Am I Crazy? - My Ode to Doug
Most of you will not be surprised that I have seen a therapist, whom, for the sake of this blog, we will call Doug. Does that make me crazy? Hopefully not, but how would I know? When I asked Doug how I would know when I was crazy or not, he said that there wasn't a really good definition for knowing and he doesn't use the word “crazy” anyway. More on that in a minute.
I want to first thank Doug for the guidance and compassion that he has shown me. As I have progressed through my life, I have accumulated plenty of experiences that require the sorting-out process that therapy gives you. Doug helped me look at the experiences through fresh eyes and he provided me with the tools required to enjoy the rest of my life. He also served as an experienced and qualified sounding board to fill in the gaps that I possessed in dealing with my children, spouse and others.
Doug told me that his general definition of mental health is being at peace with yourself and with the world. Doug's test is not one that I have found in any medical book.
Regardless, it is a practical definition since being at peace with yourself and the world does require being content and comfortable with who you are and where you fit in. While I don't know where Doug got his test, I cannot think of a better definition of mental health, and mental health through being at peace does have both cultural and religious foundations.
Its roots are seen in the Golden Age of Athens and the teachings of Socrates. For Socrates, happiness was not found in the external world of wealth, power and the accumulation of material things. According to Socrates, "The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less." The idea that happiness is equated with acquiring more material things, along with wealth and power, is predicated on ignorance of what is necessary.
Eastern philosophies contain similar teachings. Inner peace can only be obtained when it is recognized that one cannot control the world around you, but you can control your reaction to the world. Some have defined the core teachings of Buddhism in a similar fashion.
Abandon negative action; create perfect virtue; subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha. By abandoning negative actions (killing, etc.) and destructive motivations (anger, attachment, close-mindedness, etc.), we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, like impartial love and compassion, and do actions motivated by these thoughts. By subduing our mind, we cut away all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful by understanding reality.
Modern Christianity embraces similar thoughts. For instance, the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr in approximately 1935, and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, reads:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
What does this all mean and how do you live a modern life with all the trials and tribulations inherent in providing for your family and the other necessities of living from day today? You probably do not live the life of a monk, protected against the stressors of going to work, earning a living, building loving relationships, and taking care of children. Being at peace is a noble goal; but it is hard to achieve inner peace when you've worked a long day or week, your children are crabby and demanding and the only being that is glad that you are home is your dog. Not mention that there are dirty dishes to wash, homework to help your kids with and all you want to do is collapse and watch reruns of the Big Bang Theory while you fall asleep on the couch.
What does this all mean and how do you live a modern life with all the trials and tribulations inherent in providing for your family and the other necessities of living from day to day? You probably do not live the life of a monk, protected against the stressors of going to work, earning a living, building loving relationships, and taking care of children. Being at peace is a noble goal; but it is hard to achieve inner peace when you've worked a long day or week, your children are crabby and demanding, and the only being that is glad that you are home is your dog. Not to mention, there are dirty dishes to wash, homework to help your kids with, and all you want to do is collapse and watch reruns of the Big Bang Theory while you fall asleep on the couch.
And peace with the world? Forget it. Regardless of your political beliefs, you are angry at those who hold the opposite beliefs. Over 80,000 Americans are dead from Covid-19 and you are most worried that your elderly parents may be infected. You are worried that business closures will destroy your livelihood. You are worried that when it is safe to venture out there will not be anyplace worth going to, or that global warming will melt the ice caps and we will all drown. The list can go on and on.
So is Doug's definition of mental health a noble but unattainable goal? No. Being at peace with yourself and the world does not mean that you are not of this world or that you do not react to the vicissitudes of daily living. Nor does it mean that you have to ignore all that is disturbing in front of you. What I learned is just the opposite. If you come home after a long day at work to stressors and just ignore them due to your inner peace that is not a sign of mental health. If you ignore the world around you because you can't change anything, that is not testament to mental health. Purposeful ignorance is not the same as inner peace. Trying to live like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand is not a path to peace. The ostrich that sticks its head in the sand gets eaten by the lion. There is no reason that there will be a different outcome if we imitate that conduct.
The lesson from Doug is that the practical meaning of inner peace is having the appropriate reaction to the situation at hand. An example is the best way to bring the lesson home. I have a sister who is immunocompromised. If she were to become infected with the Covid-19 virus, it would be very dangerous for her. My reaction is worry and concern. However, there is nothing that I can practically do to influence whether or not she becomes infected. Inner peace is not accepting that she is at risk and just moving on. Inner peace comes from knowing that my anxiety is caused by a genuine concern for her health and the knowledge that the concern and reaction is an appropriate reaction to reality.
As humans we are hardwired to react with emotions to particular situations. When our parents die, we are sad. When someone hurts our children, we are angry. When bills are due and there is not enough money to pay the bills, we are worried. To not feel these emotions would be the antithesis of mental health. The trick is determining whether the emotion you feel is appropriate for the situation.
The Human Emotion Wheel
Let me give you one last example. A while ago I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and sadness. I could not figure out why. For once, there was not anything happening in my life which should have caused these feelings. Things were good. I was in my backyard playing with my dog and I started to do an inventory of what had happened the past week. In doing the inventory, I remembered that a friend who I had grown up with, had unexpectedly died. I then asked the pivotal question - was my reaction appropriate? The answer was yes. I was sad because he had died. I was anxious because I was starting to live through the deaths of those I grew up with and those are both sad events and a reminder of my own mortality.
The kicker is that once you realize that the reaction is appropriate, the acuteness of the sadness and anxiety dissipates. It doesn’t disappear but it becomes manageable. It was OK to feel both. It is the acceptance that sadness and anxiety are the proper human reactions to a friend's death that brings inner peace. It is the acceptance that living through a pandemic which could affect those you love creates worry that brings peace into the world.
The opposite is also true. When you do the inventory and conclude that there is no reason to feel sad or anxious, then you have given yourself the ability to tame the inappropriate emotion. I came home recently and overreacted to something my kids did, and I wanted to immediately enroll them in military school. My anger soon dissipated when I realized that the reaction was inappropriate. A subsequent inventory determined that it was a client that I really want to exile, not my sons.
The ultimate task of living in this world without going crazy is not to ignore all that is around you. As I have learned, it is to deal with what you see, hear and experience in a straightforward manner. It is to feel the happiness, joy, sadness and anxiety that are a natural and essential part of living. It is to know when the emotional reaction is genuine and when it is misplaced. These are the lessons from Doug.