The news tells us why we are unhappy. Political media encourage outrage, aiming their daily rants at the “others.”
For many, the big-mouthed assertions “make sense.”
We are missing something bigger than the big-mouths. They are not the entire story.
Granted, in a time of pandemic, discrimination, and outsized electoral hatred, it’s easy to think such conditions are the source of all our rage.
Let’s try a thought experiment. What would life be like if the pandemic ended today, inclusivity improved, everyone made a decent salary, and politics returned to something more civil? I mean, once the euphoria diminished.
We’d still compete for jobs paying more and permitting time with our kids. We’d persist in comparing our happiness to neighbors who want us to believe they “have it together” when they don’t. We’d desire objects we don’t have, vacations for which we have no time, money to dine at exclusive restaurants, or just a tolerable living space.
Mistakes would be made, like marrying “the one” who, at 31 or 51, is one crazy piece of work.
Bosses would still fire and hire us. Our lives would include winning and losing, worrying about what others think of us, and watching our bodies head south for something other than keeping warm for the winter.
We’d lose old friends and win some new ones. Like a dance, the music would fade, but doctor visits increase. The insistence on finding balance, living in the moment, trying yoga, reading the Stoic philosophers, or faithfully executing the newest “five steps to a wonderful life” would define almost everyone as a slacker.
What did I miss?
Death, for one. It’s the world forgetting we were here, which it already accomplishes without breaking a sweat. The peopled planet forgets we laughed and suffered and helped and hurt.
The thrill of reaching the mountain top, assuming we get there, would still require a return to earth to take care of the laundry.
Someone must be blamed, so we displace our anger on others.
As children, some of us heard, “Anyone can be President of the United States” or the Cristiano Ronaldo/Michael Jordan/Babe Ruth of our chosen sport.
The crowd added, “Try hard enough, and it will happen. Never give up. The result is up to you. Every knock is a boost. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
When small towns, farmland, and cattle ranching described the landscape, you could be “a big fish in a small pond.” Everyone knew your name, and everyone had a place. All the folks worshiped in one or two buildings.
Now we are nameless, anonymous, stressed people passing through time on a bullet train. Often a terrific time, I’ll grant you.
But, too many feel invisible and without their version of fairness and respect. They try to “man up” because admitting episodic sadness doesn’t receive much applause. Alcohol and drugs don’t erase discontent.
Who created these conditions? Man did, yes, in response to his attempt to make his way. But we remain overmatched by a world we didn’t ask to enter. Life is quite a challenge.
The famous politician is right. “The game is rigged,” but rigged by the unavoidable circumstances of human life and mortality.
The thought, “no one gets out alive,” is set aside or prayed about by those who hope for a proper afterlife.
You can’t rage much at the Creator without considerable pushback from almost everybody. We lack permission to talk about the ultimate demise until the reaper sharpens his scythe within earshot.
If you do, you become “Debbie Downer,” the young lady who is a buzz kill and rains on otherwise joyous celebrations.
Yes, there is a lot of unfairness. Yes, lots of cheating, at least more than I noticed growing up. Yes, one must attempt to repair the world.
Along the long or short path to the end, consider taking time to deal with what it means to be fully human. I mean a creature in motion on a bumpy treadmill in a direction not on the map.
Learn to dance on the moving stairway, for sure. You might want to deny or distract yourself, and those defenses are necessary. But recognize your frustration is about more than your crappy neighbor who belongs to the opposite political party and plays loud music besides.
Bruises, bumps, and boulders are part of the world into which we’re thrown. You were in a safe, warm spot suspended in a perfect pool, protected from everything, and then mom’s body got unzipped. You didn’t volunteer for the jump, and the nurse didn’t strap on a parachute.
If you accept that, realize the guy next door is terrified and wants to drown out the sound of eternity’s eventual announcement, “It’s time!” No matter that his bucket list is not yet empty, the man becomes a drop in the bucket.
This stopping point and our fundamental aloneness are the most significant things we share. Might it be nicer if we consoled ourselves a bit? We arrived here as soloists without an instrument to play.
A conversation about this imperfect condition might provide relief.
Is a diagnosis always the answer? Is it possible the standard advice about dark thoughts misses something important?
Perhaps we should acknowledge our membership in a class from which we can’t be dismissed until the days are all over.
