The Courage to be Happy

As I lie here, nearer life’s end than its beginning, looking out upon the beauty of the Bush River just off the Chesapeake Bay, its borders crowded with trees iridescently bejeweled in the rust, copper and gold leaves of fall, I wonder what you will think of what I have to say. I am writing this book to walk the walk and not just talk the talk of what I am about to share with you. I’m writing it for all of you: my children, nieces, and nephews, and their children and, as importantly, for any strangers, yet my brothers and sisters in humanity, that happen upon this text and recognize it for what it is – a story of the follies and wisdoms of the human condition or at least one man’s version of it.

I write to encourage you to take responsibility for your happiness. If there are two counter-intuitive things I’ve discovered in my wending journey as a man and as a psychotherapist, it’s that it takes great courage to be happy and that most of us are as happy as we can stand.

Years ago, my eldest daughter Keeley gave me a book of questions for grandparents to express who they were for posterity. Although the idea of the book held great appeal, the structure did not. I didn’t care if people knew what my favorite color was: Green. It would not have conveyed the sense of me. Then, some years later, my son, Chandler, asked me what I thought it [life] was about. His work and home life were going well, and with the resulting prosperity he was wondering, “Is this it?”  I answered something along the lines of “It’s about the pursuit of happiness.”  But my explanation was not well-thought-out nor compelling to either of us. Nonetheless, it was true. I just had to build the case for it.

When I started writing this book, I soon realized that I was responding to these two challenges, each of which had been stirring within me for years: “Who am I?” and “What’s it all about?”  However, along the way, the writing became something else, something more, as I said a story of the human condition.  It details my experiences from the Gathering Darkness of my early years, marked by feelings of loneliness, isolation, inferiority and confusion, to a growing sense of fulfillment and hard-earned wisdom in my maturity.

Eventually, I came to appreciate that my struggles continue to this day and, to my surprise, that this is a good thing. It’s the struggle itself that fosters a continuing sense of adventure and discovery, and depth, and texture to living, both within ourselves and with our others. Where I would have felt the struggle as a burden years earlier, I now understand it as life itself, a catalyst of self-discovery and self-expression, and of ongoing aliveness. To my surprise, I also discovered that despite the discomfort it often entails I would not have it any other way.

So I will tell it all, the journey that has been my life:  the uncertainty, the low self-esteem, the egotism, the mistakes made and then made again, the lessons learned and then forgotten, the failures and successes, the joys and heartbreak. Along the way, I hope to convey the key ingredient to a personally meaningful life: that is striving to embrace all your thoughts and all your feelings, both the good and the bad and then to think about them. Herein lies one’s of life’s many paradoxes, although embracing one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to the pursuit of happiness, it is not easy.

Indeed, the psyche actively recoils from such activity. Like any organism, it uses all kinds of tricks to distance itself and us from distress and anxiety. But the psyche is not a surgical instrument. It does not cut out and eliminate single undesired thoughts or feelings. Rather, it is a blunt instrument, which represses the capacity to think and feel in general. In other words, denial and repression are not local anesthetics but wide-ranging ones. They numb not only the ability to feel painful feelings, such as shame, sadness, or anxiety but the capacity to feel in general, including positive feelings, such as the joy and happiness entailed in drinking in the colors of a beautiful sunset or the varying textures of a tender kiss.

But that is not the worst side effect of rejecting our troubling feelings. There is a second even greater problem. Where do these feelings go?  Certainly, they are pushed from consciousness, but that doesn’t mean they are gone and do not have an impact. Rather, what begins as a slow gathering of darkness, ignored over time and ever growing as more negative thoughts and feelings accumulate within, turns into an increasingly ominous mountain range of nameless storm clouds.  These, in turn, stir and threaten to break through the repressive barriers in vague feelings of anger, depression, anxiety, and dread or general feelings of emptiness and isolation, and bodily complaints. In this world of the repressed, cut off from the light of consciousness and the spring-fed tributaries of openness to the world, the growing darkness only feeds upon itself.

And that’s not the all of it. This self-devouring inner world travels with us wherever we go and seals our fate. For, at the end of the day, there is no running from the repressed feelings; there isn’t even any hiding. They only clamor ever more insistently to be heard. And, after all, why wouldn’t they? They are part of us; messages from us to us, alarm bells tolling in the night.

Of course, feeling all our feelings and thinking all our thoughts is not always a happy business, but why would anyone believe that it should be?  Life and relationship can be scary and depressing.

