How Therapy Fosters Courage

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You came to the therapy session. Courage was required. You admitted things were too messy, desperate, painful. A brave step was needed. Despite hesitation you took the road less traveled.

The therapist was not a monster. He invited you into his office. Your courage was reinforced.

Now you find he hears your words, watches without blinking. The attention is encouraging. Few ever took you seriously, showed patience, gave you their time — listened with quiet intensity.

You discover the contact has value — the relationship is worth something. Again, the effort didn’t meet with the disaster you expect as a matter of routine. The reinforcement makes future risks more likely. You begin to wonder if perhaps you previously fulfilled some of your own dire prophecies.

The counselor is reliable. At first you think he is a unique example of dependability in an undependable world. What luck! Later you recognize the truth: others as good, or close to it, might exist if only you raise your eyes to look. An intrepid search begins for those who are also decent and caring.

Issues too deep for words are exposed in session. You surprise yourself with your openness. Your vow never to make yourself vulnerable again is set aside. Courage grows.

Perhaps you begin to recognize grit is not always a matter of physical bravery. Indeed, you identify its presence when you look in the mirror. Especially if you face your short comings in the reflection. Change takes more bravery than what is demonstrated on the football field. Your moral muscle increases in size. Your heart becomes toned. You develop something called “therapeutic integrity:” to stick with treatment despite the punishment it inflicts. Your head is held higher. Avoidance is less often your first choice.

Yes, the rose of life is full of thorns, but the scent and beauty are worth an occasional prick. Your bravery makes this revelation possible. You learn to survive such pricks and avoid them when you can. Especially the human kind.

You voice strong opinions to your counselor and the world does not end. He applauds the growth to which he is witness. You begin to internalize his approval and the strength in you he identifies. More and more you come to lead the process — more evidence of therapeutic integrity.

The things you never thought possible — the behaviors others could enact but you didn’t — are done. You explain this not by some sort of therapeutic magic, but by the virtuous qualities inside you of which you had no awareness.

More chances are taken. You learn to say no, to travel alone, speak your mind, grieve, enjoy a restaurant dinner solo, date again (or perhaps, for the first time), recognize the toxic takers, act in spite of fear, dust yourself off when you’re down and come back for more. Your pulse quickens not with fear, but a lust for life.

Your intrepidity manifests itself in “baby steps” at first. Later they are well-placed strides. Eventually you run with joy, recognizing life is in the running, not always the winning of the race. You have discovered you can “take a licking and keep on ticking.” The scars you were ashamed of become badges of honor. The lines in your face are earned. They enhance your beauty to those who recognize the richness in you, not just your sausage casing.

Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change nor falter nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.

“Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free …”

Blame and lament are past. Fear is no longer a constant companion.

You are your own self, the maker of your life in so far as we are ever able. Take up your chisel and approach the marble — create the art that is your life.

You’ve learned the sculptor’s hand is never finished with you; and that fate is but one sculptor.

You are the other.

Courage made it possible.

Why Endless Sadness Usually Has An End

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When you are heartbroken, as most of us have been, it feels as though you will never recover. The loss of a parent or friend or lover can feel irreplaceable; indeed, is irreplaceable. The end of a job can be humiliating and frightening. The emotional pain feels that it will go on into infinity. It is hard to remember ever feeling better, and hard to imagine that the pain will ever stop.

But usually it does. Not in a moment and certainly, not soon enough. But things change and one’s mood usually lifts. Life goes on. Other events and people come to occupy the empty space inside of us. Not always, but for most of us, most of the time.

Sadness is especially hard in the dark months and sometimes the result of them for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The world breathes the gleeful air of the holidays while we reach for the last oxygen tank in the store only to see someone else get there first. It is hard to sustain hope when we seem invisible to the world around us. And yet, hope is still there if we have enough time and courage.

I am no Pollyanna in saying this. I have had my own sadness and loss. I have lost both parents and good friends, two of the latter in the last year. I have been betrayed by someone who stole $80,000 from me and my business partners. A college romance once left me bereft. I have treated many people devastated by needless cruelty, black depression, and the blunt force of ill-fate.

Mostly we recover. After all, we are the offspring of a genetic line of our predecessors who survived their own set of calamities, overcame hardship, and produced offspring who eventually led to our own emergence from the womb. We are not, or at least most of us are not, the children of people with little resilience. We come by our survival and recovery quite naturally, even if it remains hard-won.

Still don’t believe me? Then I have an exercise for you. Make a list of all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Try to remember how you felt when you experienced financial loss, betrayal, cruelty, severe accident or injury, the death of someone close to you, and getting dumped by a person you loved. Do not include any event that happened as recently as the last year or so.

Now, as you think back, did these things finish you off? Do you feel as terrible as you did in the first throes of your calamity? Did you kill yourself (obviously not)? Aren’t things at least a little better and, just possibly, much better? Perhaps you even learned something from the experience. Perhaps you even became more understanding, wiser, found a better job, or met someone else to salve your wounded heart. Maybe you discovered that you had more strength and resilience than you imagined.

I am not making light of your suffering. Nor am I suggesting that everyone recovers as I’ve described. And yet, most of us do, most of the time, even without therapy.

Yes, there are scars. But most scars slowly fade with time.

On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (Chris Cleave, from Little Bee)

As Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Perhaps you know the Sufi tale of a great king who asked his wisest advisors to fashion a ring that would make him happier when he was sad and, simultaneously remind him that even good fortune is only temporary. After much consideration these wise men asked an artisan to forge a ring for the regent. What was inscribed on it was very simple:

This too shall pass.

