On Contentment

I should clarify what the title hints at – here, I will not necessarily be talking about contentment as a concept, but how it manifests in my own life. I do so in order to better understand why I act the way I do, and I do this for my own benefit. If you would still like to read, please do, but I ask that you not forget who this essay is for – any pertinence it may have for you is a coincidence, albeit a happy one.

One of the first things that I realized when trying to understand why I do what I do is that, while I certainly spent too much time experimenting if it was actually the case or not, my life cannot find purpose through the pursuit of happiness, as defined as hedonism. Where, then, do I find the motivation to achieve? (Whether achievement is a worthy goal is a conversation for another day). For many years, I believed that I kept in my search of achievement in order to find contentment – to find joy in the knowledge that I am satisfied with where I am, literally and otherwise. However, as I have tried to pay more attention to the actions that I take, these very actions hint that this is not the case, and that no level of achievement will satisfy – no earthly pleasures will give me the contentment that I so vociferously strive for.

If contentment, for me, can be defined as the satisfaction with what I have achieved and the dissipation of striving for something more, for something greater, than what is it that prevents me from coming to the end of this striving?

There are many items that I could point to within our society at large that play a role in this never ending striving. It is not these, however, but my own idiosyncrasies that I wish to explore here. I think perhaps the strongest factor preventing me from coming to the end of this road is my desire, sometimes verging on need, for external validation. This began at a very young age, with my behaviors (usually) in line with my parents and other authority figures, as doing what they wanted was the surest way to garner that external “pat on the back.” While I will certainly always seek the approval of my mother and father, whom I love more than all my earthly possessions, it is not their approval that now drives my continual striving. In many ways, I now seek an internalized definition of that same external approval – an incredibly pernicious development. No matter the level or excess of praise that I receive from others, it will only raise the bar that I have built within myself. This continual raising of the bar pulls me up along with it, but the unintended consequence of this is that, at some point in my life, a noose seems to have manifested on the bar; as I climb towards whatever subjective definition of success I have created, the slack in the noose disappears.

Following this, there is the obvious next question: if I am able to recognize this bar within myself, why not simply stop grasping at it? At the core, I think it is my belief that in letting go of the bar of success, there will inevitably be a drop, and this drop will lead into the realm of mediocrity. And of what use is contentment if it is simply mediocre? How can I find a contentment that allows me to let go of the bar and yet still not find myself drowned in the sea of mediocrity? (The elitism that I sense emanating from this sentence is something that I hope to confront one day).

Where is the answer to this question? I am not sure, but I sense that it lies in my desire for external affirmation and praise. I do not believe that the answer is in destroying this desire within in me, but finding a way to redirect it. It cannot be defined by me, as I will always find a way to shift the definition in order to never end my search. It cannot be a search that lies within society at large, for the dangers of seeking approval from the capricious nature of “society” is one that finds itself acted out again and again. I cannot even seek it from my loved ones, for this will make the relationships into a unidimensional act, with no room for the multifaceted nature that a true relationship provides. At the end, I believe that I need to seek approval from God – under which definition of God, and how to do this remains a mystery, but a mystery that fascinates me.

The Far Side of Reason

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time in both a deeply religious and belief based world and one that is verging on what can be called scientism, I have struggled, at times quite deeply, with the seemingly irreconcilable nature of these two modalities of thinking.

Faith and belief, even in the face of my years conducting research and being ingrained in the scientific method is something that has always fascinated me. Beyond that, it has been something that I have always felt just out of my reach, just too far of a leap for me to make. Seeing those who fully believed, who had a deep faith that colored all facets of their lives, made me long for this grounding to live my own life in.

Within this longing, I perhaps saw too great a dichotomy between the world of science and the world of belief – in my particular case, in Catholicism. How could a world that is 4.5 billion years old, in a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, be defined in a book that only addresses 15,000 years at most? While perhaps not articulated at the time, it was this conflict that first brought me out of my belief and into a world that was not even defined by a lack of belief, but by a constant searching.

Throughout the millennia, from Plato to Saint Augustine to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche (and far beyond), there have been thinkers who have been both able and unable to reconcile the world of belief and the world of material knowledge. I am far from unique on this topic – it was my biggest struggle for many years, and still follows me today, and I am grateful for those teachers and thinkers who have come before me and laid the groundwork for my own discovery.

Perhaps the most important lesson that I have come to learn is defined by the saying, which I steal from Bishop Robert Barron, that true faith is found on the far side of reason.

To me, this means that we have a duty to engage in a structured, disciplined and reasonable attempt to understand the world around us. This activity does not require the Bible, the Torah or any other religious text (although many religious beliefs from these texts are present, in an implicit manner, in the reason that we do engage in). It is only after, in good faith, that we have run up against the limits of human reason and understanding that a true, living faith can find its way into our lives.

This is a faith that I find I can comfortably sit within. It is not a faith that I have yet defined with definitions provided by any major religious institution, but it is certainly one that enrichens my life and my understanding of the world around me. This is what faith has done for me – it is not something that I seek in order to abate the terror of death, to justify the primacy of my worldview or even provide me comfort. In many ways, the faith that I have found has made me far more uncomfortable than I was before. No. For me, faith is the ability to see my life in a manner that is more than simply reasonable or logical, something that is based in the material world, something that is defined by no more than the scientific method. Perhaps this is a way for me to cope with the materialistic and painfully capitalistic world that we find ourselves in. Even if this is the case, I believe that it is so much more than that as well – and the reason that I believe that is, well, faith.

