Of Puppies and Parenting

Meet Alice, the latest addition to our family.  We picked her up from the breeder when she was only eight weeks and now she’s almost three months old.  After Maddy died (see my post about grief and the grieving process), we decided not to get another dog until the fall; but some members of the family found the grief and loss so painful that we began looking around for a new pet earlier than planned.  A couple of rescue dogs fell through, then we found an ad for a litter of white labs from a breeder two hours away; five days later, we were driving home with little Alice.

The experience of having another small creature to take care of — the joys as well as the sacrifice involved — has taken me back to those times when my kids were very small.  In particular, it has reminded me of the sleep deprivation:  for the first several weeks, Alice was waking up a 4:30 a.m.  I’m an early riser but that hour is extreme, even for me.  Though she sleeps later now, the early morning demands have cut into my personal time and I’ve been feeling a tad resentful.   Taking on Alice has by and large meant giving up hiking this summer, because you can’t leave a puppy alone for too long.  I think she’s adorable but I would rather have waited until the fall to get another dog.  I’m tired a lot of the time, trying hard not to to be too grouchy, struggling to make peace with this personal sacrifice for the family good.

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Working with Borderline Personality Disorder

Over the years, I’ve worked long-term with a number of clients who presented as borderline personality disorder symptoms, and also short-term (i.e., unsuccessfully) with many more.  As a graduate student, early in my internship, the director of our clinic identified me as someone who could work with the more difficult and disturbed clients who came for treatment.  Even after I earned my license and went into private practice, my colleagues sent me such cases.  Low person on the totem pole often gets the least desirable referrals — that is, the ones who can’t afford to pay your full fee and at the same time make you work ten times as hard.

If I have a speciality, it is borderline personality disorder treatment; it’s the type of work I find most rewarding, despite its challenges, and where I do my best work.  I suspect that most therapists prefer to work with the YAVIS client (an acronym that stands for Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent and Successful), but I find I don’t do as well with such people.  In part, it’s because their defenses work so much better at blocking out the really difficult emotions and conflicts (the sort of issues I usually address); it takes much longer to shed light on those feelings, even when I can detect them, and I often push too hard too soon.  I work in the transference, and with the YAVIS client, it usually takes much longer to develop.

With borderline personality disorder treatment, the transference begins when you open the door on the very first day you meet (it may also begin that way with other clients, but it’s less obvious and harder to detect).  For example, at the clinic where I first worked as an intern, I went out to greet a new client for her second or third session and she said, passing by me into the corridor that led to my office, “She’s back there waiting for you.”  As I understood it, she had instantly split off and expelled the needy party of herself and left her behind in the waiting room.  (The YAVIS client would never say such a thing!)  This client had developed an instant, intense and unbearable attachment to me though we’d met just once or twice before; after only a session or two, the breaks between sessions felt like unbearable abandonment.

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The Hatred of Authority

I came of age during the late 60s and early 70s, when youth rebellion against authority exerted a profound influence on the entire culture.  Parent-child relationships, marriage and family life, music, television, politics and, of course, the war in Viet Nam — in just about every sphere, my generation rebelled against the status quo.  So much good came out of this revolution, with enlarged rights for women and minorities, greater freedom from repressive attitudes toward sex, and a government more responsive to the voice of its people.  Without rebellion against established authority, progress would never occur.  Just take a look at the regime in North Korea if you want an example of what happens when authority forbids any challenge to its position.

Given how profoundly rebellion against authority has shaped our culture since the 1960s — how it has become an accepted norm, in many ways, especially within politically liberal circles — it’s easy to forget that authority also has a social value. Without authority to curb our anti-social tendencies, for instance, anarchy would prevail.  If everyone did whatever he or she wanted, without regard to restrictions imposed by the social order, civilization could not exist.  Another kind of authority comes with the accumulation of experience:  in its best expression, authority tries to pass along the lessons of experience so that the next generation doesn’t have to start from scratch and learn everything all over again.  This is a large part of parenting:  we teach our children what our own parents taught us, as well as what we may have learned in our own lifetimes — about how to navigate the challenges and frustrations of existence, to manage ourselves and our relationships, to work, play and find meaning in our lives.

A large part of parenting involves the word NoNo, you cannot pull the cat’s tail — she will scratch you.  No, you cannot run into the street — a car might run you down.  No, you cannot stick that paper clip into the electrical socket.  Children, especially very small ones, have no idea about the dangers of the world; by exerting their authority to curb dangerous impulses, parents teach their children about those dangers.  By imposing other limitations such as bedtimes, homework-before-play rules and good eating habits, parents also help their kids learn how to take care of themselves.  Thoughtful rules, imposed with concern, encourage the development of self-control and self-discipline.  In these ways, proper authority is enormously useful.  Imagine a child growing up without it.  Parents also pass along values they have absorbed from their culture which (optimally) have helped make their own lives more meaningful — values such as monogamy, devotion to family, the importance of community and meaningful work, etc.  This is a best case scenario, of course.

