An Unusual Way to Think About Life When in Despair

Here is something you probably haven’t encountered in the self-help realm. The therapeutic aid applies in a world where trust is challenged 24/7, as it now is.

A story is required to explain it. No religious belief is needed, though the lesson can be found in sacred writing.

The Genesis tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, places of exceptional immorality, tells of God’s decision to destroy those cities and every person within them.

The Master of the Universe talks with Abraham before the destruction, a man honored by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He respectfully pushes back on the Almighty’s sweeping judgment to punish everyone, the decent along with the evil.

This worthy individual reminds God of his role as “the Judge of all the earth.” He asks the Lord whether the wicked and the righteous should share the same fate.

Might the Creator be willing, the Jewish patriarch asks, to spare the planned eradication if 50 upright souls reside within the doomed cities?

God agrees: he will save the entirety of those evil places if 50 exist.

The conversation with the Lord continues. Each time Abraham pleads for the Deity to lower the requirement. The discussion concludes with an agreement to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 honorable souls.

In the end, only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his small family are deemed virtuous by angels who search for 10 upstanding citizens. Short of the number required for the towns to escape God’s wrath, they alone are permitted to flee.

Many themes are present in this biblical tale. Its emphasis on the value of each individual prompted this essay. God is prepared to spare all the guilty for the sake of a few who are good. He allows a family below the promised number to depart.

What advice might grow from this?

When in despair over your life or the state of the world, perhaps consider something else. Yes, we live in a troubled time in which much harm occurs each day. We have all been hurt or afraid in this challenging moment.

Yet, you might pause to evaluate whether anyone you know or are aware of is decent?

I imagine someone will occur to you. Does the presence of even one such individual encourage you to continue to recognize your life, too, has value?

Now think of someone who might also be facing challenges. They may be thinking of you as someone whose existence lightens their burden. You make their life better simply by being here.

Maybe you do things for them for which they are grateful. Your benign presence or characteristic kindness allows them to take heart. Your laughter or cleverness brings joy, distraction, and their gladness they are alive to hear it.

The world needs many things: wisdom, courage, and generosity come to mind, in addition to those qualities mentioned above. But just as Abraham argued that a handful would justify God’s leniency, I will argue one needn’t be a superhero to uphold the human race despite the messes we humans make.

The kind heart found in a single neighbor, friend, and even within you adds to the conversation about the value of life and living. I hope you can find yourself on the list of those with at least one good quality. Earth is a place where other admirable souls you know or have heard of also reside.

—–

The Descent Towards Sodom by Marc Chagall, 1931. Abraham is surrounded by three angels. The image is sourced from Wikiart.org.

“What Am I Without It?” When Opportunities Follow Loss

 

They say we don’t know the value of a thing until it’s gone. If so, everyone on the planet has learned something during the pandemic.

Do you remember your last kiss or hug or handshake? We aren’t often told, “Hey, I wanted to mention, this is the last time, at least for a while.” How rude of Mr. Covid not to announce us.

For a portion of our fellow men, having a job and a place to live is newly uncertain. The future of recess on the playground and the source of the next meal leave question marks.

We miss smiles not blurred behind an electronic scrim on Zoom, the twinkle of another eye, a hand on a friend’s shoulder, and a meeting with his eyes.

The bottom half of faces, too.

If the deprivation we suffer illuminates our values, perhaps we will live a rearranged, reimagined life just ahead. One hopes the knowledge of “what is important” sticks with us.

Ours is to search for the joy we so miss, the balance stolen by the virus, the buoyant activities and interactions that made previous hard times endurable; the reliance, worship, and community encounters broken up and swept away like browned leaves in the wind.

At other times some decided to volunteer for losses. Peter Serkin, the recently deceased pianist, set music aside in his early 20s to travel. He ceased both practicing and performing to “find out who I am without it.” The artist returned to concert life and an extraordinary career informed by what he discovered during his self-imposed separation from his instrument.

Religions ask us to give something up, a loss imposed if you are a doctrinaire believer. Certain foods become forbidden. Your self-denial tells you how much your faith means to you, or perhaps how much you fear divine judgment.

Your devotion and comfort in the Deity grow from saying “no.” Saying “yes” to a moral code outside of church gives its own meaning, as well.

Time is a commodity we all lose all the time. Some careers stand frozen in place. Athletes don’t get their physical prime back. Young people need formative social experiences and pleasures that cannot be retrieved with ease from behind.

The philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.” The speeding passage of the seasons always requires our choice of one activity over another, one person over another. We might ask, how much time will I trade for how much money?

We are forever deciding where to focus attention, enduring stress to find the next job, risking a question in the hope of a particular answer, daily saying hello and goodbye. No wonder the Hebrew word “shalom” signifies both of those common words.

We are, if we are self-aware, frequently finding ourselves. A person who recognizes himself as changing and changeable knows he must remodel himself. Even without awareness of this necessity, he will be altered by time and events.

The first of the Ancient Greek Delphic maxims was “Know Thyself.” Most don’t, but even if they do, they ought to ask later, “Am I still the man I was? Who am I now? Do I want to be a different person living a different life differently?”

As the planet reopens, we will discover a new world, one with fresh dangers and novel opportunities. Indeed, our place in it, the place for us before COVID-19, may not be suitable after. To the good, we are still capable of becoming.

What you lose changes you. Though we come to expect it, the ache from the departure of a loved one remains tender for as long as it takes for the breeze to wear it away. Hearts are full of irreplaceable people, some alive in “a world elsewhere,” others muted shadows.*

Perchance a grand adventure awaits in the recovered and recovering times. Think of yourself as a sculptor or a portrait painter creating your own likeness.

Yours is the only hand that shapes and shades what is essential, knowing what you alone comprehend. Chance or fortune will fiddle with you, but you needn’t accept every bit of the fate they deliver.

You have a part to play if you can locate it. You haven’t, you say? Keep looking for the role to which you aspire. Life can break you, but it also carries surprise and wonder.

Late in his life, my dad often studied the cement a few steps beyond as he walked, perhaps reviving a habit begun in the Great Depression. He found pocket change, paper currency, and once a fancy watch. I’d not recommend the practice, but you won’t find anything unless you seek it.

First, tape over the hurt spots and find the hunter within.

============

*The three quoted words come from Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus,” Act III, Scene III.

The top painting is “With an Umbrella,” 1939, by Paul Klee. The final photograph is “Arizona Sunset,” late July, 2020, S. of Tucson by Laura Hedien, with the kind permission of Ms. Hedien: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

When a Therapy Patient Dies

She died last year. This lovely woman might be called a survivor, but her story deserves something more personal than slotting her in a category, no matter how fitting.

Call her Cassie. I met her in a psychiatric hospital. Not her first hospitalization, far from her last. A suicide attempt brought us together. The lady already owned a long and troubled history, one as middle-aged as she was. I’m talking about 35 years ago.

Once an amateur gymnast, as a youth she was fit, flexible, and energetic. Early photos captured an innocent Nordic beauty, as well. Just by her presence, Cassie must have been as fair and welcoming as the first birdsong in springtime.

Nothing in the woman I met suggested any of this. Like other sexual abuse victims, pounds became a bubble wrap to discourage those who might otherwise desire or terrorize her in search of chest-beating rapture and savage control. Now gray, her hair lacked its youthful golden hue, and the innocence remembered by the photos had been forgotten by her lined, questioning face.

—–

The hospital stay progressed. Apparent roots of her clinical depression extended to a male-dominated childhood, a bad marriage, and a ne’er do well, alcoholic adult son often in trouble. Cassie’s husband displayed passivity and incomprehension. Divorce followed.

—–

My efforts continued for a year before I received a call from a hysterical woman en route to murder her offspring within the hour.

Cassie didn’t sound like herself. Her voice turned unearthly; her tone transformed into that of an avenger of outsized energy and purpose, not the beaten-down creature I knew. My patient’s memories were disjointed, recent conversations erased. Cassie’s child, who’d been jailed for murder, had been released on a technicality.

Cassie intended personal correction of the law’s failure.

I talked her down, but the episode brought home a diagnosis everyone missed: Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), today called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I’d long recognized this woman to be dissociative, but here was a new facet. From that day, treatment inched its way toward goals she would achieve many years later: integrating her system of alter-personalities and reaching depression’s end.

—–

In homes such as this courageous individual inhabited, families create a loving self-image. Parents cloak themselves in the garb of religiosity.

Cassie’s father died not long after her updated diagnosis. The news came during another hospital stay. A breakthrough followed when Cassie began to have nightmares of never reported sexual abuse. The death of her abuser freed her from enough of the fear of more violence to allow her to remember and speak of it.

