The Courage to be Happy

 As I stand 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. This book is not your everyday read, rather, it reveals the soft underbelly of this writer, often in ways that are less than appealing. But, this is as it should be given my goal: to illustrate the human condition. I’m going to walk the walk, revealing flaws and all, from dark experiences to sunlit landscapes.

The seeds of this book were sown years ago by my oldest daughter Keeley and my son Chandler. Keeley gave me a book of questions for grandparents to express who they were for posterity. The idea of the book held appeal, the structure did not. I did not think that anybody would care that my favorite color was green. Separately, Chandler asked what I thought it [life] was about. His work and home life were going well, and he wondered “Is this it?” I answered on the spur of the moment, “It’s about the pursuit of happiness.” He didn’t seem convinced. My explanation was not well-thought-out nor compelling. Nonetheless, it was true. From that moment on, I needed to build the case for it, and as a psychotherapist, I wanted to provide some guidelines on how one gets from here to there.

So, when I started writing this book, I was responding to these two challenges: “Who am I?” and “What’s it all about?” However, along the way, the writing became something else, something more. In detailing my journey from the Gathering Darkness of my early years, I realized that though my story was unique to me, most, if not all, people were living their own versions of it.With this in mind, I wanted to shed light on the importance of difficult times and encourage people not to shy away the difficult times but to use them to help create meaning in their lives.

Of course, such a story requires I tell all; to do any less would undermine the very lesson I am trying to impart. I will expose 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 heartbreaks the wisdoms and follies. In doing so, I hope to convey the importance of striving for authenticity, and of embracing all of your thoughts and all of your feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly in service of reconciling yourself with them.

This is a demanding task. The psyche recoils from such activity, using all kinds of tricks to distance itself from embarrassment, pain or discomfort. Yet, the price of denial is high for the psyche is not a surgical instrument. It does not eliminate single undesired thoughts or feelings but numbs the capacity to think and feel in general. Thus, when we deny painful emotions, such as shame or sadness, or embarrassing acts or mistakes, we also hinder our capacity to feel positive ones, such as the ability to drink in the colors of a beautiful sunset or the exquisite joy of a tender kiss. Both the curse and the beauty of psychological health is that it entails feeling more, not less of both enjoyable and painful feelings.

The cost of denial does not stop with the anesthetic numbing of the mind. You might well ask, “Where do these feelings go?” They may be pushed out of consciousness, but that does not mean they are gone. Rather, what begins as a slow gathering of darkness in the world of the unconscious only turns darker as we relegate more and more banned thoughts and feelings to their number. Here, unexposed to the moderating light of contemplation and the perspective lent by competing feelings, they feed upon themselves, growing ever stronger, and eventually threaten to break through the walls of denial that contain them.

These feelings clamor to be heard: anger, hostility, depression, anxiety, dread, emptiness, isolation, and somatic complaints arise. Often the sufferer, particularly as he or she ages, becomes bitter and unhappy, subject to fragmenting anxiety, blaming others or external events for their discontent. Cut off from the spring-fed tributaries of openness to the world, along with the restorative light of consciousness and reason, the stagnant pond of growing darkness only becomes more fetid.

The self-devouring world of the repressed is unrelenting, traveling with us wherever we go: The geographic cure does not work. There is no running from repressed feelings for we carry them with us and when we deny them they only demand ever more loudly to be heard. And, why wouldn’t they? They are messages from us to us; they are a part of us—alarm bells tolling in the night.

Of course, feeling all our feelings and thinking all our thoughts is not always a happy business. Life and relationship can be scary. Furthermore, confronting distressing thoughts and feelings does not always support the semblance of a neat and tidy life, valued by so many. But, importantly, it does lead to being a more fully integrated and self-accepting human being. And, despite how tarnished we humans can be, I would suggest that feeling both the good and the bad of our imperfect state, is our greatest gift and the pathway to a fulfilling life.

Awareness of the dark side of the human condition is not new. In In Cherokee lore, the Chieftain tells his grandson the story of the two wolves. He says, “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.” Tenderly looking into his grandson’s eyes, the Chieftain says, “You have these two wolves in you as well. Everyone has them.” The grandson considers this, then, eyes wide open in suspense, asks his grandfather, “Which one wins?” Laughing, the grandfather whispers, “Whichever one you feed.”

Cherokee Indians are not alone in speaking of the dark side of man. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung called it the shadow and warned that one reconciles with his shadow or is swallowed by it. The 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 thus cannot be eliminated. Indeed, to try to eliminate them is harmful, leading to disintegrative anxiety rather than to integration: the hallmark of a healthy, whole person. Freud spoke of the Id, that part of the psyche that houses a person’s primitive and base impulses. He posited that it is these impulses that fuel creativity as well as destructiveness and, like Klein, observed that these impulses could not be eliminated, but must be negotiated with to live successfully in society. The psychoanalyst Fairbairn posited the existence of an anti-libidinal ego, which houses all repressed negative experiences. In this world, peopled by rejecting interactions with others, we feel injured by exactly those people we needed the most. Thus, in the world of the anti-libidinal ego, the objects of our desire become tainted and seen as dangerous. Consequently, the anti-libidinal ego attacks our needs and desires, perceiving these as lures leading us into harm's way. The cure? Again, not elimination, but the integration of our fears and our desires. Finally, the noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson asserts that not dealing with our conflicts, the warring parts of ourselves, leads to the experience of stagnation in middle age, and despair and bitterness beyond. Conversely, he promises that if you do address your conflicts, generativity and fulfillment will follow.

