What I offer here is a moral philosophical sketch of depression.* Or rather three kinds of depression, distinguished according to three moral emotions: remorse, guilt, and shame. At the heart of these struggles lie experiences such as a loss of connection, of selfhood, of meaning and value. Hence moral philosophy - reflection on meaning and value - is vital for understanding such depression and for working through it. Inventing names, I will speak first about remorse-based depression. I will write more about that another time, so I will move quickly to its much more widespread cousin which I call guilt-based depression. Following that I offer a sketch of a third type: shame-based depression.
I have observed an all-too common ingredient in despair. It is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. As a counsellor I have observed that many (though far from all) people who suffer despair seem to assume that they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, may not know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves. That deep hope which is the opposite of despair, requires patience, endurance, a strong spirit of waiting.
"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
-Demosthenes, 2500 years ago.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way, whether it be through achievement, love, or simply drenching oneself in experience, makes life even more dangerous. To be alive, to exist as a human being, provokes anxiety. Hence the phrase existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve this kind of anxiety. That's quite simply because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. It seems there are only two directions when it comes to existential anxiety: either we move forward and grow, or we retreat and shrink.
These days philosophy is mostly an academic discipline. People sit around thinking, reading, and debating. Such things are wonderful in the context of a fuller life, but there is more to life than talk and contemplation. Sometimes life is downright hard. And either way the life comes from making something good out of whatever is given to you. This is why I came to philosophy, to face life and to grow. This is practical philosophy, as contrasted with academic philosophy. I find that half the academic philosophers I speak to are very positive about this other approach, while the other half often look at me with narrowed eyes, as to be anything other than a scholar is to be a charlatan. In reality that accusation is nothing more than a cover story for territorial egotism, yet it is nonetheless an invitation to give robust expression to what practical philosophy is, and in particular to what philosophy in counselling is.
James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. Growing up, he had been led to believe that outside his religion there was only base materialism. He could not continue in fundamentalism, and yet he still had a strong spiritual and philosophical instinct. Without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point of it all, and he became increasingly despondent. When he no longer found the motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor, who referred him to a psychologist.
We in the early 2010s live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack an adequate sense of purpose or meaning. They live in fear, or confusion, or boredom, or depression, or retreat into distractions or addictions. It seems that our cultural values are increasingly banal and narcissistic, a world of selfie-shots and materialism. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many aspects of this problem are out of your control, but it is significant what you can do in your own life. In your case, things don't have to be this way - they can be much better, if you only take an active stance toward your life and grow and build yourself into the kind of person you want to be, living the kind of valuable life you want. Of course that's not always easy, given how powerfully we are shaped by our context.
As a counsellor I see a lot of people who have been knocked down in life and who want to get back up. Their understanding of resilience can guide them and make a great difference. Likewise, unhelpful pictures of resilience can hinder people. So today I offer an understanding of resilience, and contrast it with a common misunderstanding.
Eric Greitens tells of a man he once knew who was a coach for one of the heavy-weight boxing champions of the world. This coach received a call one day from the champion who was in an anxious state and asking for a favour. He said there was a man in the other room and he needed the coach to talk to them on the phone. The coach was confused, until it emerged that the man was the boxer's gardener, who was overcharging for his services. The coach suddenly realised that this heavyweight boxing champion of the world was afraid to confront his gardener on his own.
The getting of wisdom is a three-stage process according to many Buddhists:
Before my Zen training I thought that rivers were rivers.
When I advanced in the training I came to see that rivers were not rivers.
Now that I have realised enlightenment, I see that rivers are rivers.
This picture of how insight develops is repeated in many wisdom traditions.
In the film Donny Darko, Patrick Swayze plays a self-help guru with a simple-minded solution to life's problems: there are two principles in life, love and fear, and you are always acting out of one or the other. His mindless followers dogmatically push this message, and typical of the nihilistic and cynical ethos of its times, the teenager is the only one with open eyes: he recognises that this way of thinking is too simplistic. By contrast, the adults are moronic at best, and often corrupt.