Some people who rebelled against authority during the 60s and 70s threw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.  They rejected just about every aspect of the status quo, as if it had zero value; they believed they could create a new social order from scratch, free of all the “hang-ups” of their parents’ generation and every other one that preceded it, unrestrained by any kind of authority.  Monogamy, family life, career — for some of my generation, these were contemptible “bourgeois” values which must be rejected.  While the idealism of my generation led to so many worthwhile changes, the confused rejection of all forms of authority led many people to waste years pursuing impossible dreams.  One couple I know “dropped out” and went to live on a commune for ten years; only after experience taught them some painful lessons did they return to society-at-large and find a way to express their idealism within the “real” world.  They tell few people about their experience on that commune and acknowledge feeling a great deal of shame about it.  In rejecting society and the bourgeois lifestyle of their parents, this couple at the same time rejected the meaningful aspects of that society, the useful role of authority and the positive aspects of the lives their parents had led.

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60 Minutes and Greg Mortenson’s Fraud: The Power of Sentimentality

As you probably know, Greg Mortenson is the best-selling author of two books that detail his efforts to build schools and promote the education of young girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan — Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.  On CBS, 60 Minutes recently aired a segment which revealed convincing evidence that much of Mortenson’s narrative is a fraud:  some of his heart-warming stories are exaggerated or mis-represented, others invented whole cloth.  The segment also highlights financial improprieties at Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson has used to pay millions of dollars for his book tours without sharing the proceeds of those books with his charity.  If you haven’t seen the segment, you can view it here.

These books are required reading for U.S. servicemen deployed to Afghanistan.  In the liberal-minded district where my children have gone to school, Three Cups of Tea is assigned almost every academic year:  it exemplifies the values of altruism and social service heavily promoted by its instructors and administration.  According to the teachers who assign it, this book is full of tales that should fire your idealism, inspiring you to emulate Greg Mortenson’s self-sacrifice and dedication to social service; it presents an alternative model to the egoistic, selfish approach to life that seems so prevalent in our society today.  My kids hated it.  My oldest son found it manipulative and preachy.

The 60 Minutes piece on Greg Mortenson’s fraud shows that he used his stories, retailed in two best-selling books and hyped with promotional tours and speaking engagements, to solicit donations to the Central Asia Institute, which he used as his own “personal ATM.”  Despite the way my own children felt about Three Cups of Tea, it apparently does the job Mortenson intended, for his charity has collected millions and millions of dollars in donations.  A look at some of his core stories — his founding myths, so to speak — will show why he has been so effective in bilking the public.

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Celebrity and Romantic Love: “Meaning” in the Modern World

In our modern culture, a huge number of people seem to derive a sense of meaning in their lives through the worship of celebrity (combined with a longing to achieve personal notoriety) and/or the pursuit of idealized romantic love.  I’ve discussed these issues in my earlier posts on celebrities and love junkies; my good friend Marla Estes has also done extensive work on the subject of romantic love in the seminars she teaches.  I’d like to enlarge those ideas into a discussion of personal values and how we derive a sense of purpose in our lives.

You might have heard about Jake Halpern’s book Fame Junkies.  In a survey of several hundred middle-school students in upstate New York, Halpern found that just under 50 percent would prefer to work as a personal assistant to a celebrity over being a university president, corporate CEO, Navy Seal or U.S. Senator.  These students valued mere proximity to a celebrity over other kinds of prestigious work.  Another poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of 18-25 year-olds surveyed in 2007 listed fortune and fame as the top two goals for their generation.

I find these results discouraging but they come as no surprise.  Grocery store news racks, the ones at the check-out lines, mostly hold magazines with movie and TV stars on their covers.  The shopping public seems to have an inexhaustible interest in famous people and their love lives, even though such stories concern the same mundane events that vast numbers of Americans personally experience:  dating, starry-eyed romance that leads to an idealized wedding, followed by disillusionment, infidelity and broken families.  I’ll bet another survey would show that most people would prefer to be a wealthy celebrity going through a painful divorce than a schoolteacher basically satisfied with his or her marriage.  Most people feel that to be famous gives their lives meaning and rescues it from the uninspired realm of ordinary life.

TV reality shows give the average man or woman a chance to participate in that world of celebrity, if only for a brief time.  I believe this is why so many people are willing to expose the most personal and painful details of their lives on nationally-televised shows like Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer.  Quaint notions of privacy or appropriate shame have no force when overpowered by the lure of notoriety.  Maybe my empty life is a total mess, my marriage a shambles and my family alienated from me, but as long as I can be on television, it will nonetheless mean something!
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