Just Passing Through

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We live and we die
Like fireworks
Our legacies hide
In the embers
May our stories catch fire
And burn bright enough
To catch God’s eye

We live and we die

Like fireworks
We pull apart the dark
Compete against the stars
With all of our hearts
Till our temporary brilliance turns to ash
We pull apart the darkness while we can
In the Embers – Sleeping At Last

What’s a nice species like us doing in a place like this? We live and we die, and we know it; we are glory, we are dust, and we know it; we are giants in the earth, we are a hunk of bones, just passing through, and we know it. We are prisoners on death row, who don’t even have the grace of knowing how death is coming, or when. But that, exactly, is our glory – here we are, in this impossible, ludicrous situation, but we make the best of it.

Oh sure, we live in denial of what’s coming – of death, of physical breakdown, of the indignities of aging. Sometimes I think there should be a Dying Anonymous for all of us, where we have to get up in the meetings and say, ‘Hi, my name is Joe Jones, and I’m going to die.”

In his book, Living Your Dying, author Stanley Keleman describes two normal phases in the great flow of human life: Self-expanding is expressive, reaching out beyond the physical body to newness and social interaction; Self-collecting gathers inward, withdrawing from the social world to define the self and its boundaries. We see these pulsations constantly in therapy.

New therapists are often surprised that, after a dynamic, boundary-stretching session, the following session is comparatively ‘dead’, quiet and more pulled back. But this is exactly how growth and change occur, in pulses: expansion, then consolidation; rupture, then repair.

For example, in one session, someone might experience deep despair, feeling meaningless, hopeless, and hollow. If they are allowed to ‘drink deeply’ of that despair, to experience it fully, to breathe into it, held emotionally by the therapist, the next session might seem relatively tame, disconnected, thoughtful, leading the therapist to wonder if he is doing something ‘wrong’. But if the therapist stays with it, honoring the flow of experience, it pays off. On the way out the door, the patient might turn and say, “You know, I used to love dancing.” What does this mean? It means ‘Thank you’, it means ‘With your help, I’m remembering myself’, and it means that, if we can stand up to despair together, like facing a bully, there might be a way out of this. Does the patient know this? No. Do you say any of this out loud? Of course not – but you file it away, you hold it emotionally for the patient, and, most likely, you sigh to yourself that maybe, like Scherezade, you’ve earned the right to therapize another day.

So we face crazy, impossible things, like the unknown, our physical limitations, death and infirmity, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Where I used to work, in an alcohol rehab program, there was a poster up on the wall – a picture of a mouse, standing on the railroad tracks, giving the finger to an oncoming train. The caption was,

The last great act of defiance

In a way, we are all that mouse, insisting, in the face of overwhelming evidence all around us, that we MATTER. We pulse, expanding and consolidating, reaching out and withdrawing within, changing, changing, as we try to make sense of it all, find our place in it all, even though there are no ultimate answers. In Keleman’s book he tells this tale:

Plato, on his deathbed, was asked by a friend if he would summarize his great life’s work, the Dialogues, in one statement. Plato, coming out of a reverie, looked at his friend and said ‘Practice dying.’

But what does it mean, this ‘practice’? I think it means standing up to our emotional bullies within, not resisting that inside us which is trying to be born, breathing into change. In baseball, they talk of ‘making adjustments’: a kid comes into the league, with a great reputation for batting. He has torn up the minor leagues, and now he is poised to bring terror to the hearts of major league pitchers. And for a while, he does. But what happens? Major league pitchers are smart: they see his tendencies, and they adjust. They see that he is vulnerable to curve balls, low and away. Now what does the new kid do? If he is ordinary, he just continues to flail away at low-and-away curves, gradually becoming predictable, and mediocre. But if he has greatness, he adjusts back: he learns to let those curves go, forcing pitchers to throw him something hittable. And he studies them, too: he learns their tendencies, their patterns, their weaknesses, and he uses all of it against them. Life, also, is a game of adjustments. Things change, constantly. What we held on to for dear life yesterday, is lost for good; what was our best ‘material’ yesterday is irrelevant today.

