I have developed a simple philosophy of life: Don’t be a dick. If you can’t help others, at least don’t be mean to them. Think whatever you will about other people, but don’t belittle them to build yourself up. Some folks have a hard time following this principle. If more of us did, there would be fewer dicks in the world to bring us down.
A young psychoanalyst named Fliess once asked Freud how a therapist knows when a patient has been cured. “When the patient realizes therapy never ends,” Freud said.
I’ve been thinking about taking a break from therapy in the near future. After at least one monthly session for the last decade and a half, I’m ready to move on.
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, each of us simultaneously a personal expert and unreliable narrator of our lives. We awake each day in the same body we went to bed with, but our worries and neuroses, played out in dreams or nightmares, don’t disappear overnight. Our core conflicts persist but manifest in different ways according to our moods or external stressors. Yet every morning we begin again in the middle of things, psyching ourselves up for the inevitable challenges of facing the world in front of our mirrors.
My personal narrative includes memories of individual therapy sessions spent crafting and revising an inconclusive autobiography, therapy itself a series of stories-within-stories, a self-reflexive automatic writing of the soul.
There’s no cure for the trauma I’ve suffered, but I’ve learned to recognize the sound of my own voice again, which speaks to the kindness of my therapists. A kindness I’m now showing myself.
I went today to my local mental health facility for a shot in my psyche. It’s like a shot in the arm, but there’s no vaccine for melancholy—the best you can hope for is a (self-esteem) booster.
A client stood at the check-in desk in front of me. He wore brown pants with black shoes and a gray jacket. He kept his knit hat on inside the building. Nothing about his appearance begged attention. I figured he’d gone about his life with little fanfare, a common man with simple tastes. The sun shined on him like everyone else. He’d get wet in the rain like any poor soul, but the weather didn’t concern him.
My initial impressions changed within seconds. He’d been to the center many times, it was clear. Staff members greeted him left and right. Another client walked by and smiled hello. He entertained the front desk ladies with a story about his dog. It must have been funny, but I didn’t hear the joke. I was more interested in his parting remarks, his signature goodbye.
“Thank you, Judy,” he said. “I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Judy.”
A minute later, to a therapist in a cast, navigating a knee scooter:
“I’m glad the surgery went well, Mary. I will pray for you and your family. I love you, Mary.”
He thanked a nurse. “I’ll pray for you and your family, Terrie. I love you, Terrie.”
Nobody batted an eye. Nothing felt inappropriate. At least here he felt safe, dealing with his struggles—whatever his condition or official diagnosis—on his own terms.
He’s praying for everyone and everyone’s family. He thanks you and he loves you. He’s refreshingly odd and disarmingly friendly—a poet of the everyday, a philosopher of kindness. Someone thinking of others beyond their awareness of him.
The other night I had a dream worthy of some Freudian analysis. A figure outside myself but clearly a part of my psyche asked me a question: Why be kind?
Why be kind when the world is full of cruelty? Why be kind when people can be so awful?
I’ve heard from more than a few women, upon expressing their desire not to see me anymore, that I’m a nice guy. I pride myself on treating people well regardless of the situation. We’re all suffering in our own way and the odds are often against us; a little compassion goes a long way.
But mean people take advantage of nice people. Sensitive men are often seen as effeminate, over-civilized mama’s boys. It’s not easy being kind. Sometimes I wish for a harder shell.
A dream full of questions left me with a partial answer. Why be kind? Because when you’re kind to people you’re showing yourself compassion. You’re being kind to you.
But my illness, hell-bent on keeping me down, challenges this axiom. In my darkest moments I abandon myself on the precipice of disaster. Life sucks and I turn the vacuum on full blast. I’m cruel to myself, curse my imperfections, swear off hope for a lifetime of dread.
I forget that I can’t show kindness to others without first caring for me. The world is tough enough. I can’t be strong for you if I’m too busying beating myself up. The question isn’t why be kind but how can we learn to forgive ourselves.