Monday, October 22, 2007

"Oh therapy can you please fill the void?"

"Many Americans insist that everyone have a positive attitude," begins psychologist Barbara Held in her piece for the NPR series This I Believe entitled A Positive Outlook Is Overrated. So insistent have we become that everyone always have a good attitude that it extends even to times, "when the going gets rough." We have become a culture obsessed with being happy all of the time. This is discernible, she continues, "From the self-help bookshelves to the Complaint-Free World Movement, the power of positive thinking is touted now more than ever as the way to be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise."

From there she gets to the crux of the matter, to that point in her essay that I wanted to shout AMEN!:

"The problem is that this demand for good cheer brings with it a one-two punch for those of us who cannot cope in that way: First you feel bad about whatever's getting you down, then you feel guilty or defective if you can't smile and look on the bright side. And I'm not even sure there always is a bright side to look on."

There are two more points Dr. Held makes that are worth repeating, the first has to do with a personal experience that she had with physical illness, a flu that resulted in her having viral meningitis from which her physician assured her that she "would make a full recovery." Nonetheless, she was left "traumatized by the weeks of undiagnosed pain. I really thought I had a brain tumor or schizophrenia. Being a psychologist didn't help; I was an emotional wreck.

Fortunately it happened that my next-door neighbor was a brilliant psychiatrist, Aldo Llorente from Cuba. I asked him, 'Aldo, am I a schizophrenic?'

"'Professor,' he pronounced, 'you are a mess, but you are not a mentally ill mess. You are just terrified.'"

The second point worth repeating has to do with her own psycho-therapeutic practice: "Some of my one-session 'cures' have come from reminding people that life can be difficult, and it's OK if we're not happy all of the time" (underlined and emboldened emphasis mine). Of course, it is not okay if we're unhappy all of the time, just to pre-empt any destroyers of straw men.

So vexing is such a point-of-view that, despite its common sense and naturalness, I am fighting off the temptation to apologize for drawing attention to it, but her point is too important for that and I thank Dr. Held. For more of her perspective, from the This I Believe page, you can listen to her talk on NPR's Talk of the Nation back in August 2000. Among her several books is Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining. The word Kvetch comes from Yiddish kvetshn, which means "to squeeze, to complain". The Yiddish, in turn, finds its roots in the Middle High German word quetzen, quetschen, "to squeeze".

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