QUOTE OF THE DAY: Value

VALUE

Human beings are prone to learn early in life to associate vulnerability with powerlessness and to associate the adrenalin rush of anger with personal power. The problem is that states of vulnerability are more often triggered by the diminishment of self-value rather than by the loss of power. When people feel devalued, they try to feel superior by exerting power over others overtly through aggression or by mentally devaluing them. Naturally, this tendency backfires: most of the emotional distress that clients suffer—indeed, much of the psychological dysfunction in the world in general—comes from substituting power for value. Temporarily feeling more powerful by driving aggressively or shouting at your spouse is unlikely to make you feel more valuable. In fact, it usually does the opposite. It subverts the motivational function of devalued states, which is to get us to enhance the value of our experience. Substituting power for value is like eating when your body tells you to urinate, sleeping when it tells you to eat, or taking an amphetamine when it tells you to sleep.

Steven Stosny, Psychotherapy Networker

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Quote of the day: Lucretius on sexual pleasure

swerve

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt offers a detailed summary of Lucretius’s provocative, far-reaching, influential epic poem from the first century B.C., De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which is itself a digest for Roman audiences of the teachings of Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher. Epicurus certainly looms large in my own personal pantheon — his philosophy proclaims that the highest good in life is pleasure. Here’s a passage from The Swerve that speaks to the concerns of this blog…

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion. The principal enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire –the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows – and gnawing fear. Even the dread plague, in Lucretius- account – and his work ends with a graphic account of a catastrophic plague epidemic in Athens – is most horrible not only for the suffering and death that it brings but also and still more for the “perturbation and panic” that it triggers.

It is perfectly reasonable to seek to avoid pain such avoidance is one of the pillars of his whole ethical system. But how is it possible to keep this natural aversion from turning into panic, panic that only leads to the triumph of suffering? And, more generally, why are humans so unhappy?

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The answer, Lucretius (above) thought, had to do with the power of the imagination. Though they are finite and mortal, humans are gripped by illusions of the infinite – infinite pleasure and infinite pain. The fantasy of infinite pain helps to account for their proneness to religion: in the misguided belief that their souls are immortal and hence potentially subject to an eternity of suffering, humans imagine that they can somehow negotiate with the gods for a better outcome, an eternity of pleasure in paradise. The fantasy of infinite pleasure helps to account for their proneness to romantic love: in the misguided belief that their happiness depends upon the absolute possession of some single object of limitless desire, humans are seized by a feverish, unappeasable hunger and thirst that can only bring anguish instead of happiness.

Once again it is perfectly reasonable to seek sexual pleasure: that is, after all, one of the body’s natural joys. The mistake, Lucretius thought, was to confound this joy with a delusion, the frenzied craving to possess – at once to penetrate and to consume – what is in reality a dream. Of course, the absent lover is always only a mental image and in this sense akin to a dream. But Lucretius observed in passages of remarkable frankness that in the very act of sexual consummation lovers remain in the grip of confused longings that they cannot fulfill:

Even in the hour of possession the passion of the lovers fluctuates and wanders in uncertainty: they cannot decide what to enjoy first with their eyes and hands. They tightly squeeze the object of their desire and cause bodily pain, often driving their teeth into one another’s lips and crushing mouth against mouth.

The point of this passage – part of what W. B. Yeats called “the finest description of sexual intercourse ever written” – is not to urge a more decorous, tepid form of lovemaking. It is to take note of the element of unsated appetite that haunts even the fulfillment of desire. The insatiability of sexual appetite is, in Lucretius’ view, one of Venus’ cunning strategies; it helps to account for the fact that, after brief interludes, the same acts of love are performed again and again. And he understood too that these repeated acts are deeply pleasurable. But he remained troubled by the ruse, by the emotional suffering that comes in its wake, by the arousal of aggressive impulses, and, above all, by the sense that even the moment of ecstasy leaves something to be desired. In 1685, the great poet John Dryden brilliantly captured Lucretius’ remarkable vision:

…when the youthful pair more closely join,
When hands in hands they lock, and thighs in thighs they twine;
Just in the raging foam of full desire,
When both press on, both murmur, both expire,
They grip, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to th’others heart.
In vain; they only cruise about the coast.
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost,
As sure as they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentary rage.
So tangled in the nets of love they lie,
Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.

epicurus

Quote of the day: MINDSET

MINDSET

My research started out looking at how people cope with failure and setbacks, especially students who were asked to solve challenging problems. Some students acted as though a failure was a catastrophe, while others actually relished the challenge. I was particularly interested in the latter group. I vowed that I’d figure out what their secret was and try to bottle it. It comes down to whether you focus on growing your abilities, as opposed to proving and validating them all the time. When you’re in what I call a fixed mindset, your goal in life is to prove you’re a smart, competent, worthwhile person and avoid doing things that could undermine that image of yourself. In the growth mindset, you believe these abilities and talents can always be developed, so you’re not on the spot every second to prove yourself, and you can focus on developing those abilities through taking on challenges and seeing them through. You can be more resilient from setbacks because they don’t define who you are. In other words, the fixed mindset is the idea that you have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, or talent, and the growth mindset is the idea that you can always develop these abilities and talents. Of course, people differ in their abilities, but the underlying premise that separates people is the degree to which they believe they can develop their talents and capacities further.

