HOW TO BE OR NOT TO BE . . . THAT IS THE QUESTION.
OR TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
The Underlying Philosophy of This Psychotherapist
Clients make the first phone call to me for a psychotherapy appointment. Often they say, “I want to come to see you because I’m not happy with my life.” We make an initial evaluation appointment to speak together to see if I have the expertise they need for me to be of help.
I look for a “successful life” with meaning rather than “being happy” because I see “happy” as only one of many valuable emotions. For example, one day I met with five different clients. At the end of the day, I reviewed my work with them, heard some remarks of appreciation, and decided that it was a “successful” day. I’d helped each one of them in a real way. Out of that experience came many different feelings. I felt enormous frustration and pain as I heard about the cruelty that had happened to one of my clients. I felt a depth of sadness, creativity and insight that led me to write this essay, resulting in a sense of completion and peace. I don’t remember actually feeling “happy.” However, I appreciated the other emotions because they gave direction and meaning to my life.
We tend to think of “happiness” in relation to “getting what we want.” As I observe the clients in my office, I see that “happiness is figuring out who we are.”
Everyone is born with both strengths and vulnerabilities. Perfect parenting is not possible. Therefore, every life story has deficits, knockdowns, strengths and growth in recovery. . The importance of each experience lies in understanding what knocked us down, and how to get back up again. Every new parent hopes to be the first person to do perfect parenting, yet no one has succeeded. Realistically, we can consider that perfect parenting would leave a child woefully unprepared to handle the knockdowns of real life,
As Mary Pipher said in Writing to Change the World , “Darkness is part of the great ‘suchness’ of the universe.” A crisis is not to be avoided because it’s an opportunity as well as a danger. Countless times, I have seen that a new opportunity lies waiting behind a client’s misfortune. Many of us experience trauma. Our task is to decide whether to live life forever narrowly, as a dysfunctional “victim,” or accept the trauma as a learning challenge, mastering it with pride. Trauma presents the opportunity for us to dig down deep below the surface where true riches lie, and then create the necessary ingredients for renewal. In the process, we become comfortable with fear so that we can handle it next time. Difficulty with life and depth of character go hand in hand; our misfortune and strife often lead us directly towards the very way we are meant to make a viable creative difference in the world. However, it may take many years to assemble all of the pieces that make up the total picture. A life without trauma and difficulty may be a shallow life. When we haven’t understood our knockdowns, we can be incredibly cruel to each other by displaying our own unresolved issues with misconceptions, inner pain, despair, violence, and greed. Much of our dysfunctional behavior stems from unsorted previous hurt, denial, ignorance, and confusion, lost and distorted memories of experiences, resulting in lack of mastery of life. We owe it to ourselves and others to understand.
As a psychotherapist, I see suffering up close and personal. My office walls are three inches thick with the emotions left behind from the intentional and unintentional hurts heaped upon client after client. Sometimes the only thing I can say that makes any sense is, “There must be an intelligence to the universe that humans are simply not bright enough to begin to understand in the moment. We are like ants trying to avoid being extinguished under the huge foot of a universal knowledge about the past, present, and future.”
Throughout history we have fought wars repeatedly in an attempt to prove that one religion or culture knows more and is better than another. Some seek one religion that explains everything with God in charge “up there,” watching us all of the time to make sure that we will be “saved in heaven” if we are good, and “damned to hell” if we fail. Some obey specific rules, hoping to be favored and recognized.
Religion is an attempt to articulate universal truths we can’t truly comprehend and is, for me, an artificial oversimplification, at best. However, I do sense an enormous energy and order within the universe. Perhaps there is a plan for all of us individually and collectively that we must ferret out over a lifetime. It seems as if the universe nudges each one of us at a particular time in a way that comes to light again during the psychotherapy hour.
One of the most magical facts about the universe is that there are no human duplicates. There never has been, nor will there be, another person like any one of my clients. Therefore, each client has to make a unique decision about what to do with their life and how to make a difference. No one else knows; significant others can only observe and suggest. sometimes threat and jealousy promote inaccurate advice.
The vast variety of individual strengths and talents on this planet covers every kind of job that needs to be done. Each one of us has the responsibility of figuring out our special talents for the purpose of making our contribution. Every job is of equal value to maintaining the whole universe. Sometimes I indulge in the fantasy of a world in which we all get paid the same salary for whatever job we do.
There are two opposite positive forces within each person that need to be balanced with each other. There is a force to be still, to do nothing except be in the present, rest, relax, sleep, meditate, and rejuvenate. The other force motivates us to do something concrete, to be insightful, creative, and effective in contributing something meaningful to someone else or to the survival of the planet. Both forces are necessary to conduct life. If we can keep these two forces balanced with each other, we can be truly effective.
Realistically, we can only make a plan as to what to do with life that encompasses five to seven years because there are so many unexpected turns. As we like to say, “Life happens while we are making other plans.” However, we can be guided superbly by reading both our positive and negative feelings. When we ignore our negative feelings with defense or addiction, we lose the power to make effective judgments over time. Unacknowledged emotions fester while weakening us instead of fading away. They leave us, too often, with confusion, and unacceptable plans and behavior toward others.
To mature is to catch the energy that makes plants grow and birds sing. Creativity, as a strength by itself, may appear, but generally it emerges more fully out of a struggle. Only then is there something to say. The universe sends us problems and difficulties so that we can grapple with them and pass on what we have learned to others. Nature also gives much for which to be thankful. Knowing intimately what we have been given helps us decide and commit to what we need to give back to keep the planet flourishing for the next generation. We can have a successful meaningful life that is still open to feeling all kinds of emotions. We can die in peace when we have figured out how we are supposed to make a difference, knowing that we have used our best talents to complete the task. At funerals, the participants address what the deceased have given, not what they have amassed or acquired.
As Mark Morford, San Francisco Gate Columnist, wrote on January 3, 2007:
Our spirits, for whatever unqualified reason, chose to suffer and scream, and pain and joy and come, and lick and try to love because, well, because we have so much to learn. Because this is what we do. Because this planet is one of the most difficult and challenging and brutal schoolrooms in the universe.
In fact, the divine (universe) is dirty, beautiful, ugly, sad, tragic, and gorgeous and sticky and mean and deadly and orgasmic and exhausting, all at once.
From Defining Moments: Breaking Through Tough Times, Dorothea S McArthur, Cove Press
Dorothea McArthur is a Diplomate Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles. She is President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. She can be reached at 323-663-2340. Her email is DMcA@ucla.edu.
Copyright 2021 by Dorothea McArthur