The Second Question

I talk to people in elevators. Even unfamiliar faces open to a smile with a passing comment on the weather and a “How are you?” Almost invariably the answer is “Fine.” And in moments we part, wishing each other well. A graceful verbal pas de deux.

But this story can take unexpected turns.

Seated in a restaurant some months ago, a woman approached me. She was familiar but out of our usual context. Then in but a second, I recognized her, a physician I used to see annually, until she left her private practice for an administrative position.

My smile met hers, and she asked, “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said.

Then she asked, “Really fine?”

It was no longer an elevator conversation. Not settling for the usual dance, she had moved beyond the pro forma query and the automatic response.

As it happened, I was in good spirits, so I reaffirmed my initial answer. But later I recalled her second question and was grateful for her persistent interest. It caused me to consider how often I asked only the first question, even of close friends and family. Was I too busy, or too self-absorbed to ask, or maybe I’d rather not know?

Why would I rather not know?

On giving it serious thought, I recognized that between youth and my middle years, my behavior had shifted. When our kids were still young and became ill, I snapped into action, taking responsibility for their recovery with a purposeful ease. I had the power and control to select the right doctor and administer the care that would make them well. This was the role a parent should play and I did. By taking charge, my anxiety eased.

But years later, when our children were grown and independent, a major medical issue arose for one of our adult sons. This time my husband Len became the more attentive parent. When surgery was scheduled, he traveled some distance to join our daughter-in-law by his side. Afterward it was Len who frequently called to ask how the recovery and follow up treatment were going. I waited to be told and was to some degree avoidant. No less concerned, but having ceded the important decisions to others, I backed away—and my anxiety grew.

I think this is why. When one of our adult kids faced a problem, Len could listen and be empathic without believing he had to influence or direct the outcome. Not me—I slipped back to my old script, longing to protect even grown children and help them reestablish their equilibrium. But now I no longer had the ability to do so. I had to acknowledge a new boundary, but since I was no longer in charge, worry took over. My withdrawal at the time of crisis was an attempt, albeit a failed one, to be self-protective.

It has taken me far too long to learn that sometimes simply listening, seeking to understand, and expressing sympathy are enough. I do not need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for a decision being made. Giving up that mandate, which still requires a mindful pause, restores calm.

Once again a personal insight informed my professional practice. When I met with a client to discuss their concern, my first question was often, “How are you doing?” And if the response was perfunctory, I’d ask the second question.

Now, with friends and family, sometimes I ask the third question, “Is there anything I can do?”

I expect their answer will probably be no, but the question is an invitation to talk further if and when the time is right, to have a conversation that may serve us well and enrich an intimate connection.

Just the asking brings comfort, for both of us. And on these new terms, I really do want to know.

An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, though not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, although generally supportive, to treat her differently, question her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and soon sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

These words describing her effort had special meaning for me: “Much as I had done when frightened or upset as a child, I found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I could, and then asking yet more questions was the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.”

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.

At this advanced stage of life, I’ve figured out which questions to ask, to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought, when faced with anxiety or mild depression and awake and unable to regain sleep at 3:00am.

I take paper and pen in hand and write down the following questions and the answers that flow:

  • What are the recent troubling events now on my mind? (i.e. report of an adult child’s illness, rejection of a friendly overture, a professional misstep).
  • What emotions have been triggered (i.e. anxiety, sadness, anger, shame).
  • What thoughts about my life are generated by those events and emotions? (i.e. I’m helpless, unloved, irresponsible, unworthy)
  • In what way are these thoughts irrational or distorted (i.e. all or nothing reasoning, predicting the future without sufficient evidence, plagued by old scripts of “shoulds” and “oughts”), categories so well explained and defined for me after a thoughtful therapist suggested I read and become well versed in the study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
  • What rational thoughts could replace those that are distorted and generate my anxiety or mild depression? (If having difficulty at this stage, I ask myself this question: if a dear friend brought this narrative to my door, what advice would I offer…..the ideas then flow.)

Then, my writings are set aside for review in the morning, and with thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison and CBT, I go back to sleep.


Secrets Are for Telling

“Secrets are never kept. Everything eventually becomes known.”