So, what does Plato mean by practicing dying? Possibly, having an open attitude to changes, the ‘little deaths’ that happen to us throughout our lives. It means being light on our feet in the face of new information, not being unduly attached to ideas, images, or the status quo, not having to have things a certain way, being willing to not be in control all the time. And, maybe most of all, being committed to seeing things as they are. This doesn’t mean being wishy-washy, passive or uncaring. It doesn’t mean not being yourself. It means standing there and bringing your Self to each situation, meeting reality face to face and engaging it fully, in all its complexity, sitting with unsureness, if necessary, until a greater whole presents itself.

We all have our ‘tendencies’, to be sure – these are the legacy, for better or worse, of our early family lives, our genetic predispositions, our unique interactive experiences with life. And to some extent, we are all prisoners of our tendencies. The famous psychologist Alice Miller once wrote a remarkable book, which she called Prisoners of Childhood. It discussed exactly this – how we are all shackled, to a greater or lesser degree, to our early childhood experiences. The book didn’t sell well. Finally, she changed the name to The Drama of the Gifted Child. Sales took off and it became a best-selling classic. No need to explain why: we don’t want to know our ‘tendencies’, our limitations, our flaws. But, if we are willing to face them, to “adjust back” to life, we can do great things, and even if we don’t do great things, we can do ordinary things with a kind of greatness.

I have read quite a bit about prisoner of war experiences in World War II. One of the most surprising things I learned was the importance of rumors. Incorrect rumors. Yes, in memoirs man after man wrote that rumors, most of them begun by the prisoners themselves, were a major source of hope and ‘entertainment’. At first, I was shocked: I would have thought it would make a prisoner enraged to hear that, say, “General MacArthur is forming a 200,000 man army and is only two weeks from returning to free us”, and then learn that it is Wrong. But rumors were a cheap, available and defiant means of keeping up hope and morale, something the Japanese guards could not control, or codify, or influence. They became an expression of creativity, a way of keeping the men open to possibility, and a middle finger raised to the oncoming train.

So, yes, it’s true that death is the oncoming train in all of our lives. We are all on death row, prisoners of childhood, living on rumors. Our position is laughable to some, ludicrous to others, and wholly absurd to anyone who is a fair witness to it all. If you ask ‘heroes’ about their outrageous acts of bravery, they will invariably say, “I was just doing my job.”

And that’s what we do. If we are ludicrous, we are also magnificent: we “pull apart the darkness while we can”, and if we do not live forever, well, we do our best to live now, and that is heroic – that is our job.

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Doing What You Came Here For

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I place on the altar of dawn
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to,
And all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.

A Morning Offering, by John O’Donohue

 

You have been given the gift of life – and, if you’re lucky, a bunch of decades to do your thing.

Alright, what is your thing?

Checking your Facebook page 500 times a day?

Acting like everything is okay when it isn’t?

Fitting in, so nobody gets upset?

Keeping so busy that you never have to be with yourself?

Doing just enough to keep out of trouble?

Putting your head down and just repeating what you did yesterday?

What if you looked at yourself in the mirror every morning, and said,

Well, for cryin’ out loud, here I am again. They gave me another whole day. For all I know, it may be my last. What am I going to do with it? What could I do that I would look back on tomorrow and say, “Kid, you took that precious day and did a pretty good job with it.”

No, I don’t mean being a ‘do-gooder’, though, sure, that may be one thing you could do with it. I’m talking about living from the inside out – ‘manifesting’ (eeww: buzz word alert) who you actually are, out in the world. What is it to be you? I’m talking about coming up with an active answer to the complaint, “I never get a chance to really do what I want to do. I never get a chance to be who I really am.”

