“Never speak ill of yourself; your friends will always say enough on that subject.”
“It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”
On June 28, my second wife and I would have celebrated our 31st anniversary. I meant to write about it on the 28th, but hey, three years after the divorce, a guy’s allowed to let anniversaries slide a little, OK?
In actuality, we never made it to #27. It was what I call an existential divorce, and there are many of them; they terminate marriages of 20, 25 years or more.
The existential divorcer, typically a Baby Boomer, has glimpsed the future, all the way out to the horizon of his/her demise, and it looks bleak indeed. To see the rest of your hours, your days, your years saddled with this particular spouse, with his/her dreary predictability, depressing rigidity and infuriating inclination to see him/herself as blameless in all things…well, you might as well be wearing an orange jumpsuit and living in a cage. You will do anything to get out, as Andy Frain did to escape from prison in Shawshank Redemption. He dug for 18 years, then swam through 500 yards of sewage.
My escape wasn’t so literally shitty, though it was shitty enough. You find out who your friends are. The year before the divorce, I got a dozen or more birthday cards. The year after, it was down to three.
Finding out who your friends are (not)
Our friends were her friends, no question. And what they mostly had in common was that they practiced one or another kind of New Age therapy or alternative medicine and really (presumably) believed in the underlying philosophy.
One was a practitioner of Feldenkreis, a routine of stretching, passive motion exercises (you’re supposed to have one treatment for every year of your life - what a racket!) intended to correct ailments of all kinds (she even did Feldenkreis with a paraplegic).
Another was one of those MSWs who pretend to be psychotherapists. If you ask a real PhD clinical psychologist, you’ll find out that MUCH more training and practice, including unflinching self-analysis, must be done. A Master’s in Social Work doesn’t cut it.
Trunk sales and sand trays
But this lady, glamorous in her flowing trunk-sale designer garments, knew nothing of that. She practiced sand-tray therapy. There are toys, figurines, and, of course, a tray of sand. The placement and movement of the thingies has something to do with healing the client (they don’t often say “cure,” in my experience), whatever that means.
She didn’t bother with insurance companies, and she was so glamorous and charismatic that she could collect a clientele – a following, perhaps – who didn’t mind paying full retail price.
Yet another in our circle of friends was one more MSW/psychotherapist wannabe who found total truth in the Enneagram, an ancient philosophical system (and nine-pointed diagram) that, among other things, divides all of humanity, with its infinite variations, into just nine personality categories.
Each one moves to another type when mentally ill…and to another type when functioning optimally. Thus, the complexity of human personality growth and change is neatly summarized for people who can’t remember more than nine things at a time. This lady even taught others the profound insights of the Enneagram. Like the others, she believed that ancient knowledge was correct merely by virtue of being ancient.
Healing light waves
Still another New Age spinster (the sand tray lady is the only one so far who’s been married) was convinced of the healing power of light of different frequencies, even the ability of light to effect change in character, personality, and thought processes. She claimed to have the science to back it up. I’d love to see what she considers data, but if there were any substantial benefit, wouldn’t it have been discovered by now?
Another NAS was a holistic chiropractor. She had a lot of gadgets that didn’t work (and one that did, occasionally – ultrasound) and sold nutritional supplements along with more traditional chiropractic techniques. (BTW, I recently read that one of the standard chiropractic moves is a sudden neck twist that can cause serious injury.)
Another, a NAW (New-Age Widow), specialized in healing touch and reiki, in which one manipulates the “subtle energies” or “aura” of the patient to restore health. A lot of New Age folks believe in these energies so subtle that they cannot be detected by any devices, even those that detect subatomic particles.
Who were you in your past lives?
I saved the best for last: one of them has the unadulterated gall to take people’s money for past life regression!! It’s just what it sounds like: who were you in this or that past life? It’s story-time!!
This lady broadened her product line with imaginary excursions into your future life and the time between lives. Pretty well got it covered. Her husband was into Vedic astrology. Their wedding was a New Age extravaganza (with chakra dances, whatever they are), which I did not attend.
No matter what particular brand of crap the New Ager embraces, he/she believes in reincarnation. They all cling fervently to this most childish flight from the prospect of death. If a person is particularly wise, he/she is said to be an “old soul,” having endured the many lifetimes it takes to develop wisdom. “Young souls” are narcissistic and immature people – not enough lifetimes, get it?
