Ups and Downs

I had a great vacation this summer. My whole family did. We relaxed, we had fun, we had a great change of scenery, great activities, great food, great people to be with. It was perfect.

And then we got back to JFK on a Sunday evening, and only Dante could do justice to the infernal torment that ensued for the next 5 or 6 hours. I will spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say, we finally got to home sweet home early Monday morning.

“Let’s pretend we’re still on vacation,” I suggested to my wife later in the week, as we confronted the bills, the schedules, the yard project, the lack of enough sleep, the suddenly not working refrigerator and the possibly not working dishwasher, the bills … did I mention the bills?

But that’s the thing – vacations are great when they are very different from the rest of your life. Hopefully, it doesn’t mean that life=miserable, vacation=wonderful. But vacation, when it’s good, is good because it’s somewhere around 180° different from your normal routine.

There are people I’ve worked with who have had it very hard growing up – suffering extreme abuse of various kinds. And some of these people have a fantasy that, given what they have been through, life should now be a bed of roses. And they are extremely angry when it isn’t, which is, oh, pretty much every other day, more or less. A big part of living well for these people is accepting that they have to work at creating and maintaining a good life – it doesn’t just happen, it isn’t automatically the reward you get for surviving a terrible childhood. And when you’re doing your best, and hurts and disappointments still happen – it doesn’t prove that life really isn’t worth living, or that the world and all its people are cruel, and you are doomed. It just means that life has its ups and downs, and it is up to us to do the best we can and make the most of what we’ve got.

At the same time, I notice that one need not have had a terrible childhood to unconsciously entertain this fantasy – that life is supposed to be and actually can be wonderful all the time, that we can always be at our best. Many of us with happier childhoods have this fantasy too – and it is being sold to us constantly, in commercials, seminars, retreats, health food stores, plastic surgeons’ offices, and the endless stream of self-help books and tapes that relentlessly identify yet another seven steps to this, that or the other.

It’s true that we are living with a bad economy these days, and it looks like we may be living with it for a while. There are many more people out there now who are busy just figuring out how to survive, let alone live well. But I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who have nothing, and with people who have everything, and I’ve seen both these kinds of people have the same amount of anguish about solving the same puzzle – how to be happy, how to feel good, how to have a good life.

Long ago, Freud said with a touch of irony that the goal of psychotherapy was to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. But most psychotherapists today would agree, I think, that we are aiming for more. We want to help people find the strength and resilience to get through hardships; and to find the desire and the willingness to work at building a good life. The two go hand in hand – there can be no lasting good in life unless one has the strength and the resilience to endure and get through hardships, whether they be material or spiritual.

Another famous psychoanalyst, Frieda Fromm-Reichman, treated a young severely schizophrenic woman some years ago. As the young woman began to regain her health and sanity, she became terrified of leaving the hospital and being without the therapist. As the time for the girl’s discharge came closer, in response to the girl’s worries about life beyond therapy, Fromm-Reichman was honest with her: “I never promised you a rose garden,” she said, which became the title of the memoir the woman later wrote, under the pen name Hannah Green. Fromm-Reichman had already been through a great deal herself: escaping the Holocaust and starting a new life in a strange land, divorce, and loneliness. At the same time, she loved her work, and nurtured many patients and students. She was loved and respected by all who knew her. A good life.

Most people can’t always be on vacation, and none of us can always dwell in a garden of roses. It may seem like some people have everything come easily to them, but I’m certain that most people with good, happy lives are people who have worked hard, with persistence, to build and maintain that happiness.