—–

The mother denied any mistreatment. In her daughter’s presence, she met with us and declared her upstanding husband incapable of it. Yet Cassie recalled her mother seeing a glimpse of her father’s molestation and watched her turn away and depart instead of intervening.

The trauma ended after her tenth birthday. The family relocated to a new home in another state. Upon moving in, she immediately asked which room was hers and found a key in the door. She grabbed and hid the key. The world changed.

During one of her hospital stays, I walked with Cassie off-unit, on the facility’s ground floor for a reason lost to time. Nor do I recall what distracted me. By then, however, I trusted her enough to sit in the lobby while I talked with someone at the front desk. My back turned, she disappeared within a minute.

Rushing through the doors, I spotted her about a half-block away, running toward the main street ahead. The chase began.

Knee surgery was not yet in my foreseeable future, and Cassie’s vanished prime gave her no help. Calls to her went unheeded, but I caught the laboring woman by the arm. She put up no fight.

I’d never read the word “racing” on a psychologist’s job description. I’ve become a more careful reader since.

—–

Cassie’s troubled life left her without medical insurance on another occasion. By then, she’d had many visits to the hospital where I met her. I spoke with the facility’s administrator upon her admission. He agreed to forgive all charges for her stay, no matter its length. God bless you, Phil.

For a significant period of my patient’s lengthy treatment, I also worked with an insurance company nurse. She became like a visiting angel, helping to craft the therapy to include multiple weekly sessions beyond the company’s normal policy. Her employer gave permission. This enabled Cassie’s life to escape some of the disruptions caused by her hospital stays.

Hat’s off to those good samaritans, as well.

At some point, Cassie raised the question of God’s role. Once a faithful Catholic, she now accused an all-powerful, all-knowing Deity who witnessed her father forcing himself on her and who permitted this outrage to continue.

I suggested she speak with a priest, a wise and sensitive soul of my acquaintance. He offered her tenderness and asked her to consider the possibility her rage at God could also be understood as an act of prayer. My patient solidified her religious connection and held it until the end of her life.

—–

Though he never again murdered anyone, Cassie’s son continued a mischievous, substance abuser’s life. His mom told him she would cease contact until he’d been sober for a year. Much time passed, but he accomplished this, found steady and honorable employment, married, and produced a family. Cassie embraced this change and welcomed them all into her life with much gratitude.

—–

Cassie’s road to health never included interest in finding new love. She did have many dear friends, modest professional success, sustained work, and several outside interests. She once said perhaps the only way she could share her life with a man would be if he were both uninterested in sex and unable to be sexual. Psychotherapy often has its limits.

—–

This woman was the only person in my practice with whom I maintained contact from the end of treatment almost to her life’s completion. She would send me a holiday card once a year, and I would telephone her soon after. We both enjoyed the reconnection. The last time we spoke her memory was failing with speed. She died a few months later.

My heart was full at the news. This woman was a kind and determined person, not without an edge, but with an unexpected tenacity not evident when we met. All the memories I offer here pushed themselves to the top of my consciousness. It was my great good luck to have known this lady and others like her.

Adieux, Cassie. Here’s hoping you reside in a heaven made for the most remarkable among us.

===========================================

The “Please Touch Gently” photo comes from Marduw Quigmire. The Paessaggio sculpture, “A Helping Hand,” was photographed by Safiyyah Scoggins –PVissions1111. Last are “Fungi Located on a Log Near the Forest Floor” by Mfoelk13. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Consolation and Hope in a Challenging Time

On most days, I wouldn’t be quoting President Abraham Lincoln. At a different time, this atheist might not be looking for solace in scripture, though I am often comforted when I do.

Today I’m doing both and offering their consolation to you.

Lincoln, this country’s Civil War President, authorized a day of “national prayer and humiliation” in the midst of that war. His proclamation reads, in part:

I do … designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite … in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

Humiliation fits for this time, too, just after the storming of the Capitol. Fasting fits, as is expected on the annual Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Self-reflection is necessary. Humility and prayer create the appropriate attitude and mood for the occasion.

People are dying. Loneliness overwhelms many, poverty and joblessness terrify, sadness covers the homes and the hearts. Then came the mob.

Humiliation, indeed.

Yet, there is hope.

Lincoln’s leadership continued under even more challenging circumstances.

As the Civil War neared its end, the President offered these lines in closing his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865. His message was one of reconciliation between opposing sides:

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln knew our job is always to repair the world.