Sure, maybe you’re a jeweler and all you ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. Maybe you’re working in a day care center and you’re really fascinated by numbers. Or maybe you’re like most people, and you don’t KNOW ‘who you are’. It doesn’t stop you from feeling that you never get to BE who you are, though, does it? You still have that vague unease that you’re not really being YOU, even if you have no idea what that would look like – it still feels frustrating and unsatisfying, doesn’t it?

I can hear some of you saying, “Hey – we can’t all save the world, buddy.” True, but fortunately that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. I’m talking about incremental steps towards letting the cat (you!) out of the bag – small steps for tiny feet. It might start with this exercise:

I always wanted to _______________ (fill in the blank).

I wish just once I could ________________.

The people I really admire are ______________.

I can hear the classic comebacks:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

You can wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up first.

Yep, I get it. Just wishing alone does nothing. But wishing can lead to more than ‘nothing’: most new things start with an idea, a wish, a concept, a drive, a desire, a ‘vain’ hope – and then, by allowing those things to rattle around in our heads and hearts, they lead to a wish, dream, concept, drive, desire, and hope, that is more realistic, that is a first step, that is a revised version of the original dream.

The hokey saying, “dreams plus effort equal success” is not so crazy after all – because the primary thing holding us back from reaching some version of our dreams is that we give up before we start, mostly because, at the start, we can’t envision the modified version we might end up with. If you talk to people about their lives for a living, as I have done for decades, you begin to hear things – like the fact that, at the beginning, most people had never heard of what they ended up doing for a living. And, if they had, they might have rejected it because it was not “what they dreamed of”.

It takes emotional work to process a dream. Let’s say you start out wanting to be a famous performer. Of course, you know the odds against you are astronomical: you may feel you’re talented, but not that talented – so you give up, accepting “reality”. Now, what would happen if you continued with your dream?

Well, just as a representative example, this was the sequence of events for a woman I worked with, we’ll call her Josephine,  who dreamed of being a performer:

1) You take singing and guitar lessons – you do pretty well, but nobody ever suggests you should go on American Idol.

2) Nevertheless, you do develop your singing and playing ability, and your performance ‘chops’, to the point where you are able to perform at local open mikes. You get some pretty good responses, but again, no one says, “I’ve never heard anyone as good as you, Josie”, either.

3) Hanging out at the clubs, you get to know more and more people in the music scene, and also land a few paid gigs at local spots. It is gratifying, and some people really like what you do. You meet an agent who is in the audience at a local club you are working, and she’s a really cool person. She doesn’t offer you anything, but you talk a lot together, and it’s pretty interesting. Maybe this thing could actually work.

4) You get a better gig, but it’s on weekends, out of town. You are hostessing at a nice restaurant where you live, and on weekends you can make pretty good money, even though hostessing is a million miles away from what you really want to do. But you can’t afford to quit your job just to pursue one gig out of town. What do you do?

5) For some reason, you call the agent you met at that club – you end up talking to her for two hours. She talks to you like a Dutch uncle (aunt?) and says, kindly, “Josie dear, you’re an amazing person, but to tell you the truth, I don’t feel you have what it takes to make it as a performer.” She’s nice about it, but it hurts, bad. But on the other hand, there’s something about her that you trust, so you can’t just dismiss what she’s saying.

She does say, “You should call me sometime, when you’re feeling better. We should talk.” (Whatever that means.)

6) You cry – a lot.

7) You cry more – a lot. (Hopefully you have good friends. They help – a little.)

8) When you get off work late one Saturday night, you suddenly remember that the agent said to call her sometime, when you’re feeling better. You check: Hmmm, you’re feeling better, marginally.

9) You call her, hoping against hope that she has reconsidered her death sentence of you, and wants to work with you on your performance career.

10) She doesn’t want to work with you on your performance career – but, she does want to talk to you about something else. She’s a top agent in town, and has noticed that you are good with people, and know a lot of folks locally around the music business by now. She is trying to expand her business, and, maybe, could use someone like you. Of course, you would have to “start at the bottom”, but she feels you might have it in you to grow into a significant role in talent representation one day. You’re flattered, sort of, but inside you’re still really wounded that she didn’t want to talk to you about you-know-what. But, you tell her you really appreciate her time and comments, and you’ll have to think about it and get back to her.