These words, coming from an old friend, surprised me. I’d been describing the plight of a family I’m close to, in which secrets are eroding the relationship of mother, father, and adult daughter.

The couple were ending their unhappy marriage. They had told their adult children, and although disheartened, they were buoyed by the caring, respectful, even loving way their parents were making plans to keep the family well connected. While the parents were moving on to separate lives, they voiced no recrimination and placed no blame. Protective of their privacy, they simply told friends and family: “We’ve just grown apart.”

Late one evening the husband wrote an e-mail to his wife detailing his distress about her infidelities over the years, which they had kept a secret just between themselves. His message contained no rancor, just disappointment and sadness, as he remembered things about their past that he continued to value.

She sent a reply e-mail, expressing remorse for having hurt him and told of her sadness.

Some days later their out-of-town daughter arrived for a visit. Before leaving the house to pick up some groceries, her mother asked her to access a neighbor’s recipe sent by e-mail that morning. Opening her mother’s computer, the daughter found not only the recipe but the e-mail messages her parents had exchanged days before. The secret was out. But later, rejoining her mother, she said nothing about her breach of her trust.

That evening she told her father about her discovery and made known her anger and disillusionment with her mother. But fearing her mother’s reaction, and adamant that her new knowledge not be divulged, she made him promise to keep her confidence.

Already in a delicate balance, the family now seemed poised for disaster. Privacy boundaries had been crossed, and their previously presumed open communication with each other shut down. A hidden bond between two family members excludes and distances others. And in order to maintain secrecy, the truth has to be distorted.

Did the husband, simply by writing the initial e-mail, display some intent to reveal the previously undisclosed reason for the divorce? When the wife sent the daughter to get the recipe on her computer, did she mean for her to find the e-mails about the adultery? My friend thought so, and to confirm his point said, “Secrets are for the telling.”

I questioned that judgment, as we went on to talk about what had been concealed in our own families. I told him that I often wrote in a journal, especially when I’m troubled. Writing helps me sort things out. But what I write is private, I insisted, with no covert plan for disclosure.

“Oh, really?” he said. “And then do you destroy or save what you have written?”

I save it, but never consciously thinking about future discovery.

High profile male politicians most visibly prove the point when they leave a letter to a new soul mate where a wife can find it, pay for furtive sex by check or with a traceable bank transfer, or meet for an assignation with the press hard on their heels. Do they believe themselves to be invincible, or are they inviting exposure?

We keep some secrets in the sincere belief that others will be hurt more than ourselves in the telling, to the benefit of no one. But by turning a truth into a secret, is it always a truth we wish could be known? Is it only if we are known fully, and our secrets accepted and forgiven, that we feel loved for who we really are, or were?

Do we hide, all the while wishing we could pop-out like a jack-in-the-box and be greeted with approval, no longer keeping the lid on?

So if the music box is wound, the music plays and the catch is released. Well, accidents happen. Right?


When preparing to write again, I asked, “ With a world so divided, are personal essays but frivolous noise?” I posed the question to a psychologist friend wise in the ways of healing. She responded, “Nothing is more unifying than shared insights into the human condition.”

So, I begin: After 48 years of law practice, the last 30 as a mediator, my office door is now closed. Soon to enter the 10th decade of my life, I am ever more an observer. I look back on the relationship dynamics of the divorcing couples that chose to mediate their differences. Sometimes angry, always sad, they sought to protect their children and offer respect and kindness to each other. Stories from my professional past evoke personal experiences, intimate stories that may also provide some useful insights. I am the third person in the room, observing both their lives and my own.

Invitation to Subscribe

Having closed my mediation office door, and fast approaching my tenth decade, my quiescent blog is coming back to life with a plan to publish a monthly commentary. But my list of previous subscribers cannot be found, so I’m inviting those I recall were on the list and others with whom I’ve crossed paths over time. I hope to offer thought-provoking reflections inspired by events both past and present. Your comments are welcome. Please click below to join me in this venture.

Not so much “under construction”…

…as under reconstruction, Part II.

BeaLarsen dot info hit a rough patch and became unavailable for several months.  We’re picking up the pieces and cobbling things back together.  We appreciate your patience and hope to be operational in a forward-going soon.  Tinkering with the appearance of things and restoring the old posts will take somewhat longer.