Through the dark and into the light

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

Since I began my blog, friends and colleagues have expressed their concern about what they perceive to be a depressive strain in my writing.  I have mixed feelings about my dark side.  It can be painful but it has lent depth and insight to my life.  So I wrote an essay about the Blues, trying to explain how the very act of acknowledging and not avoiding dark feelings helped people move through them.  The essay proved interesting but not persuasive to my friends, which leads me to a different tack—putting what Winston Churchill called his “dark dog” into a cultural context.

In America, we are encouraged to be happy and urged to avoid or hide unhappiness.  There is a stigma attached to depression, a largely unstated belief that vulnerability is weak and unacceptable, particularly for men, who are taught from early childhood to mask their fears and anxieties.  More than one survey has determined that Americans believe depression is the result of a weak will or a character deficit.

Sometimes when people “worry” about me it sounds like they are also scolding.  Their concern sounds a little bit like an accusation.

When people point to my sadness, melancholy, or depression, my first feeling is shame.  My second feeling is denial.  Not me.  Then I want to distance myself from these prying eyes. This is what men do.

We’re not alone.  In many other cultures—Japan, for example—vulnerability must be avoided, and shows up regularly in stomach and digestive problems, which are acceptable.  The more martial and macho a culture, the more men transform vulnerability in to physical symptoms.  In American culture, women are said to “act in,” while men “act out,” often to the detriment of marital relationships and to a society that badly needs to look inward before leaping to military actions and diplomatic bullying.

I belong to another strain of manhood.  I was always plagued and blessed with a desire to understand myself as deeply as possible. I want to be happy but not at the cost of  the depth and wisdom I find in introspection.  I need to go below the surface to discover what moves me, what upsets me, what brings joy and relaxation, what made me effective.  These introspective journeys have been as natural to me as the running and jumping, the basketball, tennis, hiking—and the exuberant pursuit of ideas—that have also filled my life. They formed the foundation of my life as a psychotherapist and coach.

But let’s return to what I take to be my strain of manhood.  Many of the people we admire most have been subject to dark moods.  Here are just a few:  Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Edward Degas, Leonard Cohen, William Faulkner, Michelangelo, John Steward Mill, Sir Isaac Newton, John Keats, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  I feel tremendously enhanced by the company of these great depressives, whose capacity to brave the darkness, then combine it with the light to form complex and beautiful thoughts, I so admire.

I believe that it is impossible to reach towards insight and creativity without fully acknowledging fear, anxiety, and confusion.  According to the neuroscientist, Nancy C. Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while “creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.”

Writing for Scientific American, the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, summed up his research this way:  “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

The need to tolerate the dark is embedded in all of our religious traditions.  Buddha tells us that first reality of life is suffering.  All our efforts to avoid or deny this reality make us more superficial and rigid, unable to face and adapt to life’s great challenges.  Moses asks us to face—not accept—our enslavement to other people and their way of thinking.  With that insight, he begins to lead us towards freedom.  Jesus sees our suffering and takes it onto himself.  He doesn’t ignore it.

My first intentional effort to move through the darkness and into the light was as a young man.  I wanted to triumph over my fears, which meant I needed to see them clearly, understand them, know that I would survive the encounter with myself.  For me, this meant mustering all my courage because I was afraid of what I might find—my weaknesses, my limitations, my uncertainty, the many demons for which I did not yet have a name.  I did survive and feel very much richer for the effort: more comfortable with myself; and much more able to summon my courage when needed.

As I age, as the realization that the years ahead are not infinite, the search for wisdom has grown more urgent.  By that I mean the search for perspective, calm, joy, and freedom from fear become ever more alluring, ever more intense.  Each search begins with a feeling or thought that I need to come to terms with—as we all do—and attempts to move through the darkness and into the light.  That’s the road I’ve chosen.

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Happiness or Engagement: What do you Choose

I began writing in my journal forty-five years ago when my daughter was born.  For much of each day, I was seeing couples in therapy, teaching young therapists, and taking care of Jessie.  I loved each of the activities but longed for a moment of quiet, a time when no one was asking anything of me.  So I began to wake at 5:00, one full hour before Jessie got up, in order to peacefully reflect on life.

