RSS Feed

Tag Archives: free will

What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

Where the Heart and Mind Meet

Heart and mind

Last week I had someone contact me out of the blue because she needed to interview a mental health counselor. She heard about me through her aunt, who directed her to my blog. I like being interviewed, and I like being helpful, so I said yes. One of her questions was what my theoretical orientation/approach is. I haven’t answered this question in a while, and the longer I practice, the harder it is to answer.

These days I would say that I teach people how to accept and tolerate pain. Which is not a popular response for some clients. Usually their goal is something like, help me get rid of my pain. And believe me, if I had the power to do that, I would. It’s just that pain doesn’t often work that way.

We believe that we can make our pain go away because we think we have more control over our feelings than we actually have. This is a misconception of what it means to have free will. Not everything that happens in our minds is a matter of choice.

For example, I struggle with being obsessive. This seems like it should be under my control, since I should be able to stop my obsessive thoughts. In fact, for a while, one popular cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique was called thought-stopping. For some reason, it took decades for researchers to figure out that this doesn’t actually work.

I still try it, though. I tell myself to stop obsessing all day long. In fact, I do all of the CBT strategies that are supposed to help. I challenge my irrational thoughts. I avoid the word “should.” I use positive language. Practice gratitude. But still. The obsessing continues. To those people for whom being rational is sufficient to stop your pain, all I can say is, lucky you.

Most people don’t like medication because needing it seems to signify a lack of control, which signifies personal weakness. I have to admit, I had the same bias. If you read my blog, then you know it took me many years to start and stay on my meds. Even now, I try not to use them until the obsessing becomes unbearable. But then my psychiatrist phrased taking my meds as a way to have control over my anxiety. A novel idea. I like control. So now I take them sooner than I used to.

These days I tell clients to ask themselves, how much pain are you willing to tolerate in order to say that you don’t need meds? Rather than feeling like a failure because they need meds, they can think of taking them as a choice to alleviate their suffering.

The other thing I do is teach clients how to practice self-compassion. All of those rational strategies work better if you express compassion for your pain first. If you say things to yourself like, obsessing is painful. I’m sorry you have to be in pain. It’s not your fault that you can’t make it stop. Why don’t you try ______ and see if that helps? And I go through my arsenal of strategies until something helps. Or until the obsessing subsides.

Having compassion for my suffering frees up some of the energy that I spend on beating myself up for not being rational. Which, paradoxically, allows me to have more control. More free will. Perhaps compassion is the place where the heart and mind meet.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s still hard to practice self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me. My automatic response is still to tell myself to stop being obsessive. But there’s no question that it works. My blog is proof of that. Because it’s been a long time since someone has told me that I’m being too hard on myself after reading one of my posts.

Telepathy

I went though a period where I was really into books about Near Death Experiences. It started when I went to this training on positive psychology, and the presenter said that the book My Descent Into Death, by Howard Storm, is the only written account of someone who went to hell before he went to heaven.

I already knew all the stuff about positive psychology since that’s one of my areas of expertise, but the story about this guy got my attention. I had to find out what someone could have done that would be bad enough to go to hell. It was surprisingly innocuous. But I’ll save that story for another post.

One of the things that struck me the most in the book was Storm’s assertion that we are capable of communicating with other people without words and across space and time. I’ve always felt this was true–especially with people whom you’ve known. You know that expression about someone tugging at your heartstrings? That’s how I imagine it happens. Some invisible wire connects your heart to theirs when you meet someone, and you can communicate with them through this wire.

I actually tested this out last week. I was thinking about this guy and I texted him later to find out if he could feel it, and he said he did. He named the time of day and everything. And he’s not someone who would ordinarily be thinking about me.

Sometimes I’ve tried to communicate with people after a break up. Usually there are things that I want to say that I no longer have the opportunity to say. Things that I could never say in person, or that I didn’t realize at the time.

For the longest time I was mad at my first husband for ruining our marriage. But every now and then I’ll remember something about the way I treated him, and I’ll tell him that I understand why he had to leave. That I’m not mad anymore. It makes me feel better to think that I can still tell him things, even if we never see each other again.

This is also the book that went into great detail about how angels play a role in our day-to-day life. So when there are important messages that need to be delivered, I pray that God will send an angel to someone. My high school teacher and her daughter recently lost their husband/father, so I’ve asked God to send extra angels their way to surround them with strength and love. He can even take some of mine if they need more. Sometimes that’s what I do for clients, too, when I don’t know how else to help them.

You know that confrontation problem I mentioned in my last post? So far, the closest I’ve come to telling him that he needs to get on meds is to ask an angel to whisper it into his ear while he’s sleeping. Because if the message comes from God, he might believe it. If it comes from me, not so much.

Maybe I can even do the same thing I did with my friend: ask him if he’s gotten any messages from God lately. If nothing else, it could be a good opening for the conversation.

A Just World

I am having deja vous.  Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive.  Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.

Fear of Sadness

Most people find it difficult to tolerate negative feelings like sadness.  This task is even more difficult when you suffer from depression, because any time your sadness feels too intense or lasts too long, you worry that the depression is coming back.  And if you’ve ever been depressed, you know how terrifying the prospect is of going back to that dark place.

Your loved ones also become hypersensitive to your sadness, which just exacerbates your fears.  If you’re feeling down, they ask you if you’re taking your meds, or if maybe your meds need to be adjusted.  Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for meds.  I’ve tried to go off them several times, and each time I got depressed again.  But it’s unfortunate that once you’ve been depressed, every feeling has to be scrutinized for potential pathology.