Reverend William Sloane Coffin, 100 years later, knew it, too. He offered this in prayer: 

Lord … Number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth … longing only for those things for which Thee dost make us long, men for whom the complexity of issues only serves to renew their zeal to deal with them, men who allieviated pain by sharing it, and men who are always willing to risk something big for something good — so may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, and a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not — but still could be. …

————

The top painting is called Woman at Prayer by Harry Wilson Watrous. Next comes The Morning Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch. The final image is the photo of a Nomad Prayer taken in an African desert, sometime between 1931 and 1936. The photographer was Kazimierz Nowak.

William Sloane Coffin’s prayer can be heard near the end of the award-winning radio collage/documentary created by Studs Terkel and Jim Unrath, Born to Live: https://beta.prx.org/stories/118275

Which Therapies Work? A Guide to Finding Them

Many people seeking psychotherapy are in crisis. The urgency of their need causes them to rely on recommendations.

They wonder who they should see. Under pressure, a deep dive into a complex field can be too much.

This essay intends to assist those in distress to match themselves with the best help.

The prospective patient may not know his condition’s precise name. Without this, the task of finding a practitioner who will fit his needs is harder. Generic descriptions like depression or anxiety offer a starting point only. Even if an individual consulted someone before, there is no guarantee he was correctly diagnosed.

No, I won’t give you a magic bullet or the name of someone to call.

This will be a different approach to the search for satisfactory psychotherapeutic care.

Allow me to establish a few premises:

  • No clinician, however gifted, is an expert in every form of therapy.
  • Not every remedy is appropriate for every ailment.
  • The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 is over 900 pages long. If you encounter anyone foolish enough to claim mastery of all the human problems within it, run.
  • Not every therapist is a talented diagnostician. Some are not well-trained in this area nor have an extensive range of experience with clients from the book’s numerous categories.

To the good, the number of empirically validated forms of counseling continues to grow.

How, then, do you find the kind of specialized intervention you need?

Division 12 of the American Psychological Association maintains a long list of treatments, including those “evaluated to determine the strength of their evidence base.”

The website links to the therapies, describes them, and indicates the degree to which research supports their use.

Each description also includes a link to enable you to find a therapist who practices the outlined remedy. Of course, there are many other ways to locate a practitioner: recommendations, professional organizations of those who allege expertise in delivering those services, and sites such as Psychology Today.

Your insurance company might propose a list of “preferred providers,” as well. The latter group agrees to accept their HMO or PPO’s fee limits.*

If you can identify your diagnosis, you can begin your investigation with its name. Division 12 also provides an inventory of these conditions, along with this disclaimer: “the absence of a treatment for a particular diagnosis or treatment target does not necessarily suggest the treatment does not have sufficient evidence. Rather, it may indicate the treatment has not been thoroughly evaluated by our team according to empirically-supported treatment criteria.”

I hope you will not be afraid of the diagnostic process or “classification” with a name for your suffering. Without a thorough understanding of your problem, no provider can address your condition in the way best for you.

Good luck!

————

*The acronym HMO refers to Health Maintenance Organization, a form of managed care. PPO refers to Preferred Provider Network.

The photo is described as Sunrise at North Point Park, Milwaukee, WI. It was taken on February 1, 2009 and is the work of Dori. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Reaching for Happiness

Phil Brickman could be a funny guy, but he was not a happy one. Let’s start with the first words he said when I defended my Master’s thesis. Phil was one of the examiners, a member of the small panel passing judgment on whether I met the degree’s requirements.

All the committee members had signed off on my research proposal. Once finished and written up, they’d read the account I gave them of my efforts.

The group of three talked for a few minutes before asking me to enter the room. The 23-year-old version of GS inhabited a state of controlled anxiety typical of graduate students in such situations.

The questioning began. Phil spoke first:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Those were not the words I’d wished for. Fortunately, I carried no sharp objects with me. I waited as my brain began to dissolve. While my imagined dead-end future passed before me, the same gentleman said more.

Philip is spelled with one (lower case) L.

Philip was calling attention to how his name appeared in the Acknowledgments section of my long paper.

It read, “Phillip.

Oops.

I don’t recall what happened next. My guess would be laughs, my apology, and relief. Or maybe my leaping across the desk (I can see it now) and throttling the man. No, I’ve never been one for rashness or battery.