Maybe anxiety over environmental destruction will wake a few up to face the event, enjoy and save the wonders of the earth, pursue what is worthwhile, and search for love, not weapons: Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room/
Death is baked into our birthday cake. We might do well to accept the inevitable, as the ancient Stoics did, and use the time well. Some exceptional people reminded themselves of that message.
Mozart thought of death every day. Carl Sagan, the legendary scientist, kept a reminder on his bathroom mirror, but shame on you if you mention the “D” word. How many others, including your friends, see the shadow, too?
“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.” — Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor.
Among 1000 other things, we need a group hug — one extending across the globe.
And after the hug, the laughter, and tears? Throw off the restraints on your freedom.
Reconsider all the words that bind you. The unconscious voices that make life harder — the assertions we heard from teachers and preachers, parents, and false prophets.
Then embrace the best of them and a few of your own to shape a life so beautiful and true, so generous and brave, it would be worth remembering even if the memory vanishes.
That much is in your hands.
The bottom photo, Sunset in Texas, Late May 2021, is the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.
Beautiful thoughts and so true. I love the Marcus Aurelius quote. And I will treasure yours.
My goodness! Your comment is breathtaking. Thank you, Enid.
Haha! The lies we tell others. Or not. Just plaster on a mask and pretend. Because who wants to know you hate your husband, you dislike most of your friends, you feel trapped? Better to lie and pretend. After 11 years of therapy finally she’s given up on me. She says I gave up on her. But she agrees too. So anyway, I’m not sure I agree. Do psychologists know the underlying reason for anger? If they do they hide it well.
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I appreciate your frankness, Lydia. It is refreshing. Do we know anything with certainty? The answer is not always. The world, in all its complexity, potentially overmatches the therapist as much as others.
In the essay, however, I am pointing to the terrifying reality of the world as one particular and particularly large aspect of our frustration — one we fail to talk about as much as we should.
Part of freeing ourselves is to claw back against all the things we “know” as truth and self-awareness, to awaken and reconfigure ourselves as best we can. Freud would have said, “to make the unconscious conscious.” Then we would each know better why we are angry, not ignoring that anger is one of those qualities that allowed our ancestors to fight and survive.
Do therapists lie? Certainly, to ourselves. We are trained the way all health care professionals are, to try to enhance life and make it more liveable.
Historically, most people don’t come to counseling to look at the aspects of human life that make it a cruel enterprise because of its solitary and mortal condition. If they do, the counselor has to try to help them find meaning even in a world at war about the question of what constitutes a proper definition of the word, if indeed any meaning exists. But for a counselor to do this, he must first face it himself. Not all can do it. And, I would add, he shouldn’t impose an unvarnished reflection about life on those who would be better off without thinking about it.
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This reminds me of the nighttime exercise I’ve heard about often: before going to bed: write three affirmations. Doing that will help crowd out the negatives of the day. I like your throwing off the restraints on one’s freedom! Watch out world! Here I come!
You would be a fine example of the courage to keep going in the face of everything. Brava to you, Lois.
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I absolutely love how you walk us through life and then present the call to action, “Then embrace the best of them and a few of your own to shape a life so beautiful and true, so generous and brave, it would be worth remembering even if the memory vanishes.” Beautiful!
A generous and brave post. Thank you, Dr. Stein!
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Thank you, Wynne. To choose life in the absence of certainty about anything but difficulty and death, there are few other ways to manage it, at least as I see it. Thus, if one chooses life, we must embrace it and, as Marcus Aurelius implied, make friends with that event.
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I’d be happy to settle for:
” the pandemic ended today, inclusivity improved, everyone made a decent salary, and politics returned to something more civil? “
You have the knack of cutting to the chase, Joan, and accepting what remains in reach. That, too, is heartening.
Dr. Stein, I send you a virtual hug for your wise commentary on our human condition during these crazy times. I’ve now reached the age where more and more dear relatives and friends have reached the end of their allotted time on Earth. Until my turn comes to say goodbye, I continue to work on freeing the restraints that bind.
Thank you for the hug, Rosaliene. Always welcome from you. The philosopher Martin Heidegger said it is impossible for us to grasp our mortality, though we know objectively it is inevitable. We see it especially in the sense of immortality held by most young people. With time’s passage, the falling away of our loves makes us either more terrified and fixed in our long-held beliefs, or, more rarely, realize we have to change ourselves to respond to the relative shortness of our days. I am not surprised that you are among the latter group of brave souls.
As the Vulcan’s say, as they are depicted in the various Star Trek incarnations, “Live Long and Prosper.”
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