I was having dinner with a friend recently and I asked him if he was most comfortable when he is busy and his life brimming with challenges. No one who knows this good man would disagree with the idea, including his wife. He squirmed in his seat and turned to his her, and said "can we change the subject?"
He didn't want to know about it, think about it, or hear about it. He was, I thought, happy to lie to himself, and he wanted everyone else to conspire with him.
I wondered why such an obvious truth would make him so uncomfortable, and I changed the subject. I thought of all the lies I have told myself during my life, all the truths about me that I did not want to know or face. I ran from them for many years. My life began just a few years ago when a therapist challenged me to consider facing the truth.
Elvin Semrad, a well-known professor of psychiatry told his students that most human suffering is related to love and loss, and that the job of therapists is to help people acknowledge, experience, and bear the reality of life, with all of its joys, pleasures, heartbreak and loss.
One of his students was a young man man named Bessel Van Der Kolk, now a famous psychiatrist and teacher himself and the author of a popular and important book called The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma. Van Der Kolk recalls Professor Semrad teaching him that the sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves, urging the class to be honest with themselves about every facet of their experience.
People, he said, can never heal themselves without knowing what they know and feeling what they feel.
This is, in so many ways, the story of my life. I suffered greatly from the lies I told myself, they almost destroyed my life, and some of the people who I loved. Like my friend at dinner, I squirmed and ran from the truth about myself and my own experience – about love, ambition, money, fear and anger.
I had no idea who I was, so I could hardly face or even know the truth about me.
But love and loss caused me by far the greatest suffering in my life, and I am only now beginning to be honest with myself about every facet of my experience. I wonder of Professor Semrad grasped how difficult it is to be authentic, and how uncomfortable it makes most people, including my friend and many others.
You can lose a lot of friends – readers, too – being honest, and you can disturb many people. In recent months, I have explored the ways in which I can live meaningfully and happily in difficult and divisive times filled with fear and suffering. I am realizing that the angry people, the ones who write and say hateful things to others when they could express themselves in simpler and more civil and compassionate ways are broken.
They are the ones who tell lies to themselves, and who cannot face or bear the reality of their own lives. A woman who used to be a friend shocked me the other day by sending me an especially hateful and enraged message, I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. I did not get angry with her, I did not argue with her. I saw her in the same way I would see a hospice patient talking in mystic circles under the influence of morphine. I felt sympathy for her, I would not want to be a person who send such a message.
These are the people who suffer, and if I get angry with them or at them, then I will suffer with them.
In his class with Van Der Kolk, the distinguished Harvard Professor confessed how comforted he was feeling his wife's rear end against him as he fell asleep at night. I wanted to shout when I read this, I am comforted every night in the same way, by the touch and feel of Maria's body.
But revealing such a simple human need, the professor was helping his students recognize that how basic and important they are to our lives and well-being. Healing, wrote Van Der Kolk, depends on experiential knowledge. You can be fully in charge of your life – or your writing – if you acknowledge the reality of your body and mind, in all its many dimensions.
In my writing, I strive to disclose the small details of life and love and struggle, they are basic to understanding my life, and to others understanding theirs.
This is important to me, because this is the way I am learning to write. I seek to devote myself to honesty and authenticity, even when I fail, as I often do. I strive to share the small details of life, because they illuminate the large issues in life.
Human beings have always struggled, as I have, to manage their anger, lust, pride, greed, avarice and sloth. More and more, these traits have been declared "disorders," and are managed by the administration of drugs and chemicals. But they are also a part of being human, something to be acknowledged rather than ashamed of. In disclosing these truths, I find I no longer have much of anything to hide. I am free.
Therapists saved my life by challenging me to stop lying to myself and about myself, and face the reality of who I am. And who I am is not, as many of you know, always, or even often, pretty. But I no longer squirm when someone mentions the truth about me, I am telling many fewer lies about myself. I share the reality of who I am.
And my suffering, for much of my life acute, has eased to a degree I would never have thought possible. The lies I told myself kept me from living my life.