People are not always kind, writes David Malouf, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple. These are the opening words of his novel The Great World. It's the story of Jenny, an intellectually disabled woman, and of her brother Digger, who becomes a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burmese railway. It is the story also of Digger's friend Vic, who loses his mother during the Great Depression and forms a lifelong bond with Digger forged in the struggles of World War II. To me this novel is essentially a meditation on loss, of how we respond to loss as a category in life. There is a thread of grieving which runs through our lives and shapes our surface emotions. We grieve what we have lost, what we will lose, and what we needed but never had. The novel explores that and how it shapes our lives.
Used well, relationship counselling can be incredibly helpful. But people often use it to avoid their issues. They tell themselves that they need is more information, insight, communication skills, techniques, professional support, all of which is great if you're willing to face reality. If you're unwilling, then this is all an elaborate way of hiding and avoiding. No amount of counselling will make up for the stubborn unwillingness to face reality. The starting point, the non-negotiable element, the agent of change, for a healthy relationship is courageous truthfulness.
How do we grieve well? And what does it mean to do that? Should I accept my grief and sit in it, or push my way through? Are there techniques for grieving, and can I fast-track it? What do I do about the rumination, the anger, the despair?
Most of us want to be generous, but don't know how to balance it with self-protection. Partly this is because people often confuse two types of generosity, which in their confusion can lead to them feeling their has been generosity abused even when it hasn't. What's worse is the confusion makes them more vulnerable to genuine abuse of their generosity. And so it undermines them being the strong, generous person they want to be. In this reflection I disentangle these two types.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did." Perhaps F. knew what it is like, when the inner world speeds up while the clock slows down. When the hours become mud and tremors pass through the body. That bomb in us which only loved ones can detonate. Whether in romance or friendship, how do we live with betrayal?
If you are a perfectionist then you have probably experienced the procrastination, or paralysis, or anxiety, or depression that can flow from it. It can undermine your achievements, and even your entire life. We are advised therefore to give up perfectionism, and that is generally good advice. However, we need to be careful, as that is both good and bad advice. The good life is suspended by a thread of fine distinctions. There is a good perfectionism and a bad sort. Just as there is a good kind of mediocrity (humble, enjoying the good things of your life) and a bad type (giving up, giving in, going to seed). Yes perfectionism is dangerous, but many of the important things in life are. Like everything that matters in life, it is a double-edged sword. Rather than retreat from the challenge of living, we could instead become wise and skillful with these dangerous tools. Understood and used properly, perfectionism can propel you to heights you wouldn't have otherwise reached. Today I outline how to be perfectionist in a way that leads to achievement without neurosis. This is irrelevant to people who do not feel the pull, but for those of us who do, or who have, here is a sketch of the art of healthy perfectionism.
Kenny Rogers said that Freedom's just a word for nothing left to lose. Freedom, then, is death, for that is to true state of having nothing left to lose. But what is death? The existential therapist Irvin Yalom, said that while the physicality of death destroys us, but the idea of death saves us. Death terrifies people, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, but when we face the fact of it, and when we do a good job of that, it can set us free. It can wake us up and energise us to create life and experience it more fully. How? In death we lose everything. This turns life into a one-shot affair. And it means that no matter what, any suffering will come to an end. So awareness of death can lead to courageous living. To awake, and even joyful, living.
Terrence Malick, one of the great modern film makers, began his career as a philosopher. So its no surprise that his work evokes existential and moral themes. In his film The Thin Red Line, a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” In the brute carnage of war, the degradation, loss, and callousness, Malick asks one of the hardest moral questions that we ask ourselves in real life: What will being good do for me? Why should I remain decent when the world takes advantage of me? Why should I stand on principle when others merely calculate? These questions are easy to answer when life is good, but what about when it turns dangerous? What about during times of loss and despair? When we are harmed by others or by the natural processes of a blind universe?
John's uncle Victor held a chair in the air like a weapon and shouted that he'd better get out of the way. Victor then stormed out of the restaurant.
