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How many of us hold onto a vision of what life should be like for us, or what we should look like or how others should behave towards us? We behave as though happiness and well-being are just around the corner. They will happen when… my child gets in the right college or when I have X amount of dollars in my bank account. I have hope that happiness and well-being will grace my life when I lose that weight or get that house or when my child is married. Hope can sometimes diminish the quality of our lives.
When I first became a quadriplegic, I felt I was worthless and useless, that I was a burden to my loved ones and therefore unlovable. And because I was a burden and unworthy of love, all I wanted to do was go to sleep and never wake up again. In my book Letters to Sam, I described how a nurse approached me one evening when I was in intensive care. Knowing I was a psychologist, she asked if she could talk to me. Of course I said yes, because all I was doing was ruminating about my own suffering, and I was happy to focus my attention toward someone else. Anyway, she told me she was suffering following a significant loss and that she felt she could not go on. I understood her experience, because that’s what I was feeling. And somehow she knew that I understood deeply what she was going through. She didn’t care about my paralysis or my catheters, she just wanted a human connection. I referred her to a therapist, and she thanked me for listening. After that I closed my eyes and said to myself, “I can do this. I can live as a quadriplegic.” Following that encounter, I had a glimmer of hope that despite everything, I could make a contribution to the world. That perhaps I could even be happy.
Nevertheless, despair set in over the next few months, and I told myself that I would give it three years and then decide whether to end my life. At the end of three years, I went into my bedroom and spoke to… I don’t really know. It may have been a temporary belief in some higher power, it may have been my inner wisdom. Nevertheless, I said, “I will live with this if you give me hope that someday I will walk.” And the voice I heard back said: “No hope, live or die, make a choice.” So I lowered the bar and said: “At least give me hope that I won’t be as sick as I have been,” as I had been in the hospital several times over those first three years . But I got the same answer back: “No hope, choose life or choose death.”
It was the most powerful and life-affirming experience imaginable. I chose life.
I choose life simply because I didn’t want to die. In my previous blog, I said that everything changes when we ask the question: “What now?” Now that I’ve chosen to live this life with this body, what now? What is there to hope for?
In his book The Anatomy of Hope, physician Jerome Groopman defines hope as the belief that tomorrow can be better than today. Simply that. But what it does not say speaks volumes. It does not say anything about believing that our bodies will be better or our relationships will be better or economics will be better. Simply hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
And how do we get there? How do we choose life today instead of waiting for it to begin tomorrow?
Psychologist Kristin Neff is probably the world’s leading experts on self-compassion. She explains that self-compassion simply means kindness and understanding towards ourselves. The same kindness and understanding I felt for that nurse in my hospital room, the same kindness we feel towards people we love when they suffer. When we see someone suffer, our hearts open. We feel the warmth in our chests and we feel kindness and compassion. Imagine feeling that towards ourselves when we suffer.
If we can look deeply into what most of us hope for, I believe we will find ourselves looking for understanding, kindness, well-being and love. We believe rightly that those things will make our lives better. Try the exercise of bringing those things into your life.
Very often in the morning I look in the mirror deeply into my eyes. I see little Danny, who was cute and tried so hard to do the right thing. A little boy who was ashamed of his academic failure. I see the young man who pretended to be a grown-up before he actually was one, the 33-year-old quadriplegic who suffered. I see 67-year-old man who knows far more than he ever did. And I hold all of those men in my loving eyes, sad for their suffering, and grateful for all of those experiences.
Kindness. Trust me, it changes everything.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For more by Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D., click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.