I've found myself referencing this painting titled "Choices" many times in the past few weeks. I wondered 'why' until now. It's a beautiful gift from a now deceased Vietnam Combat Veteran. He put his life in harms way for a freedom he believed possible and needed, not for his self, but rather for others. His life was meaningful. His duty held meaning, even though the desired end was not found. With freedom, we may choose, decide, act responsibly, be constructive, or not. Freedom, however, does not really mean doing whatever we want, whenever we want and then becoming happy and fulfilled. No, freedom, like it or not, necessitates responsibility and mature action. On December 7, 1967, Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy and a Holocaust Survivor, gave a speech at Providence College. This was the anniversary of our "Day of Infamy" and a time of great turmoil in our country. There was protest against war, so-called "free love," drug use, and a generational attack against conformity, authoritarianism and the status quo. Within months there would be horribly assasinations and riots in the streets, a complex national trauma beyond belief. The country, it seemed, was struggling to find meaning and stability. Dr. Frankl was asked to address what was perceived as an underlying problem of the time, "Youth in Search of Meaning." Instead, he chose to address the universal human need for meaning. He spoke of the present tendecy to seek pleasure as an escape from the responsible pursuit of "true" meaning, of being too much into and for the self. Self-gratification and self-indulgence seemed to be treated as the new norm, the new normal. Surprisingly, Frankl made an argument against the Declaration of Independence's statement of belief in the "pursuit of happiness." Happiness, he said, was not to be an end in itself. He knew from Aushwitz that, when a person chooses happiness or that which is pleasurable as an end in itself, when pleasure becomes "deified," life is over. Those he saw at Aushwitz who chose a cigarette to a piece of bread for survival and a greater good were giving up. Despair has won. The person has given up, chosen a path that leads only to destruction. The search for "true" meaning in life, Frankl argued, is not the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, but rather the responsible and mature act of choosing to connect and commit to someone or something greater than our self. The feeling of happiness is more of a beneficial consequence or "side effect" of having meaning in life. Self-gratification, selfishness and narcissism will not help us find constructive and life-enhancing meaning in life. Finding meaning in life is to reach for something or someone more than us- our partner, a vocation, the good of our country or of another's, a Higher Power, the good of our environment, the health of our pet, a daily job, etc. This gives us something or someone to live for a "true" way to a meaningful life. How can we find a way to have real meaning in life today? Are we willing to admit that we need a greater someone or something than our self to do so? Or, do we think whatever "I" want to feel good is itself our life's end? Is it just whatever makes ME happy? Will we delude our self to believe that by just reaching out to feel happy, we are leading a meaningful life? The world of addiction shows us the sad lived-out experience of a wrong choice. Seems it's a time for each of us to personally reflect and decide which we are choosing or which we wish to choose. Frankl would probably be the first to admit that making our self feel good is the easier choice. He chose more. He chose a meaningful life. What do you choose?
The more I work as a psychotherapist, the more I find myself seeing the good in others. Despite presented imperfections, problems, mistakes, or maladaptive background or behaviors, I see much that holds worth. I see courage to face one's self. I see humility to ask for help and reject narcissism. I see kindness and gratitude, at times more than I deserve. I see passion and motivation to change. I witness and, to some extent, participate in the intimate anguish of healing. I discover underlying gifts that even the person before me had not noticed. I see an awakened innocence that brings me back to the image of a newborn who sees real life for the very first time, curious and amazed by what she or he finds. It is of a value beyond compare that has presented me with the gift of a soul who seeks to heal and has chosen me as partner to this transformative work. Amazing! Wonderful! Touching the soul is truly a loving experience, a vocation that gives and teceives love.
We call it DID, MDD, ADHD, OCD, NPD, PTSD, and other such abbreviatins of names of mental health problems. They shorten the category of symptoms, objectifying what it is, make it common and conforming, make it easier for the viewer and health worker, and treat the problem as some "thing" to be dissected and treated. Today's focus for many health researchers and providers is now to find the "biological markers" for these categories, further dissecting to some greater "thing." It is as if we are looking for some universal "God factor" to explain the all of this thing, with the belief that we will then have all we need to solve a problem. Quite a lofty goal! Although the rationale and action may be well-intended, if the task become purely mechanical or narcisstically-invested, problems abound and misdirection becomes inevitable. We need to look more "humanly" than this to really see, or we will not see. Robert Coles, the very gifted Existential Psychiatrist, speaks of this challenge to understand with one of his female patients in his book, "The Spiritual Life of Children." Or, perhaps better said, without the "human", we will see an illusion of what is real, or only what we want to see, distorting what is there. Persons of the past have been led and have led others away from the real of human life by their illusions and delusions. No matter what letters we attach or titles we ascribe, we will never truly understand, empathize or adequately help heal unless we first see and continually see the person before us. I am Tom Kelly, Joe Smith, Bob Brown, Cathy Sullivan, Sharon Stone, Tom Terrific, Jane Doane, Jennifer Johnson, etc. (note: names are fictitious). I am not a bunch of letters. I am not to be lumped with a bunch of others. I am not a thing. I am I, a unique self, a special someone unlike everyone else. Although I may share with others certain symptoms or problems or traits, my expression of them, my life journey, is mine alone. Only I have these experiences in my own way, from my perspective. Understand this and you may come to know me. The greater our objectification and separation, the more the human will disappear for us, confuse and frustrate our understanding, and move us further from intimacy and real life. Many, more serious and even dangerous consequences may come to us when we move away from the human in us and others. May we all be mindful in life and see what really lies before us.
Being-real is easy to say and challenging and lifelong to do. It means to be the unique and authentic person or "self" that I am, apart from all others. It means learning to identify, understand, appreciate, and integrate the richness of our past, good and bad, positive and negative, into our present living. It means accepting and believing that I am a loving gift in, with and for life: I am lovable, loving and loved. Being-real is I-being-I with myself and others, I-in-identity-and-intimacy. To truly be unique and authentic, our life goal, is to be free, joyful, hopeful, faithful. What a gift it is to be I. In Christian belief, I am in-the-image-of-God. Being-real, truly I, is to be as close to Perfect and Ultimate as I may be. This life journey to real appears bittersweet. From Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama to Stalin and Hitler we may see the success and failure of our quest to the real I-in-life. As a psychotherapist, I "feel" daily the anguish of each courageous, vulnerable and hopeful person that asks guidance for direction and support in being-real. No greater privilege or gift have I teceived than this for my life vication. All I have to do is be-real and use the dynamic skills and experience that I've acquired. Thank God.