John had been engaged in a friendly debate with his brother at a family gathering. They always went out to eat when their father visited from interstate, usually at Uncle Victor's favourite restaurant where he made himself the centre of attention. Uncle Victor had joined the discussion but quickly shifted from the issue itself, to subtly putting John down. This was Victor's default mode: to get personal with certain family members, under the guise of discussing some general matter. After years of ignoring this John had recently been through a divorce, which was the reason he was seeing me, and he had no more patience for such things. He was politely but forcefully pointing out the hypocrisy in his uncle's criticisms, when his uncle flew into a rage.
Everybody sat in shock, not least John, but what happened next bewildered him. His brother chased after his uncle, “To see if he is alright.” Others chided John, claiming that both he and the uncle were to blame for what had happened, for John should not have irritated his uncle. This incensed John! He exited the restaurant, found his uncle, and confronted him about his behaviour. Victor simply attacked in response - “It's your fault, you got personal with me!” - as though the chronic bully was the innocent party.
Victor's behaviour is sadly pretty common. If you are reading this you probably recognise his type in your own family. What he displays are narcissistic traits. There are different types and in Victor's case we might conclude he was an overt narcissist. This can be boiled down to three traits:
1) Egotism (shown through boasting, often with unrealistic claims);
2) lack of empathy for others (for example habitual criticism of others to boost their own ego); and
3) explosive, childish rage when they do not get their way or are challenged.
Conversation with Victor always started well, with humour and joy, and usually began by talking about things in the world - business, politics and so on. But as soon as John disagreed with Victor on some matter, then the little put-downs began, the understated implications that John was a fool who knew nothing.
John was already in a low place, and he sank lower after the incident at the restaurant. It triggered quite a depressed mood in him. He spoke of a sense of bleakness, of that old feeling of facing coldness and hate in the world. We explored why his uncle's attack might affect him so deeply. We looked at his experience with a similar step-father who also showed strong traits of vindictive narcissism, who had bullied him in the final years before he left home early. John's grandfather had also been a very narcissistic, an abusive alcoholic, and this had sent ripples throughout the family and its following generations. Indeed we were able to discern how the grandfather's abuse flowed into the broader family dynamics, which perhaps manifested at the restaurant. Victor had become like his father to some degree, no doubt through the damage of experiencing him as a child. But what hurt John most was his family's behaviour. It was a classic pattern: the bully is aggressive toward an individual and others, through fear - of harm to themselves, or of confrontation, or a lack of 'peace' - empathise with the bully (“Are you alright?”) and blame the victim (“Don’t make trouble"). It helped John immensely to clarify all of this.
The main weapons that a narcissistic bully uses are our own qualities, those very ones that we ought to prize in ourselves and others: our empathy, humility, and ability to be playful rather than taking oneself too seriously. Narcissists are able to take advantage of our finer qualities and use them against us because such qualities make us open to others, which means they make us vulnerable. When John confronted his uncle he acted in ignorance of this fact. His action showed the assumption that Victor might listen with reason and empathy, and acknowledge what he did wrong. But this side did not exist in Victor in the way John assumed. If it did, then Victor would not have behaved like a bully in the first place. It was partly John's lack of insight into Victor's psychology which drove his despair, because in his imagination he invested his Uncle's perspective with too much weight, as though it was a reasonable point of view rather than merely an expression of insecure egotism. I always tell people that when dealing with a narcissist who affects you in this way, you have to see them primarily in terms of their psychology. You have to psychologise them. To not do so is to be drawn into one of the main tricks of a narcissist: for we want to be reasonable, humble, to consider the other's view - to act according to the principles of justice and decency - but the narcissist does not play by these rules. They use those values of ours to convince us that the fault lies with us. This is why arguments with narcissists can become so confusing. They are masters of gaslighting.
Alongside such confusion, another element in John's despair was his sense of helplessness. After the experience at the restaurant he felt that certain important things were out of his hands. Not only did confronting his uncle – an assertion of his right to be respected, after years of insults - seem to have no effect, but his family seemed to care more for placating the bully and keeping the peace than they did for defending John. His sense of disempowered hurt transformed into anger. He felt that those he loved did not care enough to see what was happening. That they were more concerned with their comfort, and John extended this perception to the world in general. Still suffering the pain of his recent divorce, his felt fundamentally alone, and that others were either bullies or too weak to stand by him. At moments he considered suicide, though mostly he edged toward self-protective cynicism, even though this clashed with his more deeply held values which normally nourished his sense of life's meaning.