–Carol Dweck, interviewed in Psychotherapy Networker

carol dweck

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Sue Johnson on passion and female desire

PASSION

Passion is attachment longing—the longing for emotional connection twined with attunement and erotic exploration and play. Passion is about so much more than responding to novel stimuli or ramped-up lust. In the dance of sex, passion can be constantly renewed, not simply by finding more exotic sexual positions (although who can resist being intrigued by the positions in the new Joy of Sex, such as Wailing Monkey Climbing Tree) but by changing the level of our engagement in the moment and with our lover. If we really understand love, we can also understand how to shape lasting passion.

In today’s world, we’re surrounded by impersonal sex—to the point where young men are routinely seeking help because, having conditioned their brains every day since the age of 12 to respond to porn sex images, they can’t get an erection with their girlfriends. We’re also regularly told that sex in long-term relationships is almost always “vanilla,” bland. To be spicy at all, it just has to be ramped up with constant novel stimuli, new lovers, rougher sex, new toys. So let’s look at the difference between impersonal—what I call avoidantly attached sex—and sex that’s infused with emotion and attachment.

This focus on emotional safety may be a particularly crucial defining element in sex for women. If you expose men and women lying in brain-scan machines to explicit or subliminal sexy pictures, everybody’s brain lights up. But only in women does the cortex—the judgement/control center of the brain—light up. Women’s brains naturally pair up desire and safety concerns. Makes sense! Sexual intercourse is literally much riskier for women. So women most often need to check out the relationship context—to talk as part of foreplay before allowing themselves to descend into conscious, active desire. Women, in particular, may be physically aroused (their body registers a cue as sexually relevant) but may not necessarily translate this into explicit desire—wanting to have sex.

All the new evidence is that women are more sensitive to relational context—safety!—and so for them, desire often follows arousal, versus the classic model of sexuality, where desire comes first. Desire is in response to interactions with their partner. Note: this means that a woman can be totally healthy and normal and never experience spontaneous sexual desire. This research helps me explain to a husband that the fact his wife doesn’t come on to him or instantly respond to any sexual signal isn’t a sign that she doesn’t desire him—and that the emotional context he creates is key in moving her into a sexual space. The way he demands sex actually activates her sexual brakes—pushes her out of sexual and into safety/survival mode. He needs to get curious about what context cues activate her sexual accelerator.

Bonding science says that a loving relationship also offers us a secure base to go out from. What this says to me is that great sex is a “safe adventure.” Thousands of studies show that safe emotional connection fosters curiosity and confident exploration. Think of a zip line: the freedom, the exhilaration you feel comes precisely from knowing you’re on a line and you’re held. Would you be screaming, “Weeeeee!” if you weren’t sure that the line would hold?

Hundreds of attachment studies show that safe emotional connection is the opposite of deadening, in or out of bed. Security increases risk-taking and spontaneity. A secure base allows us to play, to learn, to explore each other’s bodies and minds. Thrilling sex is about being secure enough to surrender to the moment—to let go and see what happens.

–Susan Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight

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Quote of the day: PUBLIC NUDITY

PUBLIC NUDITY

“Because of the weather, we don’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style,” the writer Magnus Sveinn Helgason explained to me. “Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, so we don’t have the pub tradition of England or Ireland.” The pool is Iceland’s social space: where families meet neighbors, where newcomers first receive welcome, where rivals can’t avoid one another. It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who “don’t typically talk to their neighbors in the store or in the street,” to forge connections, Mayor Dagur told me. “In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do.”

Not only must you interact; you must do so in a state of quite literal exposure. Most Icelanders have a story about taking visitors, often American, to the pools and then seeing them balk in horror at the strict requirement to strip naked, shower and scrub their bodies with soap from head to toe. Men’s and women’s locker rooms feature posters highlighting all the regions you must lather assiduously: head, armpits, undercarriage, feet. Icelanders are very serious about these rules, which are necessary because the pools are only lightly chlorinated; tourists and shy teenagers are often scolded by pool wardens for insufficient showering. The practice was even the subject of a popular sketch on the comedy show “Fostbraedur,” in which a zealous warden scrubs down a reluctant pool visitor himself.

That one of the buck-­naked bystanders in that viral video, Jon Gnarr, was later elected mayor of Reykjavik demonstrates that Icelanders are quite un-­self-­conscious about nudity in the service of pool cleanliness. This was made most clear to me, perhaps, in a dressing room in the town Isafjordur, where a chatty liquor-­store manager named Snorri Grimsson told me a long story about the time a beautiful Australian girl asked him to go to the pool but then revealed that she doesn’t shower before swimming. He mugged a look of comic horror, then brought home the kicker: “It was a very difficult decision. Thankfully, the pool was closed!” I could tell this bit killed with his fellow Icelanders, but my own appreciation of it was somewhat impeded by Snorri’s delivery of it in the nude, his left foot on the sink, stretching like a ballet dancer at the barre.