The Primacy of the Unknowable

It often seems that, when talking about what we should believe in, the prevailing consensus in the Western world is that we should only place faith in things that are knowable – things that are scientifically provable. To state that we experienced a vision from a deceased relative is pathologized, and often diagnosed. To state that we believe in an all powerful and all knowing God is scoffed at in our secularized society. To state that we are convinced of something that has no proof, as defined by our “scientific” age is to announce that we should not be taken seriously by the majority of society.

As a practicing therapist, I find that this manifests most often in what are called “evidence based practices” or EBP’s. These are heavily researched approaches to therapy and counseling, such as DBT and CBT, that have displayed scientific and documentable evidence that they produce improved outcomes in the majority of patients. What I am not saying is that these EBP’s are methods that we should eschew. However, I do believe that the presence of these modalities have pushed the art of therapy into the corners, and have made the art of therapy into something that is much more often something that companies and insurance agencies can turn into numbers, dollars and, most importantly, profit.

This marginalizing of the art of psychotherapy is, I believe, a symptom of the greater issue of our modern society’s unwillingness and sometimes downright hostility to accept that there are things in this world that affect us deeply, and oftentimes only individually, with no explanation in the material and observable world. These can be experiences of the paranormal, an intimate unspoken connection with a stranger on a bus, a powerful religious experience either individually or as a community and a number of other things that, due to their very nature, elude a description that I would be able to provide.

It is these things, these unobservable and often unexplainable experiences that comprise the most important and moving aspects of human life. This is not to deny the importance scientific progress – the material world is not diminished in importance by the existence of the metaphysical and interior world. But we should likewise not let our reliance of the material world dim the beauty and integrally important world of the unknowable either.

The Sanctity of Suicide

As a therapist working in mental health, this statement is tantamount to heresy. I will always, as a therapist, do all that I can to help my patients recognize the gift that life is, to keep them safe and alive. This, however, is in my professional role, my role as an individual. As a society, I think that it is time that we recognize the power that suicide gives a person.

Before making my case as to why suicide may be a decision to lauded rather than eschewed, I want to highlight that I believe that there is no greater gift than the gift of life, and that, in the majority (perhaps the vast majority) of cases, suicide is something that we should work to avoid, both in ourselves and in the lives of others. Many times, suicide is an option that people will take as a response to acute suffering – the loss of a job or home, the dissolution of an integral relationship, the suicide of another person in our lives. In these cases, it is our ethical obligation to intervene and provide a reminder that acute pain does not last forever.

What then, should we say when someone chooses suicide as an answer to a chronic pain? To someone suffering with MS, who wants to end their life on their terms, in a way that does not expose their children to the suffering that it would cause. To someone with Alzheimer’s, who remembers most things still, and wants to die with their memories intact, remembering their own wife, husband, son or daughter? To the veteran, who comes home with multiple limbs and friends missing, who has decided that she no longer wants to live in her current state? It is easy to use religion and the fear of Hell as the reason to not take one’s own life. Perhaps a loving God, who sees the pain in His child that was so great that they had to take their own life would not punish them for simply being in pain. This, however, is a theological question far beyond my expertise.

At a very basic level, I believe that suicide is the last form of power that some people will ever have. In an increasingly commodified world, where people feel less and less in control of their own lives, control over one’s life is something that should be held in the highest regard. Straying out of the conversation on suicide for a moment, it should be noted that rectifying the societal organization that has caused this lack of power in individuals should be a high priority.

The argument presented here is not one encouraging people to take their lives. It does not deify the act of suicide, or argue that when someone feels like they are powerless that suicide is the best way to give a sense of power back. The argument presented is that when someone in our lives takes their own lives, perhaps we need to look it in a different light. Is it a tragedy? Almost always. Yet there may be more to the situation than is originally seen.

As always, these posts are a tool for me to think through issues, so that I can better understand how I relate to them. Through this piece, I believe it is evident that we need to develop the mechanisms to give people power in their own lives. Perhaps the power over one’s own life falls under that category.

The Impotence of Academic Rage

Anger is a powerful tool that, in many circumstances, is the appropriate and most beneficial emotion to be employed. The big brother of anger, rage, is also an emotion that can sometimes be used appropriately. The amount of situations where rage is an appropriate response is small, but certainly present. The problems are not the emotions of rage and anger – the problem is how trivialized they have become.

Anyone who has used social media (so, everyone reading this right now) knows how toxic it can be. The toxicity is not something that is inherent to our psyches, but is something that is borne out of the impotence of the anger and rage that we engage in on a daily basis. Each time that we see an inflammatory picture or post something incendiary ourselves, we engage in this rage that serves no purpose.

This rage is a cancer, one that we can sometimes, quite literally, feel boiling in our chests, flushing our cheeks or clenching our fists against our will. We see words and images on a screen that cause us to react in this rageful manner. Again, the rage is not the issue – it is that it sits inside us with no useful target, nowhere to go except back onto the screen for someone else to experience.

Rage, when used in bringing the rapist to justice, when employed in beneficial social change for those who are underrepresented and repressed; these can be good – these are examples of actionable rage. These are the situations in which rage is good – when it does not just boil inside of us, but bubbles up and out of our mouths, when it clenches our fists, when it sets our feet to marching. This is when rage is good – when it can be used.

So stop scrolling. Stop reading these little thought exercises that I write. Stop engaging in the rage that does nothing but boil and corrode our insides. Go outside and attack the injustices – give the homeless man 5 bucks. March in the streets about the corrupt politician (don’t just stop at the ballot box). Clench your fists and raise your voice – don’t just type something on the screen to start the boil in the next person’s stomach.