11) You sulk alone. You sulk with friends.

12) Hmmm, you sigh a lot, but it kind of makes sense, what she said: you are a good judge of others’ talent, you are good with people, and you have always liked helping people pursue their dreams, even if you can’t pursue yours.

13) You cry.

14) (Sigh) You call her, and say you’re willing to talk more about it. (Sulk)

15) You do talk more about it. It’s starting to sound like a possibility: Your friends say, “I can totally see you doing it – helping people like that.”

16) More sighing – after all, if you accept this, it means throwing away your ‘real’ dreams, right?

17) Secretly, you’re getting kind of excited about this whole thing: “Wow, I could work for a talent agency: I’d still get to be around performers, watching them, helping them, and I always thought I had a good eye for talent.”

18) Last-ditch sighing, last-ditch crying. First-ditch excitement – all mixed up together.

19) You make a decision: you’re going to do it. It’s not as much as you’re making hostessing, but it’s in the field you love, and the potential in that field is a bit greater than in the field of guiding drunk people to their tables.

20) You have a new dream: Being a talent agent. “Gee, now that I’m a ‘professional’, I have to get some real working-woman clothes. This might be fun!”

Okay, I can hear you (you, reading this – you know who you are) saying, “Oh sure – he came up with an example where it all worked out, but what percentage of the time does that happen? My Uncle Moe wanted to be Enrico Caruso, and now he’s a broken-down bum on Skid Row. Dreams, schmeams.”

Folks – this is the way it REALLY happens, not pie in the sky. No, not every person finds work that is a perfect fit, and yes, this story would sound very different if Josie were a man, say, but I have helped many, many people “evolve” their dreams. And note: in the example I gave, Josephine did NOT “achieve her dreams” – but pursuing it did lead her to people, and circumstances, that made it possible to develop other dreams, that were achievable. And she had no thought whatsoever, at first, that being a talent agent was a possible (or desirable) dream for herself; and if I had been prescient (or stupid) enough at the beginning to say, “Josephine, you should be a talent agent,” she would have been hurt and angry, and rightfully so.

Does this mean,

Buy my new book: Twenty Steps To a New Dream, now with detailed instructions on how sulking can lower your insulin level and burn carbs! 

No – of course not. Every single person has a unique path to follow. You cannot ‘know’ beforehand what someone’s path will be, you cannot know beforehand what it will lead to, and it would be arrogant and disrespectful to try to, but you can know beforehand what, basically, needs to happen – that following a dream, with a lot of support, will lead to something meaningful and authentic, even if the path involves a lot of sighing and crying and rejection. Sure, it might hurt sometimes, but sighing and crying are not end points – they are only emotional way stations: if you are willing, sometimes, to sit with the sighing and crying, and have someone who believes in you (a therapist, in the case of those I have worked with), you will move beyond sadness and disappointment, to a new formulation of yourself and your possibilities, and all the emotional processing you have gone through will bring a maturity that will serve you in good stead in your ‘new’ dreams, a maturity you would never have had if you had instantly achieved your dreams (see Woods, Tiger), or if you had stayed home and never pursued them at all.  With a dream, anything might happen; but without a dream, you don’t have a chance.

So, the next time you stand there in the morning and look in the mirror, ask that sleepy guy or gal you see before you, what he or she can do to make sure the day isn’t wasted. It’s been said: “A dream is just a dream, but a goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Jeez, I don’t know about all that: dreams, plans, deadlines –  why not throw in a bag of peanuts and a partridge in a pear tree, too?

But a dream paired with some courage and some help: now that’s a plan!