I encouraged John to take a second look at things. We explored what might have motivated his family's behaviour in terms of those old patterns of abuse and avoidance. Although he had always possessed a sense of standing up for the victim, when we attended to these patterns John saw that he was also given in his own way to placating and keeping the peace. He was not much different to his brother and father. Indeed it was their qualities, which John admired in them and valued in himself - their empathy, humility, and desire to include everybody - which provided the conditions for Victor's behaviour. Through his being passive all these years in the face of the insults, John saw that he had also excused and colluded with Victor's behaviour toward him. This insight transformed his feelings toward his family from hurt and anger to understanding: he was not alone, instead he was loved by flawed people. Loved and let down. As he had let himself down. John had been blaming others for something which he had failed to do for himself. His despair lessened and his sense of how to handle Victor future improved.
It was notable, said John, that although Victor threatened him, yet he fled from the room like a coward. “It was pathetic.” At the emotional level the narcissist is stuck in a certain stage of childhood development. Just as some people are intellectually disabled, meaning their development was slowed or ceased at an early stage, so we might say that narcissists are emotionally disabled, quite literally, and this leads also to a moral disablility, for empathy requires emotional maturity. The flashiness of the narcissist, the appearance they maintain through charisma or boasting, and even the talents they actually possess, blind us to the emotional disorder in them.
The typical cause of a narcissm involves either 1) being treated by their parents (or care-givers) as defective (as only valuable when succeeding in something which the parent values) or 2) being neglected (even beignly) or abused in childhood by their parent. From out of these conditions the narcissist develops a sense of worthlessness, of being fundamentally unlovable. They suppress this feeling, however, hiding from it through instinctive psychological tricks. So they themselves cannot recognise their own wound, which means they will never heal from it. Given all this, we can understand why adult narcissists boast so continuously and outrageously, and engage in competitive or deprecating behaviours: they do so in order to feel more valuable. They are driven.
Narcissists lack real empathy because they are so focused on their own needs, which mask their deep wound. The existence of others is perceived only in terms of how it serves or threatens their need for validation. To return to our example at the restaurant, John was never going to be genuinely heard by, or get true acknowledgement from, Victor, and on the contrary Victor genuinely believed that he was the one who was wronged! For Victor was a six year old in a fifty year old's body, raging at an emotional need which, like a young child, and without self-awareness, he expected those around him to meet.
When I explained these things to John and he understood how it was that his uncle might have come to behave as he did - through wounds which Victor suffered as a child from his abusive father - and John was able to develop compassion for Victor. John's new form of compassion was very different, however, from his old one by which John and his family excused and colluded with Victor's behaviour. Embedded in that former, less-insightful compassion was the blinkered belief that everybody else felt the same way as John, walked through the same emotional world as he. So the perspective which John developed through our discussions amounted to a more genuine form of compassion than his old perspective, because it looked to the real differences within Victor rather than assuming his inner world was the same as John's healthy one. This also enabled John to put his cynicism and despair into context, to reconnect with his better perspective on human nature.
Such wiser compassion also enabled John to gain self-protective approach to his uncle. It did not leave him vulnerable to being drawn into Victor's self-serving perspective. John could see the tricks. So not only was this a wiser compassion, and a healing one, it was a strengthening one too. As John and I acknowledged, it must be terrible to carry within oneself the lonely terror at the heart of narcissism. John's uncle would never experience the beauty of life as John could. He would never play, relax, or be with others, in the beautiful ways in which John and mature, empathic people can. That's quite a tragedy for anybody.
Most narcissists suffered an absence or abuse from the people who mattered most during their childhood. This is tragic, and ought to arouse compassion. But embedded in wise compassion for them is a recognition that the obnoxious and sometimes abusive things they do cannot be excused. A wise compassion understands the psychological wound, but enforces boundaries on behaviour. It protects the self and holds the other to account for their actions. It also accepts the powerful emotions that come, such as hatred toward an abusive narcissist, without reacting with harmful guilt - true compassion encompasses not only the other, but oneself too! The narcissist wants to pass their wound on to others, but we must refuse to swallow their poison.
