn't happen overnight, point well taken, but clergy of all stripes have been preaching about returning to that hometown religion, for years.

Riots give us pause, cause to wonder, What's going on? The Chief Rabbi's answer is perhaps the best answer, no morals. But his solution, return to the fold, untenable.  Idealistic advice, works for some, but is unlikely to be heard by the masses, divine intervention excepted.  Chaval.  (Chaval rhymes with shah-doll, means a pity, a shame, Hebrew, hard "ch".)

Last night I downloaded a movie, Cedar Rapids. My brother-in-law thought we might find it enjoyable because it is about a sweet guy, an innocent man, an orphan who lost his parents as a child, and yet, he becomes a successful insurance agent, a positive force in the universe, cheerful and good. Our hero is chosen to attend a convention in the big city.  He has never been on an airplane before, never been to the airport. In the big town of Cedar Rapids, at the convention, immorality abounds, and he's all for it. He's in, as we say today. None of us in the room are surprised.

People party, especially on vacation, in Vegas, in cities all over the world, at conventions. The moral compass,  passed from generation to generation, points every which way, away from home. The rabbi's lament, that the compass is off kilter entirely due to the disconnect, especially a disconnect from religious community, is a logical corollary.  Call it  morality-dilute. Religion keeps us straight.  No religion, anarchy. Riots.

Wrong is right, and right is wrong, because nobody goes to shul* anymore. Religion is anachronistic, rules arbitrary, the enlightened too smart for dogma. Everyone has left the shtetel,** the parish, the church.  It is the disconnectedness, accordingly, responsible for social chaos. Return to religion, to moral identity, to save the world.

For a moment, Rabbi, with all respect, let me speak for the disconnected. Let me speak for the children who are losing virginity at fifteen years old, some say well over the majority of American youth, and a general populace that ingests a steady diet of seductive media. For at least one generation, unbounded sexuality is normal.  Sex is normal; it is like food, air.  And violence, too, is unconsciously accepted.  We have only to see what is on television any given moment, or peruse the popular video games.

But let's talk about sex, because the death of morality started with that sexual revolution, theoretically. Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, some might wrongfully say, with feminism.  (See how difficult this is?).

A woman is sitting across from me. She is a beautiful specimen, one of creation's finest. When she comes to see me I think, Why is she seeing me? But this is my reaction to most everyone who sees me lately. They are all beautiful. They are all young. They are all confused.

I learn that she is in therapy because she is lonely. Someone has left her, someone she loved. Switch genders here as needed, he has left her for someone else. My patient blames herself, has no idea what went wrong, truly no clue. It all seemed so good. He was loving, attentive until the break-up, which was not conflictual. She thought he was the one, that the relationship would go the distance. But it didn't.

I have seen dozens of her and each time am taken aback at the naivete. It was so good, how could it be over?
People get bored, dear. Even when things are good, perhaps especially then.
She grieves the death of a relationship, grieves having been fooled. She uncovers lies, tells them over to me.  It wasn't as she thought, was never an exclusive, committed relationship.

She cannot use the word monogamous, for this word isn't in her lexicon or that of her peers, doesn't apply.  Monogamy implies marriage, and marriage only follows successful cohabitation in our brave new world.  Quite a feat, making it last, without a contract.  But some do, reinforcing this crap shoot, cohabitation, the gold standard of relationships. As good as it gets.

No one wants to be lonely.

I'll put it in a way that the clergymen might or might not, leave out the sin, the fire and brimstone bit. Maybe the clergy do discuss this dynamic, who lives with who and when, but in my particular shtetel they don't. So allow me.

From a psycho-therapeutic vantage, it is an emotional risk living together-- with marriage or without.  Even without cohabitation, sexual intimacy is a risk, for it is exposure of a very personal kind.  Yet it is expected, even before the other types of intimacy have been established, before the other relationship muscles get any exercise at all.

He'll leave (without sex) the women all tell me. The men complain, She demands it. (When a man is reluctant, he must be gay.)  Thus the market for Viagra in this sexual economy will never die. This is a stock worth your money, if you can stomach the profit. It feels wrong to me. We've talked about loving sex, how that works, sans Viagra. It's all about something called communication.  Listening.

What is the therapeutic response to a patient suffering relationship loss, seriously?  Go back to church? Go back to the synagogue, the mosque? Where is this place? It isn't around the corner.  My patients know no one who attends. They avoid needed 12-Step meetings for their many addictions because it is a drag, all that talk about a Higher Power. The Higher Power is we, apparently.