Confronting distressing thoughts and feelings does not always lead to the semblance of a neat and tidy life, valued by so many. But it does lead to being a more fully self-accepting human being, with all the messiness that this entails. And, at the end of the day, despite how tarnished we human beings can be, I would suggest that being human, feeling both the good and bad of it, is our greatest gift.

The awareness of conflict within the human mind has been with us for a long time. In Cherokee lore, it is captured in the tale of the Chieftain telling his grandson the story of the two wolves. He said, “Within me, two wolves are constantly at war with one another. One is the Evil Wolf that feeds on anger, envy, sorrow, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego. The second is the Good Wolf that feeds on joy, love, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” Looking into his grandson’s eyes, the Chieftain said, “You have these two wolves in you as well. Everyone has them.”  The grandson, eyes wide, considered this then asked his grandfather, “Which one wins?”  The grandfather laughed and said, “Whichever one you feed.”

Cherokee Indians are not alone in speaking of the dark side of the human condition. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung called it the shadow and warned that one either reconciles with his shadow or is swallowed by it. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who pioneered the analysis of children, asserted that the feelings of love, hate, jealousy, greed, lust, envy and so on are all part of human experience and that it is harmful to try to eliminate rather than integrate them. Freud spoke of the Id as that part of the psyche that houses a person’s primitive and base impulses. Fairbairn posited the existence of an anti-libidinal ego, which houses all repressed negative experiences, comprising an internal world of sadistic and hostile relationships that can take us over if not taken into account.

Whatever the theory, the point is that from the earliest age, while the human brain is in the nascence of its development, there is an ongoing gathering of darkness. Whatever we choose to call it, the Evil Wolf, the shadow, the Id, the anti-libidinal ego, or even original sin, it’s real. And if we deal with it through denial, it will only call out louder in its insistence on being heard, troubling us in ever more profound ways throughout our lives, radically interfering with our becoming whole people and damaging our capacity for, and tolerance of, happiness. And, this will prove true no matter how successful we may become in the external world. We see this all the time: fame and fortune protect no man or woman from their personal demons. You see, The Evil Wolf, unconfronted, never stops biting.

Erik Erikson warns that not dealing with issues leads to the experience of stagnation in middle age and despair and bitterness beyond. If you do resolve your conflicts, he assures a life of integrity, generativity, and fulfillment. In other words, the struggle between the conflicting aspects of being human lasts throughout life—it is not a one and done thing. However, how well we meet this ongoing challenge directly determines the degree to which we may live happily, versus a life full of anxiety, depression, and despair.

William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This insight references one of the major characteristics of the unconscious—that it is timeless. In the unconscious, everything is now: There is no past or future; there is only the Interminable Now. The good news is that in consciousness there is a past, present, and future. Thus, making things conscious affords us the opportunity to put our pasts behind us, both in and outside of awareness, never forgotten but shorn of its tendency to cling to us, like Ivy strangles a tree.

None of this is to suggest that insight is the be all and end all: Even if necessary, it is not sufficient. Insight must be felt not just intellectualized, and other strategies often must be brought to bear to overcome habituated forms of feeling and thinking that date from childhood. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are all useful tools to help us stop feeding the Evil Wolf and start feeding the Good one. In using every means at hand, we lessen the power of the shadow world to over-shadow the present and foreshadow the future, while never making the mistake of denying its existence within us.

The title of my book, Hatching Charlie, is intended to represent this ongoing struggle. My story is the description of birth, but one that is ongoing—a lifetime of trying to break out of the encircling shells that constrained me like a Russian Nesting Doll. Hatching Charlie is the story of my struggling in the darkness, confusion, and despair that characterized much of my early years and, in truth, continue to cast a pall, albeit a much fainter one, to this day.

The verb “hatching” also speaks to the importance of healthy aggression, the inner work of pecking away at what confines us, a refusal to accept the world as if we’re passive participants rather than active subjects, functioning as both playwright and actor in the story of our own lives. I don’t care how you do it; hatching is not always well organized—watch any chick fighting its way out of its shell to the outside world. Hatching can be quite random, but nevertheless, with persistence, leads to the end goal, the cracking of the shell to access the freedom and the privilege of living one’s own life. You will notice acts of aggression throughout this book, both mine and others and, as horrid as these can sometimes be, it is important to keep this possible motivation in mind. As the psychoanalyst Winnicott noted, delinquency is often a railing against the present and a sign of hope that things can change.

Before we begin, I would like you to understand that this is my version of events. Perception and memory are notoriously malleable and unreliable. Parts of my story will meet with agreement with those who have lived them alongside me; parts will not. Each of us lives a life of illusion as the protagonist in his or her own often too polished and too edited personal play. I have no qualms with this. We can each have our truth. The important thing is to leave room for the truths of others.