The danger when dealing with narcissists is that we get drawn into their world of hurt, resentment, fear, and isolation. Through his despair John had begun to create a world that looked like the narcissist's: cold, bleak, resentful. During an early session he expressed a desire to understand his uncle's psychology so that he could “push his buttons” and so take revenge on him. We explored the cost of engaging in such action and John felt that this might bring more bleakness and coldness into his life, and that the best path was the higher path. I was reminded of the words of the ancient philosopher Socrates: It is better to suffer evil than to do it. These are challenging words, but they are true. Be the better person, in a strong and wise way, and that will lead you forward and out of the narcissist's grip.
There are people on Youtube who make bodybuilding videos and later expand into life-coaching themes such as resilience. They recognise the similarities between strength training and character training, just as the ancient Greeks did. This is good, but what worries me is the narcissism I sometimes detect in these videos. It is a subtle thing, but as I watch I get this feeling that resilience is some achievement to boast about, alongside the muscles which are clearly on display while the presenter pretends to be humble. In religion there is an age-old concept for this problem:
spiritual pride -- a person goes through the motions of being humble, but they are proud of their humility. Such posturing is the opposite of true resilience, because it is about pretending to be something you are not. It is another way of believing you can be invulnerable. We want to believe that we are stronger and safer than we really are. But genuine resilience looks not only to our strengths, it also takes account of our weakness. It changes what it can, and accepts what it cannot. Sometimes when I point out a person’s vulnerability in an effort to help them look at it and accept it, they respond with something like “I guess I am strong through my weakness.” I respond that “No, often we are just weak.” I say this because, in the example I am thinking of, the person is trying at all costs to avoid acknowledging their vulnerability and helplessness. It is true that we can become stronger by acknowledging our weakness, and our vulnerabilities may shift, but ultimately we cannot escape the human condition. This is especially the case with those ones that mark the human condition. What matters is how we live with them. Pretending that we are invulnerable by talking about resilience
is a form of cowardice – it is a flight from anxiety, a refusal to come to terms with our condition. Just as your body has its limitations, so too does your mind and heart. That’s life.
Many people think of resilience as “bouncing back”. I believe this is the wrong metaphor. We have borrowed that image from physics, where “resilience” refers to “elasticity”: the ability of an object to return to its proper shape after a strain. There is this myth that resilient people are like that, that they return to how they were before significant suffering. But we cannot go back to who we were before. When something changes our life, our life is changed. We are changed. We have to face facts, just as an injured person must take account of their new state. You cannot be the same person you were before your partner died, or everything you loved crashed around you. There is no bouncing back, there is only moving forward. Not “moving on” but moving forward, which means moving through. You get back on your feet. It might take hours or years, depending on the catastrophe. In rarer cases it is a lifelong task. You learn to carry yourself again. And to tend to your wounds, co-operating with nature so that they heal as much as possible. You integrate the new reality into your life. You face your pain with wisdom and compassion. If you can do this, especially the last part, then you will become deeper and stronger as a person, even if you have been weakened in other respects. This is true resilience.
Jack Gilbert wrote a poem about his struggle with grief after the death of his wife, which captures this ethos of getting up and walking forward. It is called Michiko Dead.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
Sometimes “that which does not kill me only makes me stronger.” Sometimes it makes me weaker. Regardless, it makes me different, and I can become better if I respond in the right way. For we can grow through suffering. We can learn humility. Wisdom. Love. I can learn to be much more loving toward myself, compassionate toward others, and I can learn to appreciate life more. To be grateful and kind. In short I can become a better person, and one who is more happy. A person who can carry both sorrow and joy at the same time. That is true resilience.