Young Assistant Professor Phil wasn’t a popular guy, as you might have guessed. He didn’t fit well with people, including those of us who called him a teammate on our Northwestern Psychology Department softball team.

Everyone recognized Phil’s intellect, however. Indeed, Doctor B become famous in his field, and his research continues to be cited and discussed.

One of Brickman’s major contributions to our profession is an idea called “the hedonic treadmill.Simply put, the notion consists of this: we adapt to events in our lives, and our elation or dismay tends to fade. As time passes, we return to where we started in terms of mood.

Here is an example of the idea (co-created with Donald Campbell in 1971).

Imagine you get a happiness boost by achieving some goal you’ve long been shooting for. You feel great, but the pleasurable dose of enhancement diminishes with time. The set-point — your usual level of high spirits or unhappiness — returns.

Don’t despair; welcome news is coming. Your set-point doesn’t control everything about your emotional state. One can still reach a condition of well-being: a satisfying life with an often positive and seldom negative mood.

In 2005, long after Philip died, other social scientists took his idea further. A study involving over 2000 twins, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade estimated that 50% of your life satisfaction derives from inborn temperament — your genetic inheritance. Another 10% comes from life circumstances, with 40% determined by personal outlook and life-altering thoughts and actions.

The encouraging development is that various empirically validated forms of psychotherapy emerged since Phil’s work ended, concentrating on the 40% of our well-being we can enhance and the 10% of life conditions we can sometimes change. Although our genes can’t be altered, we can find ways to move through life at a higher altitude.

Therefore, the patient and therapist’s job aims to boost the things over which we possess some influence.

The irony of Phil Brickman’s life, one he took at age 38, was that his research led to improvements in many other lives, though he never achieved this for himself.

A story by Jennifer Senior from The New York Times (NYT) of November 24, 2020,  focuses on the tragedy, but I prefer to remember this man in a brighter light.

Think of someone who throws a stone into the ocean and then walks away. The ripples continue long after his departure. Many others, years after the missile touched the water, watch the surge catch the sunlight. The beauty of the reflection benefits all of them and those around them.

The cause of the tiny waves is a mystery to many whose lives thereby were enriched. Even you, dear reader, might be one who Dr. B’s distant hand helped to lift.

Now you’ll remember his name and the proper spelling of it, too:

Philip Brickman.

One L.

The top image is Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari. The second photo shows Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. After the University of Michigan picture of Dr. Brickman, comes a 3D Graph That Shows a Rippling Pattern, the creation of Mr. Noble.xyz. All but the photo of Phil come from Wikimedia Commons.

Inside the Patient in Therapy: What’s Going On?

We think of therapy as a conversation between two people.

Dig a bit to find the unspoken thoughts and feelings stirring inside the client. What are they? In what order do they arrive? And why can’t some patients recall the discussion even a few minutes later?

Let’s imagine observing a middle point in a hypothetical session.

The client’s inner world, from a photographer’s perspective, might look this way:

Emotions are brewing. Think of beer or a broth. Visualize the internal concoction as a liquid of at least mild temperature and motion. Active ingredients could include anger, embarrassment, calm, feelings about the therapist, confusion, shame, and sexual arousal.

Don’t forget thoughts.

Where do the stew’s components originate?

  • the client’s life history and memories
  • sensitivity to pain or judgment
  • openness
  • the world in which he lives
  • his brain’s capacity to deal with and analyze complex material
  • the genetic makeup with which he was born

The therapist’s tone of voice, confidence, understanding, and guidance of the process play into the other person’s state. The security associated with the office shouldn’t be discounted as a factor, either.

The specialist’s next comment spins from his lips into the air. Perhaps it is a statement, a question, or an interpretation of what came before.

The client’s ears hear the voice, clearly or not, and understand the words as the counselor intended or not. The language now launched lands in the mixture already present.

The woman or man’s experience is a combination of what he perceives outside of himself and its meeting with what is inside.

More is possible. Patients, if they place a high value on the relationship, sometimes ponder how to respond. They wish to say the “right” thing — to be “good.” Self-consciousness in this setting isn’t unusual.

Consider the chance the listener is not listening and has lost focus. Maybe the language and inflection increase or calm any emotional turmoil.

The unconscious plays an undefined role too. Past events may be evoked.

The patient might not be as attentive and emotionally “present” as he was a few seconds before. Confusion sometimes scrambles his consciousness — bodily sensations, as well.