Whatever the theory, the point is that from the earliest age, while the human brain is in the nascence of its development, there is a Gathering Darkness with which we must contend. 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 try to deny its existence, it will only insist ever more loudly on being heard, troubling us in increasingly profound ways that interfere with our capacity to live a personally meaningful and more fulfilling life.

It is Important to understand that these dire predictions will prove true no matter how successful one becomes in the external world. We see this all the time in the news: Fame nor fortune protects no man or woman from their demons: The Evil Wolf ignored, just keeps biting.

William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” referencing a characteristic of the unconscious: It is timeless. In the unconscious there is no past or future, there is just what I call The Interminable Now. The good news is that in consciousness there is a past, present, and future. Thus, bringing things to consciousness, rather than denying them, affords the opportunity to resolve our issues and put our past behind us, never forgotten but shorn of its tendency to cling like English Ivy strangles a tree.

None of this is to suggest that intellectual insight is the be all and end all. Insight must be felt and understood in a personally meaningful way. In addition, other strategies must be employed to overcome the psyche’s habituated forms of feeling and thinking. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are all useful tools to help us stop feeding the Evil Wolf and start feeding the Good one. In these ways, we begin to lessen the power of the shadow world to over-shadow the present and foreshadow the future.

The title, Hatching Charlie, is intended to represent this struggle, my struggle, toward a meaningful life. In it, I tell of my fight to break out of the encircling shells of the lessons of my childhood that like a Russian Nesting Doll worked to constrain me.

Before we begin, please understand that this is my version of events. Perception and memory are notoriously malleable and unreliable. Parts of my story will meet with agreement from those who have lived them alongside me; parts will not, thus illustrating that each of us lives a life of illusion as the protagonist in his or her own often varnished personal play. I have no qualms with this. We can each have our truth, as long as we leave room for the truths of others. We each create personal narratives—storylines—that guide our lives. As I tell my story, you will see that aspects of my storyline were the cause of much suffering. You will also come to understand that none of us are immune from such folly.

Everyone has an interesting story to tell, even those who think otherwise. Unfortunately, most of us fail to recognize how remarkable their story is. Here I'm reminded of the story of three fish, two swimming one way and a third the other. As they pass, the single fish politely calls out, "Hello. How's the water today?" Once past, the pair of fish look at each other, and one puts his puzzlement to words, "What's water?"

I've spent my life helping people answer the question, “What’s water?” in their lives. In part, this occurs by fostering their autobiographical memories. Interestingly, research suggests that the ability to remember our histories is related to our capacity to imagine alternative futures. Accordingly, if one’s autobiographical memory is deficient so too will be the capacity to imagine changes in our lives, thereby limiting the ability to bring them into being. Without memory, we do not know where we come from, and we cannot figure out how to get to where we want to go. In this amnesic state, our yesterdays become our tomorrows, creating a world in which one can only be born, live, and die. Who wouldn’t be depressed in that circumstance?

Fortunately, once we begin remembering, more memories tumble out. Epiphanies occur, leading to a deepening understanding of what happened and how we came to be the way we are. Then, at last, with this understanding of ourselves, we have the choice of changing our lives or not. Whatever the decision it is ours, and only ours, to make.

I urge you to take an interest in your story as you listen to mine. Revisit your puzzlements and confusions. Try to put them into words or some other way of symbolizing things, such as dance or art. The important thing is to symbolize your experience: Thinking is a symbolic process, and without thinking 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? A victim or an aggressor? Helpless or powerful? Do you cast yourself as creating your destiny or living life as a passenger in your own story? Are you typically “right” and others “wrong”? Are you normally 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 living my life meaningful to me?” If your answer is “No,” then refuse to accept your life as a finished product; start to do something about it.

In saying all this, I do not mean to suggest that chemistry and neurology do not play a part, they do. And, there are people who suffer severe mental stress or unhappiness that really need medication or other forms of intervention, such as electro-convulsive therapy. I have spent a lifetime treating such patients. The point I’m trying to make is that the key to living a full and personally meaningful life is one’s assumption of responsibility for that life. While I have seen many people stabilize with the help of medication or electro-convulsive therapy, I have never seen anyone, patient or not, develop a personally fulfilling life who did not assume personal responsibility for it.

I have organized my story 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 what is going on around me and instinctively forming strategies for how to get through. These stories, along with the atmospheres they set, came to constitute the unnoticed waters of my life.

The next chapters describe my refusal to accept life as a given. I randomly peck away: floundering, lashing out, trying to rid myself of confusion and despair, blindly running in the hope of stumbling across some reason, meaning, or purpose to my existence.

The third part, tells the story of more focused hatching, of discovering that I could become the object of my own curiosity and begin to discern the self-defeating storylines, birthed in childhood and perpetuated by me into adulthood.

The last chapters detail an emerging sense of fulfillment deriving from my struggle to make sense of things and ongoing pursuit of personal meaning. Here, I reconcile with my past, become more self-compassionate, laugh more, and take myself less seriously. I learn how to live a happier and more optimistic last quarter of my life.I’m living proof that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, but I caution you—we have to give it to ourselves. We must also accept that happiness won’t be a function of meeting the often idealized and idolized pursuits of childhood. The child, in near totally dependent relationship on his caregivers, equates delay or disappointment with disaster. Such neediness of symbiotic union, carried into adulthood, becomes the perfect prescription for unhappiness. Play along with me. You are the therapist, and I’m the patient. This book is the case presentation. With mischievous glee and a twinkle in my eye, I ask, “What could be better than that?”