Where does your plan start today, sleepyhead?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Part Baby

Man Holding Up Baby

Years ago, when my younger son was maybe seven or eight, we were watching some classic old Chip and Dale cartoons together (yes, on a scratchy old VHS tape!) that we had seen many times before. We were laughing a lot, glancing at each other during the ‘good’ parts. After the cartoons were over, we were quiet a while. Then, he looked over at me, very thoughtfully, and said, “Are you part baby?”

As a parent, I felt honored – like I had just been handed my Daddy diploma. But beyond that – I wondered about the question itself. Are we part baby?

We grow up fast, racing pell-mell to become adults, desperate to put ‘childish things behind us’ and prove ourselves, frantic to show the world that we’re not babies anymore. But does acting like adults, make us adults? Does something get lost in the rush? And what is an adult, anyway?

To most people who are beginning therapy, being an adult means being serious, not being needy, being independent, financially and emotionally, being able to ‘make it in the world’, being able to stand up for themselves, being a success, being strong. And to a certain extent, all these things are laudable goals in our society.

And for the same reasons, getting into therapy is a last resort for most people. Why? Because it ‘means’ (to them) they are not independent, that they are needy, that they can’t make it on their own, that they’re not a success, and that they’re weak – that they are not all those hallmarks of adulthood that I just ticked off above. And so, they come into therapy like a guy entering a pornography store or a girl going in for an abortion: squirming, ducking, cringing, uncomfortable, not wanting to be seen, embarrassed. Their whole attitude is, “Get me out of here, doc!”. So, when I basically say, “Sorry, but we have to get you in to here,” well, you can imagine the reaction.

Most people go at their lives (and their therapy, at first) like they’re skippering one of those Everglades airboats – skimming the surface of the water at top speed, bound for somewhere (‘adulthood’?) fast – moving, moving, anywhere but here. Then, they wonder why their lives don’t feel meaningful, their relationships fulfilling, their jobs worth going to.

Today, when I went outside to let Angus (my dog) into the backyard, I watched as he joyously raced into the yard, sniffing carefully around all his familiar haunts (checking his email?), leaving his calling card at important way stations, barking his hello, or his challenge, to the neighbor dog, surveying his kingdom. He was at eye-level to the world, he was of the world, close to the earth (‘terrier’ meaning just that), even in the earth, when he dug down to explore, or to make a comfortable lying-in place, as he always does.

I took a minute to look around me, and noticed, for the first time, a hollow in a tree near the back gate. In the span of a moment, a whole host of things went through my mind. I remembered how Boo Radley, the ghostly neighbor in To Kill a Mockingbird, left things in a tree hollow for Scout and Jem. Kids are at eye-level to the world, too. They notice things in the natural world: a butterfly, a smooth stone they can throw, or collect, a shrub they can hide in, a good place for digging. I also thought about how, in my early thirties, when I used to ride my bike a lot, I was surprised that I noticed things that I missed completely when I drove by in my car – noticed them and cared about them: the slow rise of a hill, the kind of trees in each neighborhood, the dogs in the yards, the potholes in the road that became familiar, pretty places to stop along the way that I looked forward to.

I even thought about a patient of mine who obsessed about what present to give her two year-old niece for Christmas. For weeks she went back and forth: A doll, if so, which one? A tricycle, if so what kind, what color? A dress, shoes, a matching outfit? In the end, she decided on an expensive toy, and wrapped it up carefully in ‘just the right’ box and paper. On Christmas morning, she could hardly wait to see how her niece liked the new toy. And what happened? The child tore open the package, threw the toy aside, and played all day with the wrapping paper and two kitchen spoons she found on the floor.