Therapists must be careful not to overwhelm this soul, amplifying his struggle to process the unstable encounter between external and internal events.

In some cases, the individual cannot “stay” with the flow of ideas, memories, visceral changes, and feelings. In this situation, the client often takes a kind of unseen flight from his fraught condition. His action is like putting a part of himself in another room, away from whatever is troublesome: dissociating portions of the momentary experience and “going away” from it.

He remains in the chair or on the couch, but a segment of his awareness, including access to his complete range of emotion and sensation, is elsewhere.

Treatment would fail if this were to occur in each session.

I’ve created an example of one kind of encounter, not typical of everyone’s experience. Many, if not most meetings, are calmer, less stirring, more laid back.

Assuming this did happen, however, the end of the visit might produce amnesia of some of the material discussed during it.

How do counselors prevent this?

  • They take in whatever is in front of them: tone of voice, postural alterations, physical evidence of anxiety. Eye movements, changes in the rate and intensity of speech, facial expressions, perspiration, and tears need to be noticed, as well. These and the patient’s comments concerning comfort or discomfort should enable the doctor to know whether to intervene: reduce the client’s tendency to become overwhelmed or dissociate.
  • Both parties need to converse about how much intense material can be tolerated and how to communicate distress as it occurs.
  • The health care professional can suggest the patient write a summary of the session’s end, perhaps when he returns to the waiting room. Like dreams, the experience or portions of it are not always recalled otherwise.
  • Zoom and comparable virtual treatment platforms include recording options. This permits the client to review a video of the session alone or with the counselor during the next appointment.

A sensitive and competent therapist will inquire about what the patient wishes to talk about and recognize what he might not recall from recent sessions.

His job is not to interrogate. Rather, he desires to be attuned to the person who has entrusted him with the responsibility of his care. He hopes the client will join him in a shared enterprise designed to achieve progress on the treatment path.

Obstacles like suppression or dissociation can prevent mastery over the life challenges that brought the individual to psychotherapy.

Psychotherapists aren’t magicians. We have only words, compassion, and understanding of what is required and when. Words in the right order spoken in the right way are often enough.

———

The first image is Picasso’s The Red Armchair, from 1931. Next comes Classical Head, a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, created in 1909/10. The third figure is featured in Stefan Kaegi’s Uncanny Valley. It is followed by the work of an unknown artist of the Fang culture, a Central African ethnic group. It is thought to date from the mid to late 19th century. Finally comes Sleep Muse, a 1910 sculpture by Brancusi. All but the Kaegi are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

One Strategy to Reduce Your Unhappiness

Is it possible those who harm us might, after a passage of time, appear to be people who helped us learn something important?

Is it possible their very same cruel act enabled our growth and happiness?

I appreciate what I’m suggesting sounds odd, unusual, even crazy. Consider, however, a view based on a Buddhist text called The Vimalakirti Sutra. Its ancient wisdom offers those keen observations about the best way to live.

Imagine you are driving down a superhighway at high speed. Another driver cuts you off, raising your rage and your blood pressure. Not the first time.

Perhaps you swear and lean on the horn. Maybe you race to overtake the “evil” one, hoping to cut him off as well. Retaliation has taken hostage of all cooler thoughts.

Such animal vengeance is dangerous, both to you, the incident’s instigator, and other innocent drivers and their passengers. This time, however — this time — you tame your scorching animosity, internal disarray, and recklessness. This time you learn.

You recognize yourself in the other driver’s careless or mindless behavior: “I shall not become the thing I hate.” You no longer discount the possibility you — now — not the other man, inhabit the potential to create mayhem or death. You begin to transform the anger and impulsivity long a part of how you react to frustration.

The success in mending your problem contributes to an ironic insight: the man who almost maimed you did you a “favor.” Without him, your change may never have happened. It might also have occurred much later, after creating more sadness, fear, or hurt in others, as well as the suffering within.

Waiting in line offers a similar example of how we cause ourselves agony. The queue is long. You have other tasks to perform. Why is the clerk so chatty, so slow?

The blockhead is inefficient. Doesn’t the man realize time is slipping away? He ought to call someone to help with the flood of people!

Viewpoints like this grind the insides and ruin your day, but approaching them in a more Buddhist fashion achieves a better result. Ofttimes therapists counsel patients to “reframe” their distressing experiences — to envision them from an alternative perspective.