I always wrote in the same notebook with the same pen, sitting the same easy chair.  A ritual emerged.  Within a few months, the ritual almost automatically quieted my mind.  It was like entering a trance, almost sensual in its calm.  The calm would build, peak and wane, and for the longest time, I tried to lengthen its stay.  I couldn’t, and eventually I found a way to let the quiet go.  I accepted its momentary quality.  Both the quiet and the release of the moment are true to this day.

When I was building my house in New Hampshire, I would work long hours, oblivious of time—the absorption was so complete. These days, when I am playing handball with my grandson, walking and talking with Franny on a sunny day, or deep in conversation with a friend, preferably over drinks, I feel something of that absorption.  Time almost stops.  Nothing else enters my mind.  I love these feelings.

There are other experiences that are not so welcome: the nine months, for example, when the organization I led seemed on the edge of failure and dissolution.  It was terrifying. My team and I worked around the clock, with extraordinary focus, staving off panic, and doing some of our best work.  As we emerged from the darkness, we looked at each other with a powerful affection and respect.  Ultimately, this was a good time.

For decades, America has been entranced with the idea of happiness, not absorption, not focused engagement.  Happiness represents one of our great industries.  Books, advice columns, and infomercials tell us the six, eight, or ten keys to happiness.  Positive psychologists tell us that we can train ourselves and achieve unerring results.  If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us.  We are told to take anti-depressants and to seek psychotherapy—or to address the catalogue of our inadequacies.  Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t achieved enough, haven’t found the right person, the right job, the right place to live or vacation.  If we’re not happy, we need to keep searching as though we were Ponce de Leon in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth.

I have also have fallen hard to the enchanted promise of happiness, trying in a hundred different ways to get to that holy land.  I have meditated for forty-five years, hoping to rise above my negative feelings.  I have been in therapy and I have taken fabulous vacations.  I have had a great family, wonderful friends, terrific work.

In spite of these efforts, I find happiness chimerical.  The harder I try, the more I’m disappointed.  I am not alone.  As Ruth Whippman, author of a new book, America the Anxious, puts it, “Paradoxically, the more people were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”  Victor Frankl concurs:  “It is the single minded pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In my experience, the emphasis on happiness as an end in itself also steers us in unproductive directions.  It almost inevitably leads inward.  We constantly check our emotional pulse.  Are we happy?  Happy enough?  Are other people happier?  What’s their secret?  We seek quick fixes in food, movies, and drugs.  They are not sustaining.  Ultimately, the search, itself, makes us self conscious and anxious.

What’s more, the search leads in a self-centered direction.  “I want to be happy” is entirely different from “I want to make life better for others,” Or “I want to serve my country.”  Or “I want to do a really good job.”  Trying to lead a happy life, psychologists have found, is associated with being a “taker” while seeking a meaningful life aligns with being a “giver.”   “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life,” they write, “in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

When fully engaged, we lose ourselves.  We become totally absorbed in a task, in achieving goals, in teamwork.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali has written eloquently about “the psychology of optimal experience,” which he calls “flow.”  Athletes call the experience “being in the zone.”  A basketball player in the zone shoots the ball with complete commitment and certainty.  It will go in.  Artists, writers, tradesmen, and leaders at their best, regularly enter the zone.  It is most likely to occur when you are stretched and totally absorbed, totally concentrated on achieving a goal.  When you are in the zone, you are “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”  The feeling is almost ecstatic.

There is a parental mantra that has grown stronger over the last several decades: “I don’t care what my child does so long has s/he is happy.”  This has never been my mantra.  I used to say that I want my children to feel loved so that they were capable of loving others.  The focus is on the other.  I wanted them to believe that they can do what they put their mind to do so they can serve whatever purpose they find in life, and to serve with enough concentration that that their energy flows freely.  I believe that these two capabilities, love and confidence lead to fulfillment, which I treasure above happiness—and will lead often enough to happiness.  As the psychologist, Daniel Gilbert says, “happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.”

Over the years, as I become engrossed in my journal writing, reaching a new understanding of some feeling or idea, I often enough grow calm, so calm it seems that I am giddy and I laugh aloud.  Then the feeling wanes and I let it go.  The visit to happiness has been a good one, and I am satisfied.