So, what is it we lose in the race to adulthood? It seems to me there are two ways to ‘move’, experientially, as a human being: deep, and laterally. As a child, we are like Angus, going deep all the time: we live in the moment, we notice the little things, we are in the world, and of it. We still have ‘intimations of immortality’, as the romantic poet said, “trailing clouds of glory” from the time before birth, when we were one with mother, one with the universe. We get hungry, we eat; thirsty, we drink; tired, we sleep; curious, we explore; need mother, we cuddle; need to be alone, we play on our own, with great concentration, wiping off Mom’s kiss haughtily when she intrudes, cluelessly, on our one-person universe. We feel our feelings, and let them show, not worried about how it looks, or whether it’s cool or not to laugh, to cry, to want, to need, to want to go go go, or crash and sleep for hours. In other words, we go deep, partaking of what the day has to offer, fully, unselfconsciously, openly, wholeheartedly.

And then what happens? A million little things, in a million different ways. We are told we are bad, wrong, crazy, selfish, stupid, too this, too that, not enough this, not enough that. As we get older, we are told we have ‘things to do’: watch your little brother, do your chores, do your homework, don’t bother Mommy, clean up your room, practice the piano, don’t do what the other kids do, why can’t you be like the other kids, be good, be right, be nice, be kind, be strong, be pretty, be enough. But most of all: Grow Up! Be a Big Boy, a Big Girl. Then later (and these come fast and furious): be cool, be hip, be desirable, do well, get good grades, stop fooling around, get serious, get a job, get a better job, make money, find the right person, get married, get a house, get children, make more money, get a better house, get more serious, take care of business. Get with the program!

And the result? We don’t have the time, or encouragement, to ‘go deep’ into life anymore. We lose touch with the moment, with our feelings, our needs, and we ‘get with the program’. Now, we have to move laterally. We need change, variation, newness, differentness, a jolt of some kind. We need the ‘new’, in order to feel anything. We need more, in order to have anything. We rev the engine, and honk the horn, and curse the other drivers. We’re impatient, driven, tapping our toes and bobbing our heads as we move, move, move to the next thing, the next better level, trying to keep up, not be left behind, stay with the herd. Now, we can only achieve a ‘jolt’, a faint echo of ‘going deep’, by drinking a couple glasses of wine, a couple shots of Jim Beam, using marijuana, meth, cocaine, MDMA, hash, speed, by misusing sex, by obsessive exercising, buying the latest this, having the newest that. We have to move, move, move, because we can’t stop and appreciate where we are anymore. We’re jaded, stunted, blunted, sated, blah, and “whatever”.

In short, we’re gone. Elvis has left the building, just as Elvis had so clearly left himself, by the end.

And how do we find our way back? We begin by doing the very opposite of what we have done to ourselves, what we’re used to. We start by Stopping. Learning to Pay Attention again. Breathing. Noticing. Being, not Doing, hopefully in an encouraging environment. There are many such opportunities in our culture, though none of them are being hammered into us by major corporations, or splashed up on billboards, or listed in People Magazine’s 100 Sexiest list.

Psychotherapy is only one of these, but it happens to be the one I have devoted my life to, and the one I used myself, so I can only speak knowledgeably about that one way. For many patients, psychotherapy in effect becomes the answer to the question: How do you cure adulthood?

Re-learning (or learning for the first time, in many cases) how to go deep, and how to re-connect with the child, takes a safe place, a safe person, and a willing participant. Though it is ‘natural’, it is hard – all change is hard. People often ask me, “Is this going to work? I can’t afford to pay for something that’s not going to work.”

“Well,” I ask them, “how much time, effort and money have you put into what you have NOW? And, did you get your money’s worth?”

It is fitting that ‘getting better’ is called recovery, because for most people, it means literally recovering lost powers, lost parts of the self, and lost capabilities, and integrating them back into the personality, putting them to good use again. For many people, therapy becomes the first time they “really laughed” in forever, really felt strongly about anything, really fought for anything, really cared, really cried. I heard a poem yesterday, that actually was the inspiration for this whole posting:

You must walk on the valley and mountain,
For days, for months, for years,
Then at last you might come to the fountain,
At last, to the fountain of tears.

The author is recognizing, appropriately, that for most people, most ‘adults’ (especially men, in our society), it takes work to get back to the capacity to cry. You have to be able to feel to cry, to respond, to something sad, or moving. That is actually the true meaning of the badly ill-used word responsibility : The ability to respond.

