Apparently, it’s taken me over half a year to recover from the cancer, radiation, three hospitalizations, struggles with dental bridges and more to reach this moment where I want to reach out to you again. I am deeply grateful to all who have stayed with me during this difficult time. Good news: No cancer was found in a recent PET scan.
None of us I suspect is unfamiliar with stories of how suffering often drives personal growth. Can that kind of change occur without it? After all, we all can recall benefitting from someone’s wisdom, from our school and street learning and development, from reading, our careers and innumerable other sources. But when it comes to those deep dark places that dog us, the locations for those pesky habits, reactive behaviors, “idiosyncrasies” and the like, is some experience of suffering necessary to dislodge them?
I think so. The suffering can be seen as your mind notifying you to pay attention so as to identify any growth that is meant to flow from it. I’m fond of telling clients that suffering can either be needless or needful. Well, this suffering left me a changed man, and therefore a changed psychotherapist. It confronted me with a choice to continue ignoring it with the consequences that follow for myself, my loved ones and really everyone I touch in daily life, or to identify the learning necessary to grow from the experience.
The resulting effort to “choose life” is paying off. I know because my wife is telling me she too sees the difference. I am more loving, considerate, sensitive, concerned about how she feels and how I can help. In my practice I listen more deeply, talk less, tolerate not knowing what to do longer to allow more meaningful insights and approaches to surface. I choose empathy before truth-telling.
I’m mature enough to know however, that the practice of doing the work necessary to succeed at choosing to be my best self is just that, a practice. Regular practice is hard, at least for me. Sometimes it takes a fierce determination to overcome the inner voice that would rather have me languish in passivity, self-pity, anger or irritability.
Another benefit of the illness is that I used this time to temporarily put aside professional writing and return to the reading of real literature. What a breath of fresh air! This includes the writings of Richard Russo, who has won the Pulitzer Prize and seen his novels made into movies like The Ice Harvest, The Flamingo Rising and the TV miniseries Empire Falls. Below is a quote from his 2018 book The Destiny Thief in which he sums up the challenge we all face in making that daily choice, to practice or not. The quote contains much to ponder:
“A writer’s truest self lies in that dark terrain where self doubt and anxiety dwell – those dread whisperers – and it’s that self they constantly assail. They are, I think, the original hackers, determined to hijack the code, to show us who’s boss, to confuse us into thinking the danger comes from without, not from within. Like Odysseus*, we have little choice but to lash ourselves to the mast and listen to their Siren song, knowing all too well they want us on the rocks. There is a narrow passage. There must be.
But there’s no dead reckoning. We’re on your own.”
I qualify Russo’s closing that we’re on our own. Not only is my profession dedicated to being there to support the voyage but our friends, family and other resources can support it as well. Yes, ultimately there is only one helmsman, and he or she is that person you see in the mirror each time you mobilize the courage to give a good look.
*In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII, the Greek hero Odysseus, advised by the sorceress Circe, escaped the danger of their song by stopping the ears of his crew with wax so that they were deaf to the Sirens. Odysseus himself wanted to hear their song but had himself tied to the mast so that he would not be able to steer the ship off its course.
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