Jamming with Bird and Diz
My then-wife, who assured me that in the astral world, I would be able to jam with bebop greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (without instruments!), was ecumenical the way they all are: you believe my crap, and I’ll believe yours.
She favored subtle energies and the power of prayer, another fiction that New Agers believe in. I don’t know what happens when a bona fide MD like Deepak Chopra or Larry Dossey goes round the bend. Maybe they were inclined to be believers from the beginning. Dossey says he wanted to be a minister before he became a doc.
Anyway, Dossey’s data is questionable and, as far as I know, his results have not been replicated. But for people who desperately want to believe in the power of prayer, even a kernel of scientific credibility is golden.
Only three so-called friends were not New Agers. Two were men I’d met professionally, middle-aged, bearded Jewish speechwriters like me, but they caved in to their bitch wives and sacrificed their friendship with me to have peace in the house.
The other man who failed to grow a set of balls was a neighbor with whom I had a lot in common (Jewish, same age, parents had a drugstore). He told me that during and after the divorce, his wife was socializing with mine, and for him to see me would have been “awkward.” I hope I never descend to such an uxorious hell.
How does that happen? How do you decide that someone just doesn’t exist any more?
Since leaving all the New Age folks, I’ve hooked up with people who are more like me, and I’ve realized, as we sat together and ragged on the latest piece of religious or New Age bullshit, that I had kept my skepticism in a hidden corner of my mind and declined to say anything, much less ask the obvious questions, beginning with: How the hell do you KNOW this? Where exactly is the evidence that I was a Roman emperor in a past life? Show me an MRI that reveals the chakras.
The magic of cold reading
It was not hard to come by a wealth of debunking literature, and soon I was able to tell a woman who’d spent over $100 to hear a psychic’s amazing revelations…that all she’d heard was good guesses based on a technique called “cold reading.” Naturally, I encountered denial and disbelief.
I know it’s no excuse, just an explanation: when you’re surrounded by people who take this New Age stuff for granted, it’s hard not to sound like a churlish party pooper. They tolerate all manner of BS, but not skepticism. All it would take would be a few pointed questions about the science underlying the Enneagram, and that particular NAS would have been out of my life, forever.
Altering your own perceptions
Many experiments have shown that people will alter the reporting of their own perceptions to suit those of the group (all actors, deliberately giving wrong answers). We will deny the evidence of our senses if the group requires it.
Well, the evidence of sense and science tells me there’s no such thing as meridians, energy channels, auras, or chakras (for Christ’s sake, one of them is above the head!); these and other Eastern mysterious and imaginary entities originated in an Oriental disinclination to dissect the human body and find out what’s actually in there. Easier and prettier to just draw lines.
Do alternative therapies work?
I don’t want to get into the “do alternate therapies work?” question. Some may do something for some people; others are totally worthless. At a Center for Inquiry meeting in Chicago, I heard atheist Brandon Burton, a pharmaceutical researcher, debunk homeopathy while popping handfuls of homeopathic remedies throughout his talk.
But undoubtedly some of the therapies work for some people, at least some of the time. So New Age therapies are getting new respect (see Atlantic article). The reasons, in addition to the ineluctable placebo effect, are: (i) the alternative therapists are nicer and more solicitous than medical doctors (they’ve got nothing else to sell); (ii) western scientific medicine has awful side effects and (iii) isn’t much good against chronic ailments that are the result of heredity, aging, and injury (e.g., back and neck pain); or (iv, an often overlooked phenomenon) symptoms abate on their own, just as the patient begins the alternative therapy – so the therapy gets the credit.
Western doctors are beginning to see why people gravitate to these practitioners, ever if they are selling snake oil. The goal is to make people feel better, isn’t it?
The power of groupthink
This new and growing respect was another factor in my stifling my skepticism and my failure to blurt out what I really felt (“You mean you actually TAKE MONEY for telling people about their past lives??”).
New Age thinking is itself a religion, borrowing from many — yet different from any — of the Eastern philosophies and religions from which it’s derived. It’s an ecumenical world where anything goes (note: the source religions - Buddhism, Tao, Hinduism - were anything but). It’s a colorful, ritual-rich, diaphanous play world, where anything anybody says might be true…is true! At a Psychic Fair (every skeptic should go, just for the laughs), critical thinking is left at the door, if one even had it to begin with.