Saturday, June 23, 2012

Life and death

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  These are questions that humankind has asked again and again for thousands of years.  Of course there is no definitive answer; how could there be?  Still, almost every human being ponders these questions at some point in their lives.  Underlying our desire to assign meaning to our existence is the everpresent knowledge of our own mortality.  Perhaps it is because our lives are finite that we pursue our quest for meaning with such urgency.  Some would even argue that it is death that makes life meaningful.

I understand how an argument could be made for this idea.  Life is more precious to us because we know it will not last forever.  We cherish our time on earth more because we know it is limited. This is why people who have endured a life threatening ordeal and survived oftten gain a new appreciation for life; they realize with renewed clarity how quickly it can all end. 

While the certainty of eventual death makes life more meaningful for us, it also tends to generate a significant amount of fear and anxiety.  There are, of course, people who have no fear of death, but they do not represent the majority.  Most of us are at the very least uncomfortable with death; some of us are terrified of it.  Which brings me to a question I've been considering a lot lately: How do we cope with the reality of death? 

I have periodically struggled with this question for many years.  Death scares me.  The prospect of losing the people I love scares me.  The knowledge that I will someday die scares me.  Every time I try to think about death -- to come to terms with it -- I become deeply depressed.  I typically spend a few days struggling to sort out my thoughts and feelings.  (Although on one occasion I spent a whole semester doing this.  I was taking a class called "On Death and Dying."  9/11 happened that semester too.  It was probably the most depressing semester I ever spent in college).  Eventually, I decide that it's probably best for me to stop thinking about it; if I remain in despair for too long I fear I will find it difficult to get out.  I see no benefit in allowing myself to become depressed.  Unfortunately, I am never able to make sense of it all; I simply push all thoughts of death from my mind and throw myself into the business of living life.

So how do we live with the knowledge that we - along with everyone we love - will die?  I think most people do what I eventually do whenever thoughts about death arise; they try not to think about it.  There comes a point for all of us, however, when we are forced to think about death.  It might happen when a loved one dies, either unexpectedly or after a long illness.  It might happen when we (or someone we love) are diagnosed with a terminal illness.  It might not happen until we are very old and at the end of our lives.  Whenever it happens, we will be forced to confront the thoughts and feelings we have been avoiding; it is inevitable.  I believe, when the time comes, it is easier for people to "come to terms" with death if they have a head start. 

Dr. Paul Wong ( is sort of the guru of "death psychology."   Among his many roles, he is the president of the International Network on Personal Meaning ( and of the International Society for Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy ( Dr. Wong believes that the best way to accept death is to live a meaningful life.  He and his colleagues have developed something they call the "meaning management model."  He asserts that, "Meaning management may be the only effective psychological model that protects us against loss and death." 

Dr. Wong believes that every experience has the potential to be meaningful, including death.  The path to a meaningful death, he says, begins with examining our values, determining what is important to us, and then consciously engaging in activities that embody these values.  In other words, we prioritize the things in our life we find the most meaningful.  We stop making excuses for why we can't get around to doing whatever it is we claim is so important to us.  We make spending time with those we love a priority.  We invest time and effort into identifying and fulfilling our "purpose" in life.  We live with the awareness that tomorrow is not guaranteed. If something is truly important to us, we never put it off 'til the future because the future may never come. 

Wong's meaning management model also includes a significant spiritual component.  I plan to do more research on meaning management theory; look for it in future blog posts. 

According to Wong, when we live without regrets, we confront death with the same attitude.  We are able to face death with faith and to embrace it "with...courage and an undying hope." 

I am interested in Wong's ideas about how to come to terms with death.  My hope is that his meaning management model might offer a path for me to sort out my own fears; if so, I suspect I will grow as a person in the process.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stress response

It seems like most of the literature on stress management focuses primarily on ways a person can better tolerate stress or on how to relax when stress becomes overwhelming.  The implicit assumption is that the presence of multiple external stressors is inevitable.  Given its inevitable presence in our lives, we are best served by learning to respond to stress in a healthy and adaptive manner.

I agree that we can all benefit from learning to regulate our response to stress.  Many of us react to external stressors in ways that create more stress, thereby exacerbating the problem.  A lot of us fail to make time to relax or to engage in activities we enjoy.  When we neglect to care for ourselves, our ability to tolerate distress and anxiety decreases.  (In other words, we can tolerate higher levels of stress if we take care of ourselves physically and mentally). 

What appears to be missing from the literature is an acknowledgement that there are innate differences in how people react to stress (and in how much stress people can tolerate before becoming overwhelmed).

We all know people who perfrom best when under pressure.  Among these people are those who seem to have difficulty performing unless they are under pressure.  Often, these are the people who procrastinate until the last possible moment.  It is not until the deadline looms ominously before them that they are stirred to action.  The pressure seems to motivate them like nothing else can; they thrive on it.

Then there are those who fall apart when faced with even the smallest stressor.  A slight change of plans can ruin their day.  Interruptions in their normal routine create excessive anxiety.  These are people who become overwhelmed fairly easily. 

These are mostly innate differences, largely attributable to variations in temperament.  Those who thrive under pressure can learn to stop putting things off to the last minute.  Still, they will probably always have the urge to put things off, even if they push themselves to do otherwise.  Those who become anxious at the drop of a hat can learn to cope with stress more effectively.  Still, they will probably always experience some degree of anxiety under stress, even after they learn to manage it in healthy ways. 

I personally tend to have a strong, negative emotional response to stress.  Any kind of stress makes me anxious.  When I'm feeling stressed out, I often have trouble concentrating because I can't stop thinking about whatever it is that is stressing me out.  I devote a significant amount of emotional energy to feeling anxious and thus become irritable or frustrated with very little provocation.  My overall energy level plummets.  I've always had this reaction to stress, even as a child. 