Tell yourself the unwanted wait is an opportunity to enhance patience. Consider the episode in a bigger picture. Will catastrophe occur if you spend more time than expected standing still? Use the moments to accomplish something else. Chat with the person in front of or behind you. Plan the week in your head.

Indeed, the unwitting agent behind the desk can be viewed as your benefactor: the one who helps you become more tolerant.

Happier, too.

If you are prone to holding grudges, changing your mindset reduces obsessive ideas about life’s unfairness. Perhaps, too, the world begins to appear more benign.

I’m not saying everything happens for a reason, but not all grievances lead without remedy to long-term misery. The “teachers” needn’t have intended kindness, but occasional gratitude toward them takes you a step nearer to a more fulfilling life.

Yes, some hurts are so grievous their perpetrators need to be brought to justice. Counselors are experts in aiding one’s mourning process when sizeable damage occurs.

A proverb often attributed to Buddhism tells us, “When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.” Another formulation uses the word teacher for master, with the same meaning: someone who gives us wise guidance.

The one who harmed you might be the Master in disguise.

Either way, our job is to open ourselves to unexpected enlightenment. Overcoming the worst of the torments on life’s menu remains our responsibility, no matter the pain’s origin.

Unless we make something better of at least some of the misfortunes beyond our control, they will make us their plaything.

Hardship invites us to redefine it by the actions we take. When the dark invitation arrives, we do well to open it to find its hidden light.

—–

The top image is called Enlightenment by Peter Buirlakov. The sculpture photo is A Helping Hand by Forest Runner. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

Before I present an unconventional way for you to think of your value, I must acknowledge your pain. I imagine your circumstances may be far worse than my own.

Those like myself are fortunate. My immediate loved ones don’t suffer coronavirus (fingers crossed), I am in no financial distress, and we enjoy continuing nearness to each other in our small bubble.

For every other pampered hostage to the pandemic/recession, however, heartbreak abounds. According to the CDC, over 40% of U.S. adults surveyed in late June “reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.” If all the world’s disquiet could be piled up in blocks of cement, it would reach higher than Mt. Everest.**

The world is overweight with pain.

We commonly define ourselves in terms of what we can “do.” Making a living often confers dignity. Status matters to those who make comparisons. Union with hands, cheeks, lips, and bodies have fueled desire for as long as man has been man.

How then does one hold oneself together when money is short, pride in social standing absent, health is imperiled, and touch means staying in touch rather than touching?

You are, in fact, already taking action of extraordinary worth.

First, you are surviving. For reasons you understand about yourself, you retain a portion of hope or a sense of responsibility for those closest.

Contrast your mortal state to that of a god for a moment. In the West, we think of any deity as an eternal being who is all-powerful and all-knowing.

This leaves humanity the possibility of displaying qualities absent in an invincible and omniscient entity who can’t die.

Think about danger. Bravery is possible because we are at risk of physical or emotional harm. The ever-present chance of adversity constructs the platform to display courage.

Man’s creaturely situation requires the choice to endure and persist. Misfortune happens, and its visit is not always brief. The Stoic philosophers believed this allowed each person to demonstrate “greatness of soul” by withstanding “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet described his own tribulation.

To the extent hope is an idea, you have created it. Moreover, my guess is you are amid (or can recall) such woes as Shakespeare put into Hamlet’s life. You know the experience of bearing what appears unbearable, including depression. If you did not, you wouldn’t now be reading this.

Your survival at this moment is a tribute to your character and worthy of applause. I offer you mine. If, with time, you can do more, then do so. Enlarged strength is the residue of a series of small actions.

For now, remember the last eight words from the sightless John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

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The top image is Meeting on the Beach: Mermaid by Edvard Munch, sourced from the Munch Museum. The second is Hope II by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/

**Perhaps the most distressing finding in the CDC bulletin is this: “The percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid care-givers for adults§ (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

Signs of People-pleasing: When You’d Really Prefer to Say “No”

A question lingers like a floating bubble in the space between you and a friend.

He asked you to do something you don’t want to do. Maybe he urged you to attend a party or eat at a restaurant or help move furniture to his new apartment.

Part of you wants to reach out and swat the invitation away. Part of you fears what would happen if you did.

Yet saying “no” is one of the most liberating skills you can acquire.

Otherwise, your life and everything within it is reachable by the creature above, one you call a friend. What is yours — including your time, money, schedule, and personal choices — is his.

