A Giant Leap of Faith

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been very helpful to me in grieving important losses, including those that still haunt me from childhood. In this context, ACT's working hypothesis is that the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language and can be addressed by adjusting our relationship with verbal thought.

ACT emphasizes how thinking can interact with feelings to obstruct our pursuit of values. Let's take my mother's death as an example and see how this works.

As mentioned last time, my mother died in a psychiatric hospital after battling depression for years. That much is factual. But my mind has never been satisfied with the documented information.
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Passing through Nature to Eternity

To be alive is to be vulnerable, but to be human is to be sensitive in ways undreamt of by other creatures. All life forms are prey to death, loss, illness, and injury. But people also fear disappointment, ill-repute, and injustice. As was touched on last time, our values make us susceptible to considerable pain.

The most obvious and universal value is love, and it inevitably brings grief. No one we love will be with us forever, and except for those rare cases of simultaneous death, one lover always passes from this life before the other. The result is grief. No one who lives beyond youth escapes it, and many children suffer it too.

When I was five years old my grandfather died, and a beloved dog was stolen, never to return. I learned two flavors of bereavement that year. In the first case, I felt remorse. My father's father seemed to me a frightening and humorless man. He often yelled at me and my cousin and never played with us. We made fun of him behind his back.

When he died after a bad car crash, I couldn't forgive myself for my disrespect. If only I could have gone back and behaved better, learned to love him more and tried to understand him.
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Vulnerability is the Price of Value

We all hope to pursue certain directions in life. We may not always admit how much our values affect us, but they greatly influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The person who makes a mistake and loses a cherished job feels shame. The mental obsessions that surround the shame may center on what went wrong, on the boss who couldn't tolerate errors, or on the spouse who will be disappointed. Despite these different thoughts, the shamed response is driven by the conviction that doing a good job is important.

Mistakes matter because the work matters (consider a surgeon who made a dreadful error---he or she is concerned about the patient's outcome, not just personal consequences). Performance matters because work well done brings social approval, which is painfully lost when the boss fires a failing worker. Employment matters because material support keeps family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But most of all, work matters because it is a central value in the lives of most people.

If the job is lost because of addiction, then the addict feels shame about his or her dependence on substance use. But the shame remains driven by the underlying value: useful work.
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Living Values

On my personal blog, WillSpirit, I wrote a few posts about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Writing about ACT seemed like a valuable blogging direction, because the method has helped me live more effectively than ever before. As I’ve worked on my emotions and moods over nearly forty years, I’ve tried many therapies, spiritualities, and activities, but only with ACT have I seen robust improvement. Part of ACT’s effectiveness in my case may be due to the groundwork laid by earlier practices, but there’s much more to it than that. I therefore feel called to help popularize the approach.

I began the discussion with the last post on this site, entitled How Much Can We Endure?, That piece made the point that hardship can become enriching when we find meaning within it, which is a central theme of ACT. But I also emphasized that some people have trouble bearing up under life’s burdens, by which I specifically meant they die due to poorly chosen coping strategies. Suicide, and death caused by substance abuse, seem like clear signs of failure to manage life effectively.

But does addiction, by itself, mean a person is living poorly? Does chronic depression? Workaholism? High anxiety? Extreme sensitivity? Low self-esteem?

In evaluating these questions, we come to ACT’s emphasis on values as one of the six dimensions of psychological flexibility, and hence wellness.
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How Much Can We Endure?

God never gives us more than we can handle.

IMHO, this famous saying speaks nonsense! Consider that between preschool and first grade I watched my mother slowly wither away and then die from depression after a painful divorce. Consider that my sister recently succumbed to alcoholic liver disease after drinking against her pain for decades.

Consider that I've watched friends destroy themselves in various direct and indirect ways, or that countless patients of mine suffered from self-inflicted wounds and diseases that finally killed them. If you weigh all that evidence (plus any of your own you'd care to add to the mix), you'll recognize that life overwhelms many people; they cannot endure the hardship and pass from this world in misery. Where is the evidence to suggest that the universe serves up only ordeals we can handle?

On the other hand, there is no trauma or loss so severe it cannot be transmuted into something valuable. The fact that many people never effect such alchemy does not negate the truth that many others do. Transcendence of suffering is always within our reach, though we often don't know how to grasp it.

Once I viewed a
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The Body Didactic

Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don't make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma.

At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations.

Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined.

In the last post we highlighted the body's gentle wisdom and how often we ignore it. As I move further along the path to peace of mind, the importance of befriending physical nature becomes ever more obvious. The injuries of the past are stored in our biology, where they affect every aspect of our lives.
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Bodily Seduction as Invitation to Mindfulness

Imagine someone asks you this question: "What are you?"

We seldom get queried in this way, since the more typical questions are: "Who are you?" or "What do you do?"

So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: "I'm a physician." or "I'm a writer." Others will state an important social connection: "I'm a mother." or "I'm an American." A few will refer to religion: "I'm a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc)."

But few of us will reply, without forethought: "I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain." And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.
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Rising Above Words

Language has enabled humanity's success, but it has also caused many of our problems. As a result, and even though I like to think of myself as a writer, my relationship with words feels conflicted.

On the one hand, they're fun to work with and they communicate ideas, but on the other they lead to big conflicts in society, relationships, and the human mind.

One problem is that language is unconstrained; you can say or think almost anything, whether it is helpful or not. Furthermore, a single object or event can be described in a multitude of ways, which invites disagreement. This leads to intense discord because we are programmed (either by evolution, society, or both) to take words very seriously. As people we attack our neighbors for saying 'forbidden' things, and we attack ourselves for thinking them.
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The Advantage of Disadvantage

Life promises us nothing but the experience of living until we die. We cannot expect our dreams to be fulfilled. We cannot avoid hardship and loss. These principles apply to all.

But even though no one can squeeze guarantees out of fate, there is great unevenness in our fortunes. Some people simply seem luckier than others. They enjoy families that provide more resources of love and support. As a consequence, or maybe because of inborn personality factors, they grow into confident, resourceful, and resilient adults.

They suffer little self-doubt and have no sense of self-loathing. Their lives unfold relatively smoothly, and as they enter the later stages of adulthood they can look back with pride at how they built success. They may have achieved career acclaim, raised happy children, and/or simply radiated good cheer as they walked upright through the world.

Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way for everyone, and we all know of human situations that fall short of such comfort and success. First, there are the large populations across the globe that suffer under extreme poverty, chronic warfare, and oppression. We see the images of shantytowns and war-torn cities in which stunned and dusty children wander wide-eyed and alone. We observe their innocent, wounded faces and wonder: what can these orphans possibly hope for in the future?

And yet, they seem far away and unconnected to our affluent societies. We try to reassure ourselves that these kids don't suffer like we would in the same situation, because they don't know what they're missing. It's a vain and selfish hope, of course, but sometimes it's our only defense against feeling overwhelmed by the unfairness in the world.
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The Threefold Power of Silence

At some point in every life, hardship threatens. For some of us it starts in childhood: we suffer the death of a parent, unspeakable trauma, or grinding neglect. Others feel protected until adulthood or even middle life, but sooner or later sterner fates intrude. Perhaps a child gets sick, or a marriage ends, or a career fails. Maybe illness strikes and the end of life comes into view.

When fear, loss, or setbacks shatter peace, we seek answers. We turn to friends and relatives for support. Some of us consult mental health professionals. Some of us enter houses of worship or meditation.

Finding relief proves difficult. All too often, life delivers new hardships even as we scramble to cope with the old ones. We may begin to question whether life offers enough enrichment to make its agonies worthwhile.
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