So resilience is really an umbrella term for a collection of other qualities. Resilience is the exercise of courage, of kindness, of wisdom, and what these amount to will differ according to the situation. This is why I don’t use the word very much but rather speak of cultivating character through virtue, and growing in depth and love. The idea must be balanced with acknowledgement of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses as individuals and human beings. Otherwise the term risks becoming a defensive way of avoiding our fears and asserting our egos. Getting back on your feet, at its best, is an act of love and hope toward life.
A positive upward spiral is an idea in positive psychology. In essence, it is the opposite of a negative downward spiral.
This idea gripped me some years ago after a motorcycle accident. I was hurrying to see clients one morning, travelling through Ascot Vale in the rain, when suddenly I had to brake hard. On wet tram tracks. In twenty years of motorcycling I had never had an accident, but now I was flying through the air. Everything slowed and I felt like a collection of parts falling out of the sky: there’s my knee hitting the ground, I think that’s okay, there’s my shoulder hitting the ground, I don’t think that’s okay, there’s my head hitting, we’ll see….
The pain in my neck was too great for me to lift myself off the wet, freezing asphalt, and so I was lifted onto a stretcher and carried off in an ambulance. Once at hospital I was ordered not to move, for fear of spinal damage, and spent hours in a neck brace receiving scans. As I lay there I faced one of those nightmare scenarios: “Life could be very different from now on.” It’s a terrifying prospect.
This was an important moment of choice, which I will always remember. As that fear descended on me I could, for a passing second, feel within a profound freedom to choose my attitude. To adopt the spirit in which I would apprehend my new situation. And so I chose. I told myself that whatever was reality now, simply was reality. That I would live with it and create a good life regardless of what that looked like. Despite the fear, I made a fundamental choice about how I would respond from this moment onwards.
After all those scans and hours of lying there, waiting, it emerged that I was okay. I was in a lot of pain, but I would heal. In the days, weeks, and months after, I chose to carry forward the momentum of that decisive moment, to choose life as it came, and make the best of things on a moment-to-moment bases. This was not always easy; there has been trauma and abuse in my family and I have had to struggle against a tendency to deep melancholy throughout my life. But in the light of that choice that day, a lot of things slowly changed for the better. And I began to notice something: it seemed that each positive change I made led on to others. And from those on to further others. It was as though, taken altogether, they created a kind of high pressure system, where each improvement impacted the whole by lifting everything further. It was a positive upward spiral.
Here is a situation that every counsellor has experienced. A person may come to talk about being stuck in their life. Eventually they say in frustration, “I come here every week and nothing ever changes.” They talk and analyse and speculate and…nothing shifts. Counsellors often get together to discuss challenging cases in group supervision, to nut out the sophisticated interventions that might help a client move forward. But often nobody looks squarely at the most obvious question for this person.
What are you doing to make things happen?
Draw a horizontal line. Above the line write “thinking space.” Below the line write “doing space.”
Guess what happens above the line?
Well, of course important things do happen. Really important things can happen. But to change your day to day life, all the analysis in the world is useless unless you regularly roll up your sleeves and enter the doing space.
Some people were raised to examine their feelings but never to push themselves. They are now deficient in will-power and practical wisdom. Some were beaten down by critical or intrusive parents or by such events in life. In response, some people are tempted to criticise them, while others make excuses for them, but both are mistaken. Our focus needs to be on the future, on making things better. Explanations don't matter. Criticisms or justifications are beside the point. As an adult you have the power to find a way forward.
And the formula for making that answer work is often not especially complex. On one side of the line is thought, and on the other is action. Together they make an equation.
Yes, strive to know yourself. Take a deep look. But don’t lose yourself in analysis. Don't lose yourself in how you feel.
Rather than focus on how you currently feel, focus on how you want to feel. Consider what it requires to feel that way - what shape your life would have to take. Make a plan of life based on that, one which expresses your values and strengths, then cross the line and do the work.
And for those who don’t want to do this, for whom it all seems too hard? Nothing is ever going to change.
And for those who are willing to do the work? You have no idea how much potential lies within you. The biggest gift we can give ourselves and each other, is to find a way toward our deeper possibilities.
You don't know just how much you're capable of. Or how good you could make your life. This idea has roots in the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who analysed life in terms of potential: the potency, or power within everything to grow into something greater. He likened us to plants, which begin as a seed and become a tree. Our potential is hidden within, waiting for the right conditions to spring forth.
