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Archive for April, 2015

Does Death Have Value?

Posted on: April 27th, 2015

“The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” – Morrie Shwartz, Tuesdays with Morrie

Each year the blooming Michigan springtime turns into the bustle and awe of the vibrant green summer and returns into the dark, silence of winter. As soon as we become enamored or annoyed by the sunshine, or lack thereof, the tides turn and season shift once again.

However, in other parts of the world, life is either in an immortal summer and frost. While the changing of seasons has fostered a respect for death, the tropical flourishing of palm trees and cacti provide insight into the beauty of eternal vitality. This dichotomy helps me to understand some of my biases towards death as an essential value, though others may disagree. First, allow me to provide some back story.

The Importance of Limitation

As a therapist and appreciator of life, I enjoy many of the tenets of existential philosophy. Part of this ideology is that we human beings create our own meaning, rather than uncovering it in the world. Essentially, life is a blank canvas for us to paint whatever we would like upon it. In addition, existentialism denies any sort of afterlife. A lot of people see this as kind of depressing, which is understandable. Some of us take comfort in the fact that when we die we are recycled into the same matter and energy that composes the rest of the universe, while others find hope in an eternal afterlife.

Others, including myself, believe death adds value to our life by magnifying the importance of the small amount of time we have to roam about. I’ll admit, it is a bit morbid. Yet, my appreciation of spring and summer is intensified by the fact that it only comes around for part of the year and have also learned to appreciate the gloomier sides of fall and winter. The end is the beginning is the end, so to speak.

Recently, some close friends of mine were discussing one day achieving immortality through technology and the value of life and death. They asked if I would chose immortal life if I had the opportunity. Given my appreciation for endings, I answered no under the assumption that the more of something we have, the less value it holds. Their response really threw a wrench in my worldview.

They explained that if humans had, say 100,000 years to live, it would actually add value to life because we would be able to accomplish goals unreachable with a 100 year lifespan. As our time increases , so does opportunity.

For example, one of my friend’s goals is to see human life expand beyond the solar system. This is something that may not happen for thousands of years and dying would prevent him from ever having this experience. If we wanted to learn several languages, become a doctor, read all of the literary classics, or travel the world and then some, a exponentially longer life would allow us to do so.

I hadn’t thought of immortality in this way. I had imagined eons of suffering, the increasing pace of time perception and witnessing generations of loved ones perish. In addition, it seems that pleasure loses substance the more we have of it. Such an existence would be like a never ending movie. No climax, no resolution, no point.

Is Death Valuable?

So, is death valuable? If one day you are able to upload your consciousness and live 100,000 years, would you do it? If we are able to “cure” death, would we miss it?

In my experience, larger quantities diminishes quality. If we have more life, we will spend it with less care. We would not value the seasons of life, but rather be trapped in a perpetual state of youth. However, there are pros and cons to both sides. Some prefer the eternal summer of the Bahamas while I feel quite comfortable with the flowing seasons. So can be said of youth and aging.

At this point, immortality is wishful thinking, though it begs important questions. The importance of the question lies in how it jars the mind out of our rigid values so we may consider new possibilities. Unless technology is developed within the next century to eliminate death it is wiser to appreciate the moments we have rather than wish for more.

While it is a rather solemn topic to discuss, I sit at my desk and watch once yellow dandelions fade to a white hue. They prepare to end their brief existence before splintering off into the wind in order to release its offspring into the air. I find hope in this process. Though I will one day crinkle and crack with old age, I believe I will return to the great hum of the cosmos. That is the essence of tragedy: to feel great life in the presence of death. 

“Is Change Possible?”

Posted on: April 7th, 2015

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts


There are, by my understanding, two fundamental beliefs essential to become a therapist, and really, to be successful in therapy. First, we must believe in the inherent value of each person, accepting others with compassion and empathy to the best of our ability. This is important in forming a rapport with clients and facilitates the therapeutic relationship.


Second, is the belief in change. If there were a single, underlying purpose for what therapists do, it would be to help facilitate change. Most of us do not seek therapy if we are happy with life. Generally, something in our lives is unsatisfactory and we wish to change it, but do not know how. The difficulty is that many of us don’t believe change is possible, meaningful change that is. Many of the patients I work with feel a sense of being trapped or helpless, with little hope that life will improve. This can feel overwhelming and cause a lot of distress, depression and anxiety in our lives.


Faith in Change


Belief in change is critical to therapy because without believing, as a practitioner, in the possibility of positive change in those we help, there is little hope. I have found that some therapists lose this essential piece throughout their years of practice, because hope in change involves faith. Not necessarily faith in a higher power, but rather faith in the human spirit and ability to overcome life’s troubles. Faith can often be shaken, and without proper care, lost.


I find this troubling as a spritely young therapist. I will admit, there are moments when I feel helpless listening to patients, as if the troubles before me are too heavy to bear. Yet, by thinking this way, I take something from them. When I become overwhelmed by the pain of others, it’s often due to my own desire to save them, to deliver them from their suffering. When doing this, I fail to give them credit and lose faith in their ability to change.


I do not believe this is an uncommon experience for therapists and actually feel it may be a necessary experience to overcome. We helpers often feel as if we must carry the whole world on our shoulders, like Atlas, keeping the world afloat so it does not become adrift into the darkness of space. Though, when we do this, it is due to a fundamental distrust in the capabilities of others and need to control the uncontrollable.


Often times, patients will ask for advice and become frustrated when we do not provide it. We explain that they must learn to solve their problems on their own as a way to empower them. This fosters their own faith in change and enables them to learn to help themselves. At the same time, as therapists, we must withhold our will to direct their change in a direction we see fit. We must remain unattached to the outcome, and rather delve into the process of change.


The Irony of Change


What I find most interesting about change is its inevitability. Ironically, if there is one constant in the universe, it is change. There are few aspects of life that can be relied upon as successfully as change. This is alarming to most of us, because with change comes loss; loss of the comforts of certainty and truly of everything we hold dear. Much of life’s pain results from the inability to let go and allow change to take its course. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and grief are all ways our mind and body adapt to the pain of change. They are symptoms, it can be said, of an inherent resistance to life’s singular constant.


However, we do not have to suffer by the winds of change. We can change the sails and allow it to guide us. So, the alternative is to approach change as a form of liberation. One of the insights I often share with patients is that however much pain or anxiety they feel in this moment, it will not last forever. It will change. The same can be said equally of joy and sorrow. The trick is, as Mr. Watts is quoted, to dance with it. That is to say, to accept the inevitability of it, not by clinging to the moment but through acceptance.


Therapy As Dance Instruction


Change is inevitable, ever present, and impossible to avoid. The real challenge is learning how to adapt and flow with it. This is what we do in therapy, to allow others to let go and rejoin the dance of life. The trouble is getting others to believe in what has been under their noses all along. All our pain, joy, hate, jealousy, dissatisfaction and love are part of the dance, its a matter of learning to follow their rhythm rather than trying to take the lead. Of course its difficult to dance if you don’t hear the music playing in the first place.


Lastly, whatever walk of life we are on, we share this underlying experience. Our lives are shaped by constant flux. We have the choice to allow the ups and downs of life to chain us down with fear or set us free with acceptance. Though it is rarely as easy as making a single choice, there is indeed hope that whatever sorrow we feel will soon dawn to a brighter day.

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Posted on: April 2nd, 2015

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