In that we are all wired differently, perceiving, relating and reacting to the world in ways unique to each of us, my view of my upbringing differs, sometimes sharply, from those of my siblings. As Adam Phillips once wrote, "None of us get to choose our parents, but each of us gets to create them."  In just such ways we each create narratives that guide our lives. As I tell my story, you will come to see that my self-perpetuating story line was the cause of great suffering. You will also come to understand that none of us are immune from such folly—not even psychotherapists who have spent much of their lives thinking about such things.

From the beginning, I was fascinated by my relationships, to myself and others. I was always trying to make sense of my world, to pin down how it worked and my place in it. I've essentially failed in this, now understanding that it was a largely impossible task. However, I have made headway.

What you should know from the outset is this: Everyone has an interesting story to tell. Unfortunately, most of us tend to take our personal story for granted and fail to recognize how remarkable it is. Here I'm reminded of the story of three fish, two swimming one way and a third going the other. As they pass, the single fish courteously calls out, "Hello. How's the water today?"  Once past the solo fish, the pair of fish look at each other, and one puts his puzzlement to words, whispering, "What's water?"

I've spent a large part of my life helping people tell their stories and arrive at answers to the question, “What’s water?” in their own lives and discover personal meaning. In part, this occurs by fostering their autobiographical memories. Interestingly, research suggests that the ability to remember our histories is directly related to our capacity to imagine different futures. Accordingly, if one’s autobiographical memory is deficient, so too will be the capacity for such imaginings, thereby limiting the ability to bring them to life. Think about that. In this circumstance, where the imprinting experiences of our early years have been blotted out, our yesterdays become our tomorrows. Tragically, this impediment to the imagination can lead to the experience of life as a given, a stark and barren landscape in which things just happen to us and where we feel like passengers in our own lives. In such a world, absent personal agency or responsibility, one can only be born, live and die. Who would not be depressed feeling that way?

Fortunately, remembering is possible. Once we begin to remember, more memories come tumbling out, and the connections between the various puzzle pieces of our lives reveal themselves. Epiphanies occur, leading to a deepening understanding of ourselves and how we came to be the way we are, the highlights and the lows.

Consequently, I would say to you, take an interest in your story and think of it as you listen to mine. Revisit your puzzlements and confusions, and try to put them into words. Words or some other way of symbolizing things, such as dance or art, are essential. Thinking is a symbolic process. Only when you put your feelings into words can you think about them: Without words, or some other symbolic process, we are deaf and dumb to ourselves.

Pay attention to how you tell your story. Do you frame yourself as a martyr?  Or a saint? Are you a victim or are you an aggressor? Are you helpless or are you powerful?  Are you creating your destiny or are you living life as a passive participant? Are you generally happy or sad, anxious or upset?”  Then ask yourself:  "Is this the way I want the book of my life to read?  Is this the role I want to occupy?  Is this the way I want my children to remember me?  Is the way I’m writing my life making it meaningful and relevant to me?”

I have organized my story essentially into four parts. The first chapters set the table, describing events that contributed to the gathering darkness within. These are the stories of my early years in which I am absorbing and reacting to what is going on around me. Nevertheless, as a sentient being, I am inevitably drawing conclusions before and beyond words about life and relationships, and forming simple strategies, largely outside of my awareness, for how to stay safe and get through it all.

The next chapters describe my pecking away in random fashion, essentially floundering, sometimes lashing out, trying to make sense of my confusion and despair. I try to stumble across some reason, meaning, or purpose to my existence. I don’t discover one, but I keep trying.

The third part of the book tells the story of more focused Hatching, of coming to discover in psychoanalysis my self-limiting and self-defeating story line, deriving from childhood, that I continued to perpetuate. I have now found a purpose in my life; I want to rid myself of these self-written life scripts to see who I can become.

The last chapters detail an emerging sense of wisdom and fulfillment that derives from my unrelenting, if often ineffective, struggle toward meaning. As I reconcile myself with my past, I become more self-compassionate, I laugh more and learn how to write a happier last quarter of my life. I become more spontaneous and with the help of my grandchildren more child-like, more in the moment, feeling a renewed underlying optimism in a happy ending.

I feel like I’m living proof that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. What I have come to understand is that we must fight for it and give it to ourselves, and we have to accept that it won’t meet the often perfectly unreasonable demands of a child, who not yet well formed and near totally dependent often equates disappointment with disaster.

Play along with me. Consider yourself the supervising therapist and me the patient. This book is the case presentation. I, the psychotherapist, am your patient. With mischievous glee, I ask, “What could be better than that?”