When I direct patients to socialize for connectedness (because we all need this, badly), I keep it vague.  Some seek out parochial resources, even online dating, but others can't connect to anything resembling control, and they see religion as just that, something that cramps their style, external control.

All we can do, when we do therapy, is work through the pain, reconstruct identity.  We coach new behaviors, empathize, and reassemble lives.  They pick up the pieces and try to do it differently next time. 

In good  therapy, when we talk about the breach of trust, deception, the psycho-educational piece is early detection.  That is only possible with emotional intimacy, words, discussion fairly early into the relationship about childhood, something people tiptoe around.  Deception detection is about discovery.  How did this person discover truth as a better strategy to stress, over lying?  Most of us make this discovery somewhere in our childhood.  It can be an  epiphany.  How did it work, lying, acting out?  Everyone has stolen something, if only trust.  How did it change her?  Discuss how you, how he, she, got away with things in life.  Most of us brag about things like this and it tells us a great deal about character.

The more social among us listen to the woes of our friends.  We suffer along with them when they are hurting.  We empathize and we bask in the glow when it is returned.  We talk about how sexual intimacy enhances human connectedness, the loss, therefore, commensurate.  We hold on to one another, and no, we don't have to be therapists or a pastoral counselors to be a part of social healing.

Empathy is, and maybe should be, the new religion. If the clergy teach anything from the pulpit, they should teach empathy. Perhaps it will trickle down, somehow, to the streets.

And those kids rioting in London?  Some really will go to jail, some will become lifelong criminals, others are just finding themselves and will turn around.  We'll see if they feel shame, if they have remorse, when the dust settles. 

The good news is that in jail, where freedom is lost, some look outside themselves.
They look up. Having lost all autonomy and control, they search for meaning.  Sometimes, they find God.

And others, therapy.


*shul--rhymes with pull, means synagogue
**shtetel-- rhymes with get-ill.  Every ethnic group, every religion, still has one of these core community within big cities


Mound Builder said…
I am of the baby boom generation, came of age with the so-called sexual revolution. So I may be speaking through my own bias based on when I grew up. I see drug/alcohol use/abuse as a bigger issue because it interferes with making decisions with a clearer mind, because it may interfere with the maturing process itself, and because use of drugs/alcohol may be masking emotional damage from sexual abuse--all of that leading to what may be, at times, acting out the psychic harm perpetrated on a young person. I would agree with you that good therapy at around the time someone is in the process of leaving home/going away to college might be a very good thing. I think there is a lot of harm done early on, sometimes, by parents who think that what they say and do with a very young child doesn't matter; sometimes I hear parents who seem to set a child on a course by ascribing motives to behavior that is simply normal for children 2 and under. And then those parents continue looking for signs, reinforcing the "bad" child, making comments that he/she was like this [choose whatever form of disobedience you'd like] from the time they were a year old. Yes, therapy at the time one leaves home. Maybe at around age 13, too.
Smitty said…
I am totally on the topic of 9-11. And wonder what you think of 9,10,11 year olds who were too young to remember.. seeing the old footage of the day's events. Some teachers are doing their civic duty with 5th and 6th graders, showing them the images now, in the classrooms.

Are they ready, or do we follow our parental instincts and tell our kids to wait until high-school? I am behind the curve on this... too late, but I think it may help to have better answers for the kids that will still be twelve and under, next time this year..
Syd said…
Loss is something that I realize happens to all of us. It is the risk of loving. I don't think the solution is to cut myself off from others, or to simply use without love. I will take my chances with the loss. I will grieve it and eventually move on, perhaps not forgetting but hopefully having been better for loving in the first place.
Liz said…
My colleague and I are new bloggers---came across your blog since we are in similar fields. Such a great site you have---an inspiration to us and we will certainly send our readers your way.


the pocket shrinks
Lou said…
Thanks for the link to the article. The rabbi is eloquent. I'm a perpetual optimist, but in order to remain one I had to stop listening to news. Reading the rabbi's words, I know there are still thoughtful hearts in the word, and it gives me hope.
Anonymous said…
I love your blog, you know, I really do, but I got terribly distracted reading this post when you suddenly crowned Rabbi Jonathan Sacks "Britain's Chief Rabbi", when in fact he is the Chief Rabbi of the mainstream British Orthodox synagogues only. He is not the Chief Rabbi for any of the other UK Jewish movements: Reform, Masorti, Liberal etc. That clarified, he has indeed said some very good things. (And other not-so-good things, but let's not go there right now..) - Anyway, rant over. Have a lovely day!