“An unexamined life is not worth living.” ~ Socrates, Ancient Greek philosopher, 469-399 BCE
What is life all about? 20th century French philosopher Albert Camus half-jokingly said, “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
I never really thought about it until about a few months ago. Prior to a health crisis, my philosophy was pretty simple: work hard to take care of my family, enjoy life’s pleasures whenever possible, and try to make a little difference in the lives of others. Over the course of 11 years, these activities were gradually becoming harder to do and ultimately ceased to exist. I suddenly found myself busy doing nothing. What’s a once ambitious man with a Type A personality to do?
I went on a mission to search for meaning somewhere in the tangled clutter that represents broad swaths of my life. When I was a little boy – maybe 8 or 9 years old – I remember eavesdropping on my mom and her comadre from across the street talking about a woman who left her husband and kids to “find herself.” From the looks on their faces it was pretty clear that they were confused and scornful at such a thought.
They questioned the idea that finding oneself was even a thing. That’s just for gringas who can’t handle life, they agreed with a judgemental tone. The comadres stood with crossed arms and furrowed brows asking each other how a woman could even think of leaving her children, not to mention the repulsive possibility of a potential stepmother coming into the picture. The moral of their discussion was pretty clear to my formative mind. Life isn’t fair. Deal with it.
I always wondered if my mom had dreams. She never mentioned anything, but then again women of her generation and social class weren’t allowed to express their personal aspirations. I’m sure that my mom truly believed that her purpose in life was to serve her husband and children, a role she mastered selflessly. Mom also believed that the only way to calm fears, anxiety, depression or dissatisfaction was to pray and leave it to God.
Throughout my spiritual journey, I discovered the power of prayer and the comforting reassurance of “leaving it in God’s hands.” My relationship with God has been the guiding light that helps me endure the darkest days. But, I’ve also learned that prayer alone doesn’t tame uneasy thoughts of doom, uncertainty, and regret.
In addition to a connection with God, spiritual wellness includes a balanced diet, exercise, hobbies, healthy fun, and openness to psychotherapy. Therapy is something many people won’t talk about. The CDC recently reported that over 90% of Americans have never received counseling from a professional. Psychology Today reported that the high cost of therapy and stigma about mental health keep people from considering a therapist.
According to the CDC, only 26% of Americans have a diagnosed mental disorder. An American Psychological Association study, however, noted that 77% of Americans say that they’re stressed out. It’s a fact of life that all of us feel sad, angry, hurt, confused, etc. at one time or another. Unfortunately, social stain attached to the word “crazy” prevents an open public conversation about requiring mental health coverage as part of insurance plans.
Diagnosed mental illness isn’t the only reason to seek counseling. My first experience with mental health was on the heels of my mom’s passing in 2004. I was crushed and felt lost. A therapist helped me understand the seemingly unbearable pain. Within a few months, I was able to manage the suffering caused by my mom’s death. Once I determined that the healing process was complete, it was time to move on with my life, or so I thought.
Sixteen years later, while curled up in a fetal position, I felt empty and discouraged after transplant surgery. I again sought therapy. This time I found the courage to also ask the transplant team therapist for help with general anxiety, a demoralizing condition that has hounded me since my early 20s. My stomach churns constantly as if something is wrong. My mind begins searching for a reason for the unease and predictably conjures negative thoughts (the Boo Voice).
Stinging life setbacks re-enter my consciousness. Feeling defeated by a self-perceived wasted life empowers my Boo Voice. Well-intentioned advice from others to “just get over it” is like putting a BandAid on a broken leg. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and therapy wrote that, “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” More suffering and sorrow are sure to follow. That’s where therapy comes in.
I decided to give Socrates’ philosophy a chance and began to examine my life by talking it out. Sigmund Freud’s mentor called it the “talking cure.” I shared with my therapist the good, bad, and ugly of my personal history with unvarnished honesty. The process revealed things that I never wanted to acknowledge before. Now I’m learning how to peacefully and confidently live with the Boo Voice.
Taking that final step to bare my soul with a therapist has changed my life. It unlocked the shackles that kept my brain strapped to fear, worry, and failure. The hard part was the first step, putting the key into the cuffs that kept my mind closed. On one hand, I could hear my mom and her comadre telling me to give my worries to God, not a psychiatrist. On the other hand, faith assured me that God sent the therapist to help Him help me.
Psychotherapy isn’t only for people with severe mental illness. We all have daily troubles. We all have things from somewhere in our past that cause suffering and lead to unwise decisions and actions. After many hours of sharing my inner thoughts, reading, and reflecting, I’m beginning to learn about who I am. I realized that my mom and her comadre were wrong.
Finding oneself isn’t only for gringas who can’t handle life on their own. It’s for anyone who seeks to find meaning in their lives. A faithful look into the past is the gateway to finding that truth. Honesty is the key. Any conversation with a therapist that resembles a rosy social media type lifestyle won’t work.
I’m at peace with myself as I write. I know that the Boo Voice is lurking around every corner waiting to be emboldened by anxiety. I plan to ride this wave of tranquility until it inevitably crashes onto the shore. That’s just life. Working with my therapist has given me insight into the anxious corners of my mind and provided me with the tools to face any and all storms that aim to disrupt the calm.
Seven years ago, I set out to share a message of gratitude and hope by writing about my battle with heart failure and the spiritual awakening that followed. I didn’t expect that I would also go on an eye-opening, sometimes painful, and ultimately liberating journey of self-discovery.
By no means do I have the answer to a question that has been a mystery to humankind for thousands of years. Despite that obvious reality, I’ll share my thoughts on the meaning of life in a series of new blog posts called, What is Life All About? I hope that the series stimulates your mind and encourages you to think about what life means to you.
Oh yeah…one last thing. I’ve learned to accept, appreciate, and actually enjoy being busy doing nothing.