Americans are deeply immersed in what I think of as "heroic consciousness." Whether it takes the popular forms of John Wayne and Rambo or their female equivalents in the movies, there is a deeply held cultural embrace of conquering difficulties, solving problems, succeeding against all odds.
I think this is wonderful. It has been partially responsible for the U.S. being at the lead in innovations and entrepreneurship, and made possible marvelous achievements in technology, sports, culture, business and about every realm of human activity. And still....it is a partial truth.
The fuller truth, I believe, is that we never fully succeed in anything, we never completely conquer anything, we never completely master anything. John Gottman, a couples researcher who has tracked some couples over 30 years, found that 69% of all problems in a marriage remain unresolved, no matter how diligently the couple works at them. This jives with my personal and professional experience, which suggests that no one person ever finishes with an issue that bedevils him or her. It is true it will be improved, it is true it will bother the person less, it is true it won't cause the same level of problems as before. But it will not go away, no matter how many years of therapy, how many weekend workshops, or how many self help books are consumed.
Kind of depressing, no? Well, only if you view life solely through the lens of heroic consciousness, whereby there would be something wrong with us for not being more successful in succeeding in something we work so hard at.
So how can we see this in a way which is not a cause for depression? I think we can if we re-frame our field of vision along a few parameters.
The first re-frame, and one which I've spoken of with regards to marriage as well, is that our goal in life should not be happiness, but wholeness. Wholeness includes brokenness, imperfection, frustrations, the whole gamut of being human. If we strive for some mental conception of happiness based on what we perceive we need to change about ourselves, a form of "nip and tuck" to our psyches, we will be on a treadmill of exhausting self improvement, and the faster we run to achieve the more tired we will get without really getting anywhere.
The second re-frame, and again this is just my opinion, is that we need to think of ourselves as souls living in bodies, rather than personalities we get to air brush into beauty. Thinking of ourselves as souls living in bodies, which is fully consonant with living lives of wholeness, shifts the perspective in both breadth and depth.
In terms of breadth, it means we think in terms of lifetimes rather than years or months or days. We are here to learn lessons, we do our best to learn them, and we maintain a stance of humility that only so much is within our control and only so much is possible in the time allotted to us.
In terms of depth, the notion of a soul in a body gives primacy to something deeper than the material and the surface, deeper than the body and deeper than material definitions of success. In sickness and in health, in life and -- yes, in death, we are much more than our bodies and much more than our paychecks, square feet of housing, style of car, or whiteness of teeth.
From this vantage point, our struggles can be thought of as something one of my teachers refers to as our "spiritual curriculum" rather than the bad luck or mistakes we need to get away from. So make friends with your baggage and your issues. They're here to stay. It's more about developing a relationship with them than it is trying to eliminate them.
Next week: "Beauty and the Beast" as a psychological lesson.
Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is accepting new referrals.