Over time, I have learned to structure my life so that certain times are designated for carrying out various obligations.  This ensures that everything I need to do gets done in a timely manner.  It also means I don't have to spend additional time worrying about what needs to be done or about finding time to do it. I've learned to challenge the catastrophic (or otherwise unreasonable) thoughts that have a tendency to arise when I'm feeling stressed out.  I have improved my ability to tolerate stress and anxiety so that I can continue to function effectively when these feelings are present. 

While I can cope with my negative emotional response to stress [i.e., anxiety], I cannot seem to prevent myself from having the response; it happens automatically.  I could get angry at myself for this but that would only make things worse.  Instead, I've learned to accept myself as I am.  This means accepting my overly-anxious tendencies without judgment.  "Ok, so I'm anxious," I tell myself.  "I know I'll feel better once I'm not so stressed out.  I just need to do the best I can until then."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Do you love your job?

It's funny how sometimes a casual conversation with an acquaintance can reveal to a person things he didn't know about himself.  Or how an offhand comment can pique a person's interest and lead to self-examination. 

Something like this happened to me the other night.  A close friend had organized a "girls' night out" at a local wine tasting room.  This friend has a pretty extensive network of friends.  (I often wonder how she manages to keep up with them all).  When she arranges an outing, she typically invites several of her closest girlfriends, myself included.  Last weekend, the group consisted of me, another close friend of mine, the friend who planned the get together, and two of her close friends who I've met before but don't know all that well.

While talking with one of the girls I'd met only two or three times before, we discovered that we actually work in the same building.  Naturally, this led to a conversation about what we do for a living.  She seemed intrigued when I told her that I am a psychotherapist.  A few minutes into the conversation she asked me, "So, do you absolutely love your job?" 

"No," I replied without hesitation.  As soon as I said it I felt compelled to elaborate.  "Don't get my wrong," I rushed to add.  "I don't hate my job.  I'm proud of what I do.  It gives me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.  I just don't love it..." 

I wasn't sure how else to explain it.  Maybe it's because I really don't understand it myself.  Most of my colleagues seem to get pleasure from their work.  There are even a few who seem excited by it.  Why don't I feel that way? 

I thought about it for a few days.  Ultimately, I began to ponder a quite different and perhaps more basic question: Who says we're supposed to love our jobs?  I mean, here I am thinking something is wrong with me because I don't love my job, despite the fact that I find it meaningful and satisfying.  But who says lacking passion for one's work is pathological?  Yes, there are people who love what they do for a living but there are also a lot of people who don't.  Why is one group considered "normal" while the other is assumed to have problems?

Being passionate about your work is one of the pillars of the broader self help movement here in America.  It seems like everywhere you turn these days there is some self-help book, magazine cover, talk show host, or website offering advice on how to "love your job" or "find your passion."  If you're not doing what you love for a living then you're not being true to yourself, they tell us.  We are encouraged to "quit your job and discover your passion."  Messages like these are so prevalent that even employers have bought into it.  They want to hire employees who are "passionate about the job."  The assumption is that a passionate worker is a good worker; those lacking passion need not apply.  Once merely a desirable quality, passion is fast becoming a basic job requirement.  Americans now see passion as a prerequisite for success.
Yves Smith talks about this in her article "The Case Against Passion."  She believes the whole idea that work should be driven by passion is misguided.  American society has embraced the belief that the true path to happiness lies in "following your dreams."  Those of us who feel anything less than passionate about our jobs are told that we're missing out.  We are encouraged to go off in pursuit of "something more," to search until we find our passion.  Only then will we know true contentment.

I wonder, though, how many of us "non-passionate" people felt fine until we were told we should feel passionate about our jobs.  Perhaps it wasn't until we were expected to feel passionate that we started to wonder why we didn't. 

Every person is unique.  We cannot expect that everyone will approach work (or anything else, for that matter) in exactly the same way and with exactly the same attitude. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Risk and Love

Loving someone is inherently risky.  There is the potential for great rewards but there is also the risk of big losses.  This is true for every person we choose to love, although loving some comes with greater risk than loving others.  For most of us, it is probably romantic love that carries the most risk.
When we first meet a potential romantic partner we are faced with the task of determining if we have any interest in investing in a relationship with this person.  In such encoutners, we are motivated by two equally important but fundamentally opposing goals: the pursuit of intimacy and connection versus the need to protect oneself.  These first meetings are often awkward, like interviewing for a job we're not even sure that we want.

Even after we (and the other person, presumably) decide to invest ourselves in building a relationship with someone, we continue to struggle with the competing goals of pursuing intimacy and protecting our own interests.  If we choose to pursue intimacy, we increase the risk that we will get hurt.  If we maintain distance between ourselves and our partner we are less likely to get hurt but we also create a situation that precludes the development of a closer, more intimate relationship. 

Ultimately, the most fulfilling relationships are those in which each partner puts the other's interests ahead of his or her own.  Making the decision to prioritize intimacy over self-protection is inherently risky; we have no guarantee that our partner will recipricate in kind.  We put our partner's wants and needs ahead of our own with the hope that he or she will do the same for us.  If this doesn't happen, we end up in a situation where no one is looking out for our interests.  In such cases, we are almost guaranteed to get hurt. 

So how do we decide when to take such a risk?  And after we've taken that leap of faith, how do we pull back if our partner hurts us?  How do we make such choices?  What criteria should we use to guide our decisions?

We all have to ask and answer these questions for ourselves.  As for me, I have no answers; I have only questions I needed to ask.

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