If the dilemma sounds familiar, you might be a person who extends himself for others — a lot. Indeed, the extent of your extension feels like your arm is made of rubber.

A recent New York Times article lists several signs of “people-pleasing:” It’s OK Not to Please Everyone.

Here are five of those pointers in paraphrased form:

  • A tendency to offer help even when you’re burned out.
  • Making immediate apologies for incidental problems you didn’t cause.
  • You believe you are responsible for the moods of those about whom you care.
  • You encounter guilt, worry, or anxiety when you don’t meet the expectations created for you.
  • Conflict avoidance: an attempt to side-step or give-in because of alarm over angering someone else.

The New York Times list is not exhaustive, so I’ve added a few:

  • A penchant for ignoring your discomfort: saying “yes” when “no” would be the authentic answer.
  • A movie of you would display excessive smiling as you attempt to create a pleasant persona, thus invalidating your actual state of body and mind.
  • You offer multiple excuses when trying to circumvent an invitation or request.
  • Unanswered prayers for permission to skate past the friend’s solicitation leave you helpless.
  • An inclination comes over you to enlist a companion, parent, or lover to say “no” for you.
  • Many days feature you enduring both the sensation of pressure to be what you are not and the inability to withstand the stress.

  • An impulse occurs to delay your answer to a counterpart’s entreaty in the hope the matter will be forgotten.
  • You cannot strike down the habit of kicking yourself after you agree to do a task you now wish to flee.
  • On the occasions you avoid the commitment, you pray for forgiveness from the buddy.
  • You believe “goodness” is never failing to “be there” for the other. The definition is both wrong and impossible to accomplish.
  • A sense of relief descends like a balm when an acquaintance cancels plans you agreed to.
  • You furnish unsolicited favors, in particular, if you believe you’ve been a disappointment to someone whose attention you covet.
  • You buy gifts to win the respect of the individual who matters to you.

What are we talking about? You inhabit the role of a “pleaser” who renders service as if employed as a servant.

Feelings of insecurity fuel your self-effacing behavior, undervaluing the talent and personality that makes you engaging and lovable.

You also display a misunderstanding of what you owe the rest of humanity and what is owed you. Your notion of obligation is inflated and determined by those who find you useful.

The problem, unless you change, gains you little, but rather:

  1. More, not fewer requests because your reliable responsiveness reinforces the petitioner.
  2. Endless reactiveness to the prods and pulls of your social circle leave you empty, unable to care for yourself. A chronic low mood and possible depression may follow.
  3. Your actions get you less than you hoped for from those to whom you are over-generous with your time. Rather than producing profuse praise, your exertions become entitlements. Moreover, any guarantee of reciprocation when you need help exists as a fantasy alone.
  4. Your repeated denial of desires meaningful to you creates a state in which you receive limited respect. The world views you as the rare self-effacing creature without any personal cravings or needs.
  5. Public statements asserting your joy in “helping” diminish the very acts you perform. The willingness to do what the other asks informs him he needn’t value those labors either.
  6. You hesitate to test whether this man will continue to keep you near if you quit the self-created job of gopher. Perhaps he would, but the risk of finding out terrifies you.

To the extent COVID-19 keeps you indoors, you might have a reprieve from the typical inundation of calls for favors. With the opening of society before conditions are safe, the pressure to perform your usual array of circus tricks may increase.

The stakes of going along with what friends want shall then include your health.

Should you recognize someone who looks like you in this people-pleasing portrait, professional assistance is available. While people-pleasing isn’t a formal diagnostic category, I’d encourage you to request a therapist who understands the concern.

A counselor who is skilled at delivering acceptance and mindfulness-based treatment, such as ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), deserves your consideration. Empirically validated interventions offer you increased assurance of benefit from a psychotherapeutic journey.

Living as a hostage to self-interested others is in your power to overcome. The choice to be useful is not the same as being used.

Fulfillment arrives when you experience the freedom not to.

In contrast, having to do what is distasteful because you fear rejection is a kind of ritual of sacrifice. Those who love you do not wish you such unhappiness.

Friends who tally your worth in the hours of uncompensated labor you supply may be lost as you change. Successful treatment, however, allows you a greater balance between give-and-take within your social connections.

The choice is yours.

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The first image is the Logo of the National Reconnaissance Office. The second object is an Ethiopian Stop Sign modified by Fry1989. Finally comes a Thumbs Down Sign, the work of KaiO.Ried. All three were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.