“It’s wonderful,” an actress named Salome Gunnarsdottir told me in the pool one evening. “Growing up here, we see all kinds of real women’s bodies. Sixty-­five-­year-­olds, middle-­aged, pregnant women. Not just people in magazines or on TV.” Her friends, all in their 20s and pregaming for a Saturday night out in the bars, nodded enthusiastically. “Especially pregnant women,” Helga Gunnhildursdottir agreed. “You can see: Oh yes, she really got quite big.”

iceland pool    The pool in Hofsos, an old trading port on the northern coast. Credit Massimo Vitali for The NY Times

“It’s so important,” Salome said earnestly. “You get used to breasts and vaginas!”

As a journalist, I will never forget the uniquely Icelandic experience of shaking hands with handsome Mayor Dagur and then, just minutes later, interviewing him as we each bared all. (In the tradition of politician interviews everywhere, an aide lurked nearby, in a manner I would call unobtrusive but for the fact that he was also naked.) I admit I found this disconcerting at first, but eventually there was something comforting about seeing all those other chests and butts and guts — which for the most part belonged to normal human-­being bodies, not sculpted masterpieces. And that comfort extends out into the pool proper, where you might be covered — only a little, in my case — but are still on display.

But near-­nudity, by encouraging a slight remove from others, also allows the visitor to focus, in a profound and unfamiliar way, on his own body, on its responses and needs. Despite its being a social hub, the pool also cultivates inwardness. Results of a questionnaire distributed by Valdimar’s research team suggested that women in particular go to the pool to seek solitude. According to women I talked to, most everyone respects the posture of aquatic reverie — head tilted back against the pool wall, eyes closed, mouth smiling a tiny smile of satisfaction — that you adopt when you come to the pool wanting to be left alone.

Sigurlaug Dagsdottir, a graduate student researching the pools, speculated that the sundlaugs’ social utility in Icelandic communities derives in part from the intimacy of the physical experience: In the pool, she said, you can “take off the five layers of clothing that usually separate you from everyone else.” As such, the pools are a great leveler: Council members in Reykjavik make a point to circulate among the city’s sundlaugs, where they often take good-­natured grief from their constituents. The filmmaker Jon Karl Helgason, who is shooting a documentary about Iceland’s pools, said, “When people are in the swimming pool, it doesn’t matter if you are a doctor or a taxi driver.” His girlfriend, Fridgerdur Gudmundsdottir, added, “Everyone is dressed the same.”

–Dan Kois, “Iceland’s Water Cure,” New York Times

Quote of the day: THE PARADOX OF PORN

Have you become desensitized to sex since starting porn and escorting?

No. What it has done is it has made it so in my personal sex life it’s more important to have a connection. There’s more passion now in my personal sex life. Touching and kissing and holding and really intense eye-to-eye connections, because you don’t get that in porn. I don’t know if I want to say this but porn is all about really uncomfortable positions so the camera can get the angles. Put your leg up here, stuff like that. Nothing you would ever do in your real life. I’ve held these positions for so long sometimes your body just aches. So I find myself needing the connection so much more now. Which I think is good. I was always worried before that I wasn’t going to appreciate sex any more. But it’s actually done the opposite.

— porn star Rocco Steele, interviewed by Adam Baran for Thesword.com

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: Sex

SEX

Sex is not always about reproduction or about love or about tenderness. All too easily sex derails from its species errand and becomes entwined with anger or guilt or fear, and thus the vast spectrum of human fantasies arise. This man needs to think of shoes in order to perform, and this woman dreams of spankings, and that man wants to wear and dress so his penis can engorge, and that woman thinks of whips and chains. In the darkness of his soul, this man wants little girls and that man wants little boys, and this woman needs an imaginary crowd to watch her movements and that one finds her satisfaction in piercings of the private parts urine, feces, animal costumes may all play a part in our fantasy lives.

Each sexual story has its origins in early years, in memories and wirings that we can hardly fathom, in our genes or in our nurseries or in our first experiences of our bodies, our own and those of others. We understand some things but just a few. Sexual preferences, some infused with hate or guilt, remain a mysterious continent open to exploration, open to spelunkers brave enough to follow the clues downward into our blackest hearts and our earliest memories. How good it would be to better understand the roles of shame and curiosity and pain and what part they play in our sexual lives. We have just begun to map our own complex minds.

But this list of sexual wishes, odd practices, less-than-dignified desires, compulsions is not confined to one sex or the other. It is a feature of sexuality that affects many human exchanges, and even more private dreams. Perhaps these rise from the efforts we make to control our lusts, or perhaps they rise from strange coincidences, stray moments that became electrified in our memories, or perhaps they are the result of the controls we must exercise as human animals who can restrain impulses but pay the price for that restraint.

Maybe as we think more about our sexual lives we will find better ways to enjoy them, to fuse them with love and release them from hate. Or maybe not. But, either way, the species needs the sexual life of both male and female in order to reach out into time, enduring civilization while dragging its discontents behind it.

–Anne Roiphe, “Order and Desire”

"Obscene" by Mel Bochner

“Obscene” by Mel Bochner