There’s also this added sense of failure associated with relapse.  Like you should have been able to prevent it this time, since you’ve been there before.  And even though you recovered before, you fear that if it happens again, you won’t be so lucky the next time.

And even if you do recover, you fear that the wait will be agony.  I fear depression much more than anxiety because when I’m anxious I can take an Ativan and I feel better immediately.  But antidepressants don’t work that way, so there’s not much I can do to feel better right away when I’m depressed.

Whenever I am afraid I’m becoming depressed, I journal about my fears, my sense of failure, and my pain.  And when I look back at these entries, I realize how strong I am.  There are a lot of things that suck about depression, but I have no doubt that it has made me a stronger person, even while it tries to convince me that I’m weak.

But how do I know when I’m sad versus depressed?  To be honest, I don’t always know.  Sometimes I feel depressed for a day.  Sometimes I feel sad for what feels like an eternity.  The line is not as clear-cut as we’d like to think.  But regardless of whether it’s sadness or depression, the best I can do is to control what I can control.  This includes therapy, meds, stress management, and self-care.

And most importantly, for me, it means practicing self-acceptance–of my sadness, my depression, and everything else that makes me who I am, for better or worse.

How to Save a Life

A few years ago a client told me that I saved his life. Well, he didn’t tell me directly.  He told my colleague when he was drunk at a gala. But he told her to tell me. Although I’m not sure he remembers doing so. Still, I was humbled by this. I knew therapy was important to him, but I didn’t think his life was in danger. But then again, even when clients are in therapy, they don’t always tell you the full story.

Once I had to cancel a session with this client and he stopped coming in for about a month. Apparently he got depressed because he felt like I had abandoned him. A professor contacted him because he had also stopped going to class. When he came back to therapy, he told me that his professor saved his life. That was the first time I really understood how much therapy means to some clients, even when they say they’re not sure they want to be there.

Last week I went to a threat assessment training, and the first case that the presenter discussed was a student who had to go to the police department because she told her roommate she was suicidal. While she was there, she asked for a piece of paper and a pen. She drew what appeared to be a bunch of random doodles. But later when they looked at the drawing, they saw that she had embedded the word help three times.

This, too, reminded me that people may say they don’t want help but their actions tell you otherwise.

Before I started blogging, I thought blogs were just another example of our narcissistic culture in that journaling, which is supposed to be a private experience, was turned into something that you shared with the world and everyone was free to comment. But now I realize that blogs can be a way for people who have never had a voice to connect with people like themselves.

My favorite blog is by Nelly N. She writes passionately and honestly about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other things. She shares her most painful experiences so that other people who suffer in silence will realize that they are not alone. And it works.

A few days ago the student group that I advise had their annual eating disorder panel. It consists of students in recovery who are brave enough to share their story. On our campus, people with eating disorders are blamed and judged more harshly than any other disorder. Not surprisingly, no one wants to admit to having one publicly.

Every year, at least one student seeks treatment after attending the panel. And the next year, those students volunteer to speak on the panel so that they can help someone else who is alone with their eating disorder. Sometimes they use the opportunity to speak as motivation to get better.

We don’t have to be able to leap tall buildings to save someone’s life. Sometimes heroes are ordinary people who take action when someone needs help.

                    

God’s Will

It feels incomplete to talk about blame and free will without also talking about God’s will.  This one is the scariest of the 3 to write about, but I’m committed to being honest, so I’m making myself do it.

When I was in high school, my best friend’s father died of a heart attack in his early 40’s.  During the funeral, his best friend broke down crying while giving the eulogy.  My friend’s mom calmly took his place, saying that she believed her husband’s death was God’s will so she was at peace with it.

That really bothered me.  I was glad that it gave her comfort, but I could not fathom how God could want someone to die.  If deaths are God’s will, how can it be a sin to commit suicide?  Or murder, for that matter.  Or acts of terrorism.  All of these deaths would just be a part of God’s plan; these people were simply fulfilling their roles.  In fact, sin wouldn’t even be possible.

There is someone in our tennis community who is reaching the end of her battle with cancer.  Although I did not know her well, I was struck by how positive and kind she was when I met her last year.  She was in the midst of chemo at the time, and she was my opponent on the court.  And she kicked my ass.  Which was both impressive and upsetting, given my competitive nature.

I have been praying for her and her family, but I struggle with what to ask God for if death is, in fact, part of God’s plan for her.  I know some people don’t believe in God for this reason.  Or if God exists, they don’t want to worship a God who would allow people to suffer.  I wouldn’t go that far.  It is clear from the life of Christ and the teachings of Buddha, and probably most religions, that no one is immune to suffering.

I accept that, but it’s still hard to tolerate.  I try to imagine what it would be like to be her or her loved ones, but I can’t.  My brain won’t let me go there.  It’s too painful.  Too much to bear.  I can’t envision surviving a loss like that, even though I know that somehow I would if I had to.

I do my usual prayer.  Because we’re allowed to ask, even if we don’t always get what we want.  God, if at all possible, please let her have a miraculous recovery.  And then I say a more realistic prayer.  Please minimize their suffering to the extent possible.  Please  surround them with love, to mitigate the pain. 

I am no theologian, but based on the story of Adam and Eve, one thing is for certain: God wants us to have free will.  We, too, have the power to say no.  We can choose not to follow God’s plan.  We can choose not to love God, or not to love at all.

In the midst of tragedies, the people involved always say that they are humbled by the outpouring of love and support from people they don’t even know.  That it does mitigate the pain.  So I will continue to pray for this member of the tennis community and her family.  If love can ease their pain, then I will choose love.