For many people, it takes a tragedy, a shock, loss, or crisis to jolt them back on the road to themselves. The break-up of a relationship, an auto accident, being fired, being rejected, getting in trouble with drugs or alcohol, a health crisis, the loss of a parent, spouse, friend. These and many other things can force us to question our values, and our value, to feel we are lost in life, to feel we don’t have a life, or one worth living. These things are sad and tragic, but if we use them to get back to ourselves, they are pain with a purpose.

What people can achieve in therapy is what I think of as reaching back, extending a hand back to clasp that of the child, to ‘complete the circuit’ of human capability that is lost by ditching the child in one’s frenzy to grow up. True maturity is not being only childlike, or only adult, or only independent, or only dependent: it is having the full range of human capacities in your quiver, with the ability to respond fully to all situations, with a minimum of artifice or self-consciousness, trusting in your body’s responses without embarrassment or shame, having the ability to dive deeply into the richness of the moment, in your own way.

And that is what my son meant when he asked me that question. I was there, with him, in the moment. Did it mean I was a child? No – because I have worked hard to embody all the things that make up a human being, and I hope I have succeeded, at least somewhat, in recovering my wholeness, just as I help my patients to do.

So, in that precious moment, I felt that I really could answer my son, and with some pride, “Yes, I am part baby.”

What would your answer be?

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.

Wishin’ and a Hopin’

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When you wish upon a star,
makes no difference who you are;
Anything your heart desires,
Will come to you.

Hmmm, really? I mean, thanks for the positive spin and all, but isn’t that in the same category as buying a lottery ticket and then starting to spend all your new money? And, oh yeah, thanks for that “makes no difference who you are” part, too – very egalitarian of you!

Fate is kind,
She brings to those who love,
The sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.

Wow, now I’m all set: I’ve got Fate, a cool lady who watches over me. I picture her as Lady Liberty, the gal on the old half dollars, or maybe the Columbia Pictures logo or the Statue of Liberty – anyway, all swathed in diaphanous gownery, and maybe some kind of torch nearby. Or maybe the Justice woman – you know, the one with those balancing scales? – perhaps she moonlights as Fate when she’s not busy in court.

Well, anyway, we know that, one way or the other, somebody very fair, very kind, very powerful, very diaphanous, and very swath-y, is up there watching over us, because, darn it, we’re good and we try hard and we deserve it!

Right?

Show of hands?

Today I was in the Chinese restaurant, where I eat lunch almost every day, and the following assemblage was sharing my shift: an older woman, looking like maybe a university head librarian – prim and smart; a couple of young guys whom I’m pretty sure work in maintenance at the elementary school near my office; an older white-haired gentleman sitting with a young woman whom I’m guessing was his daughter; and a young couple who mostly argued away their lunch period, but maybe just enjoy intense discussions. Numerous ages, races and social strata.

In any case, what did each and every one of them do when they had finished their lunch? Carefully opened their fortune cookies and read what was within. And the ones that were not alone read them aloud to their partners, and vice versa, prompting enthusiastic comments, knowing smiles, nods, and shakes of heads.

And this is because they all believe that a piece of paper jammed into a cookie by a machine at a factory miles away, perhaps weeks ago, foretells their future, right?

Well, no, not exactly — but then, not exactly ‘no’ either. We don’t really believe it, but then we don’t really want to ignore it, either, especially since it’s right there in the cookie. I mean, it might be right, right? And you don’t want to tempt fate by not even looking, especially since it might be right, and especially when you can pretend you were just going to eat some of the delicious cookie, and then, just for kicks and to be a good sport, you take the fortune out and read it, and then just kind of forget to eat the cookie. That’s not believing in anything weird, is it? It’s just being sociable and, oh yeah, being willing to participate in the cultural ambience of the Chinese restaurant. Kind of being a multiculturalist and bon vivant, you know, like making sure to use the chopsticks – right?