The above image is called Rings in Blue by Giulia Ciappa and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What It Means To Be a Man: Reflections on the Ides of March

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We hear the expression frequently—“Be a man!” Usually when we are small and usually directed to males. In the context of an admonishment, it typically means to “be tough,” show little emotion, be stoic, have courage, avoid whining.

But, when you are a little older and more thoughtful you might come up with a different definition. The German word “Mensch” (“man” or “human being”) provides us with a starting point.

You will recall that Friedrich Nietsche gave us the idea of an “Übermensch” or “superman.” Not someone who “leaps tall buildings in a single bound,” but a superior creature to whom a new set of life rules applies. Indeed, the Übermensch creates a set of values, discarding those that belong to a world that he rejects and a god that he thinks to be dead.

Goethe, the great German poet, scientist, and philosopher of an earlier time, had something quite different to say about man in his poem The Divine:

Let man be noble,
merciful and good;
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the living
Beings we know…

In Yiddish, a language that has German roots, to be a “mensch” means to be decent, forthright, strong, honorable, and dependable. Someone to be leaned on and counted on. A person of principle, with both a good heart and a good head. A fellow to be reckoned with; a companionable individual of integrity, unafraid of self-assertion.

But there is a different version of “being a man” in the popular culture. In my mind, it is associated with the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, as portrayed in the numerous “Western” movie roles they took on; on the political front, George W. Bush probably is a rough equivalent.

This “man’s man” is a tough, intimidating, austere, cocky, unrepentant, decisive, and unflinching he-man who never complains or cries out in pain. A guy like this doesn’t look back. He is the opposite of the “Alan Alda,” version of what it means to be a man, which emphasizes a kind, empathic, more sensitive side of human possibility.

The popular vision of a man is someone who is more into solving problems than dealing with feelings, someone who is “logical,” someone more in touch with his head than his heart. When a woman opens herself to him with an injury, he is prone to offering a solution or trying to “fix” things rather than patiently listening and holding her hand.

This rock-solid, heroic figure is the strong-silent type, uncomfortable with public (and sometimes event private) emotion, and a person of few words; certainly not one given to eloquent speech. He is much more inclined toward action than talk. The “John Wayne” version of a man is well described in the closing lines of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

In any discussion of manhood, one must also inevitably give a nod to “manhood” as it is understood in every day speech; that is, male sexuality. It takes a few forms.

One is simply the ability to be commanding and sexually appealing, to be an experienced and confident lover. Another is the capacity to perform sexually. The problem that follows from this, of course, has to do with the pressure to perform, the anticipated evaluation of that performance, and sometimes the failure to perform.

In old age, both the capacity and interest in such activity have been known to fall away, leaving it to the man and any companion or spouse to determine whether manhood should still be subject to judgment about anything to do with sex. Medicine is perhaps making such considerations irrelevant with the easy availability of Viagra, Cialis, and the like.

On the other hand, a failure of potency, that is, the ability to perform sexually coupled with an inability to foster children, remains a problem in the minds of most such men and one that still lacks a scientific work-around other than adoption or artificial insemination of the man’s wife by someone else, a solution that most males find decidedly abhorrent.

Finally, if you’d like a more Shakespearean commentary on the subject of being a man,  you must read Julius Caesar. Those of you who know the play are aware that Caesar is not the main character, even if he is the title character.

Rather, the story is about Brutus, Caesar’s friend and admirer, who is persuaded to believe that Caesar has become a tyrant and will visit evils upon the Roman people. Others among the conspirators have their own axes to grind against Caesar and seek personal gain by his overthrow. But Brutus agrees to the plot despite the fact that it is against his nature, only because he concludes that the assassination of Caesar is in the best interests of his fellow countrymen, in order to free the Republic from Caesar’s control.

As so often occurs in classical tragedy, the conflict between one’s public obligations and private loyalties is the undoing of the hero, in this case Brutus. And so, the famous murder happens in the Roman Senate on March 15th, 44 BC, 2054 years ago this week, after Caesar ignores the warning “Beware the Ides of March!” There is a fantastic movie rendition of the play starring James Mason as Brutus and a young Marlon Brandon as Marc Anthony, Caesar’s ally.

After Caesar’s death, Anthony is targeted for death by Brutus’s fellow conspirators, but Brutus stops them, allowing Anthony to speak to the people and eulogize the fallen Caesar, only to rally the Romans against the conspirators and ultimately, to defeat them in the ensuing civil war. It is Brutus’s essential humanity, decency, and sense of fairness (all qualities that contribute to “being a man”) that call him to let Anthony speak.

You will recall the words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…,” so persuasively rendered by Brando in the aforementioned film, that stir the Roman crowd against the conspirators. Had Brutus been less honorable, he would have avoided the risk that Anthony’s words might incite the rabble against them and perhaps even agreed with his co-conspirators to kill Anthony. And, as portrayed by Shakespeare, it is the decision to allow Marc Anthony to live, not the murder of Caesar, that is the proximate cause of Brutus’s downfall.

The play ends with Brutus dead, and Anthony reflecting on who Brutus was and why he was worthy. And, it is Anthony’s words that provide us with a final comment on what Shakespeare has already told us in the play about what it means to be a man.

Please note that the word “gentle,” as used by Shakespeare, means something approximating “true, cultured, and affable:”

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

The bust of Julius Caesar above is to be found in the Musée Arles Antique. The image was created by Mcleclat and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.