Hello pain, goodbye suffering
Hillary Clinton wise-cracks her famous hubby at a cocktail party: “Tell them who you were, Bill. Tell them who you were.”
Or Al Gore, speaking of Bill Bradley: “The more I think of you the less I think of you.”
Or the press, on George W. Bush: “The only reason he gets lost in thought is because it is unfamiliar territory.” All of this sounds like the old Sad Sack comic book, only sadder.
Lots of Americans have suffered losses recently: They saw their savings go south in the market crash, lost a job, said goodbye to a son or daughter in the war, had a friend get caught up in drug or alcohol use. Things weren’t supposed to be that way. We’re Americans, and we grew up with the idea that in the long run things would always go our way. So what gives?
In his book, “The Tragic Sense of Life,” poet philosopher Miguel de Unamuno says that sadness is a normal feeling. We all search for meaning, order and immortality but live in a meaningless, inconstant world. As such, he says, sadness is the path that leads to self-awareness and is humanity’s fundamental state. He must think we’re all Cowboy fans or something, but he has a point.
We may think that pain is a mistake in nature that, with the help of science and ingenuity, can be wiped out as by the delete key on our computer. But that way of thinking will only lead us to more pain and suffering — and we’ll all end up on the Gerry Springer Show, complaining about how miserable we are.
Some things need to be changed or avoided, and they demand our action and attention. But for the rest, the more we try to avoid painful memories, thoughts, and feelings, the worse they get. That’s what psychologist Steven C. Hayes says. For him and others, the internal coping strategies we use to avoid and to stop them — like distractions, rationalizations, and the use of substances — sometimes help in the short run, but in the long term they make them more intense. Instead of fighting painful feelings, we need to learn to accept them as part of life.
Although this may challenge former assumptions and will take practice to get it right, the ways of Hayes (as I like to call them) can help to deal with most psychological problems or pain. We’ll need to make some effort to learn them, but they work!
Instead of striving to avoid painful experiences like depression or anxiety, we learn to name and label them for what they are: just emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, memories or urges. This helps us to distance ourselves from them, instead of identifying with them. We accept them, rather than fighting or avoiding them. We learn mindfulness techniques, in order to live in the present moment. We bring aboard our values or belief system, which provides a meaningful path to walk. And, with practice, we’re amazed to find that our suffering recedes.
Gallup launched a poll last year to gauge the nation’s happiness index. Utah came out on top as the cheeriest place and West Virginia the glummest. My guess is that New Mexico probably had the smartest and handsomest people, but I can’t swear to that. What was most surprising was that America’s cheerfulness had reached an all-time high, even well above that of a year ago. In the midst of all our problems, it appears we’re learning something about what really puts a smile on our face — and we’re not just talking about TV’s Comedy Central.
Max Kauffmann once said that he never knew what real happiness was until he got married, and by then it was too late. Now, now, Max, you haven’t been paying attention.
Eleanor Roosevelt had a better idea. She said that happiness “is not a goal, it’s a byproduct.” Old buddy Hayes (see above) would have loved that. What we need is to climb off the avoidance and denial train, accept what can’t be changed, and live right now by our values.
Even Sad Sack would have found a way to live with that.
Kozeny works for Socorro Mental Health Inc. His views are not necessarily those of his employer. He can be reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.