Your potential is something innate, a set of wonderful possibilities seeking to unfold in you. This should not be understood in a mechanical way, however, for potential is not fully fixed. As the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, we also have much freedom to choose what we become. To put it in a different language, we have an incredible capacity for tuning into and directing the energies of life.
All of this means that you have no idea what you could become, what you could achieve, and how good you could make your life. As I say, it takes effort and wisdom, skill and insight to orient yourself properly and so to bring forth what you are capable of. But like most things in life that is less about complexity or cleverness, and more about orienting your vision well and living with courage.
Often when people suffer fear or despair about their life, and often when somebody is stuck and unhappy in life, they are failing to really see and feel the potential that dwells in them. Counselling, for me, is often about helping a person orient themselves in this way, to move forward. That word--orientation--is fundamental here.
Something new happened a few centuries ago in Europe. For thousands of years most civilisations have seen history as a steady decline from a previous golden age. There was a pessimism about the human story. But during the European Enlightenment things were reversed. The culture became possessed with the idea of an incline: that human beings have profound potential. The idea took hold that we could change the world into something wonderful. The result of that belief is seen in our lives today: we have made astonishing progress in so many areas of life. We don't know where this will end, but it is clear--empirically--that there is an overarching and accelerating trend toward improvement; for example, worldwide the number of people living below the poverty line has halved in the last twenty years. Not that you hear news reports or conversations about such things--most of us are pessimistic. Not simply circumspect, but pessimistic.
That is all too human, because a brave new world can be frightening, and fear can tempt us to cynicism. Yet if the European Enlightenment taught us anything, it is that hope and despair are each self-fulfilling prophecies. We can orient ourselves toward life's possibilities in ways that can transform life for the better. When this happens it can seem almost magical, but it is the most natural thing in the world. And it is as true of your personal life as it is of the culture at large. When you finally embody a spirit of hope and courage, based on a wonderful sense of your potential for a good, beautiful, and meaningful life, then you start to see things differently, and so you start to feel and to act differently. And you also find that the world comes to meet you. Things change. And the change compounds.
If somebody were to ask me what the greatest insight is that I have gained as a therapist, now working in my second decade in the craft, I would say it is this notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People create repetitions, often without realising it, and those cycles come from their inward state, which acts as a filter for how they experience the world, how they then act or be, and how others and the world respond. People create worlds. You can create a heaven or a hell out of your life. And most of it is your own doing.
Make no mistake, life can cut people off at the knees. Life is indeed tragic, as the ancient Greeks saw. But there are multiple dimensions to life. We also have a profound capacity to shape it.
We have become divorced from nature, and even those who do not see it as a mere resource, often see it in rational terms, as a neutral object. They see something mechanical, rather than something that is alive. That view is rooted in modernism, in philosophers like Rene Descartes. To me, nature is mysterious and alive. This is a much older view. (And if you view Carl Jung as a sage, then you may consider it a new view as well.) Aristotle said that plants and animals and people have a purpose. That purpose is growth. Growth toward a fuller way of being, unfolding their rich potential. In humans this growth--or failure to grow--has emotional resonance. It is essential to our happiness that we continually advance.
Life without growth becomes intolerable to us. People who stop growing become rigid. They get old before their time. They become empty or unhappy or fearful or bitter. But growth needs to have balance and harmony to be good. This is where Aristotle is saw things more clearly than Sartre: there is growth that is naturally healthy, leading to well-being and flourishing, and there is growth that we may choose but which is bad, for example because it is one-sided. Consider wanting to grow in power—power to lead others—without at the same time growing in wisdom and compassion. This is why I often say that hope and courage—primary ingredients in realising your potential—need to be fed by things like love and gratitude rather than ego. Our orientation toward our potential must be rooted in love, rather than narcissism, if we are to be genuinely happy and to truly increase the happiness of others.