The truth is, we want to believe in things, that there are forces – especially good forces – somewhere above and beyond us, that look down and smile benevolently, that smooth our way, that know us, that see that our hearts are pure, or relatively pure, and make sure that things are fair, and just, and balanced. As Americans, we want to believe that anyone can do anything. We love to hear stories about the underprivileged, the reviled, the disabled, the unfortunate, who rise above it and become President of the United States, or at least get a decent job, maybe with benefits.

What we don’t want is to be inconsequential dots, spinning on a pear-shaped bundle of rocks in the middle of nowhere, and even at that, only temporarily, since we’re all on our way to death at some unknowable time. How undignified! How measly! How crummy!

When my daughter was six or so, a new and disconcerting element entered into our bedtime ritual. Whereas before, I would sing songs, make up crazy stories, or just listen to her talk about her girlfriends and their various, and ever-changing, qualifications as companions of the soul, one night she sprang a new one on me, and it was a doozy:

“Since we’re all going to die anyway, what difference does anything make?”

Well, I admit I was a bit unprepared for that. After all, previously, my fatherly wisdom had only been tested to reasonable limits – say, “Do you think Meagan was mean for talking to everyone else but me today, and do you think she did it on purpose?” Or perhaps “I can’t believe Shannon went ahead and wore that red top, when we all agreed to wear green today.”

But now, this! The first night, still in shock, I kind of stalled, muttering the classic “Oh, honey – you won’t have to worry about that for a long time,” or some such mealy-mouthed treacle.

Of course, I got what I deserved. The next night, it was right back to, “But Dad, really: since we’re all going to die anyway, what difference does anything make?”

At first, I was taken aback. But, wait a minute. Ah – now I had it: she was really just worried about Mom and Dad dying, leaving her all alone and unprotected. I remembered thinking that same thing, when I was a kid. And after I had said it out loud to my mother, it seemed to lose its terror.

Now, I was ready to rumble: “Oh, honey, Mommy and Daddy won’t go away for a looong, time – and by the time we do go, you will be much, much older, and able to take care of yourself. You probably can’t imagine that now, but believe me, you’ll do just fine.”

That brought a gimlet-eyed stare that could have bored a hole through an ingot made of solid lead. Busted. There is nothing lower than having your six-year old daughter be utterly disappointed in you.

So now I actually had to man up and think this through. I thought of Emerson, I thought of Thoreau, I even thought of me, asking myself, “If I were actually wise enough to answer this question, what would I say?” By the next night, I thought I at least had a workable hypothesis.

I did my songs, my stories, all the warm-up acts that lead to the grand finale. Then here it came: “Since we are all just going to die, why does anything matter?”

Here goes nothing: “Well, here’s what I think. The fact that we’re all going to die is exactly why it matters to make today be everything you can make it, to not miss it, to really be here for it. It makes today all the more precious, because we don’t know how many more days we are going to get, or how much more time we’ll get with the people we love. So today, now, be the best you, you can be, and give it everything you have, because this is it.”

She sighed a deep and resonant sigh. It wasn’t a contented sigh exactly, but it was better than those disdainful rolling eyes that would have made a sullen thirteen year-old proud. I wasn’t really golden, but I wasn’t on probation any more either. In the succeeding weeks and months, she continued to ask the question, in many different forms, and I continued to answer it, in many different forms. I knew she still wanted a better answer – heck, we all do, but we both knew that, when it really came down to it, my answer was the answer. Not easy to do, but still, the answer.

I love to read my fortune in the cookies (though I hate the darn cookies); I love to believe in a benevolent Lady Fate; I love When You Wish Upon a Star, but the great challenge of life is to live it, to be there for it, to give it all you have, to notice and appreciate the way things actually are, right here, right now.

Don’t miss it, because, unless there’s a diaphanous gown floating around that I don’t know about, it’s all we have.

Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.