Much of our potential is universal. Which is to say, it is within every person. Beyond that, the combination of freedom with things like context, and predisposition, means that no two people will grow in exactly the same way. This is why it is so important to pay attention to your way of being and to listen inwardly to your nature: so that you can grow more rapidly and deeply, if you choose, by following the lines set out by your predispositions, by your native strengths. There is also context, and the person who pays close attention to the world around them will find rich possibilities close to hand. You only need to really open your eyes; and often we walk about with them closed.
People often feel they are being blown about by life. That their fate is decided by things external to them, and so they lose courage and they despair. Others imagine they can decide and control everything, and so they are shocked and harassed by the winds of fortune which laugh at their hubris. Some people, on the other hand, discover a profound source of strength and possibility within themselves, which when shaped by love and gratitude, give them hope and courage and a vision to move toward. They feel the power of the life in them, the power of their universal humanity and of their distinct nature flowing through them. They discover their agency, their ability to have power in their life, directed toward what they long for most. This is their potency, their potential. For such people who later look back at, this is a turning point in their lives, where things changed.
Anybody who has read my writing over the years knows that I give much space to a compassionate and just acceptance of the reality of tragedy in our lives. But this must be balanced with another acknowledgement: there are deep possibilities in every life. That life can be wonderful. It is deluded to imagine that life can be plain sailing. But it is also deluded to presume that there is nothing more to life than your despair and suffering. Perhaps there is much more in front of you than you can see. Once you begin to see and feel it, you can reach out, and take steps, and who knows where you will end up. This is a truth I have witnessed time and again. And which I know deeply in my own life. Perhaps you have to experience it, in which case now is a good time to start.
What do you do when you seem to make no progress? Here is a nuts and bolts answer, based on drawing on what is best in you.
The first thing is to understand the situation.
Then, as the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers would say: Notice what is in your control and what is out of it. Once you have made that distinction, focus on what is in your control. That is the point where you can change things. You just have to work out how.
How do you do change the cheangeable? You use the means. And you should use the best means that you can. So you should clarify how you are when you are at your best, and apply that to this situation. In short, use your strengths. You can take the VIA Strengths Survey here. The first five in your list are your signature strengths. They are you at your best. So they are your best means of overcoming challenges.
Now consider which of those strengths are most needed to change this situation, and how they might need to be expanded in this context, and how they will be specifically applied. We are disposed, for age-old evolutionary reasons, to focus on the negative, the deficit. However research shows that one of the most effective ways of doing better in life involves getting more creative and flexible at using your signature strengths. Of course you can also see this as an opportunity to cultivate your lower strengths, but resist the temptation to take that approach as your default - which is, again, a deficit approach - and instead focus on creatively doing more of what you're good at, applied to the situation.
So far you have assessed the situation, what is in your control, and what strengths you need to exercise that control. You have hopefully become more aware of your strengths and expanded your understanding of how you might use them. Having done this you can now set some goals and strategies, based on the change you want, and the strengths you will use, and how you will use them.
Now get to work! If you don't do the work - and you may have many excuses, good and bad, for not doing it - no change will happen.
One way of understanding what we are doing in philosophical counselling or coaching is that we living the life of philosophy. I do not mean theoretical reflection, I mean taking an honest and searching look at ourselves. Philosophy, an ancient Greek word, means "love of wisdom." To live philosophically is to commit yourself to living as wisely as you can.
This is why I say that philosophical coaching is like personal training at the gym, only for your mind and heart. You can tell a philosopher by how they live.
People sometimes criticise philosophy because they expect it to be easy and entertaining. As though you could sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and grow in physical strength and fitness. Philosophy is about cultivation. This is why Socrates praised the examined life as the best kind. He was a father, a craftsman, a soldier, and he died for his commitment to truth and goodness. His notion of “examination” was concrete, it was a way of living, a way of being with one another, an active commitment to becoming what you might be.
Robert Solomon wrote a book called The Joy of Philosophy. That's the perfect title. I have done philosophy all my adult life, after discovering it during the year I spent in an Italian monastery, where medieval philosophy was there among the few English-language books on offer. And it has been a joyful journey. A practice of the head, and heart, and hands. A way of loving the world, and paying deep attention to all that is good in life.