How often do you feel helpful in relation to other people? How often do you feel helpless instead?
And why does that even matter?
I like to think of myself as a pastoral theologian first and a clinical social worker second, but either way I have a tendency to over-think things. Yet here’s a thought I’d like to share in hopes it may actually, well, help someone who happens to be reading now.
In recent months, I’ve given hundreds of hours in time over to the work of tele-mental health services in such on-line platforms as Sondermind, Better Help, Faithful Counseling (faith-based) and ReGain (marital) counseling. Due to the mental health and marital crises found in contemporary society, I’m doing what little I can to help those who are find themselves functioning poorly amidst the stressors of today’s world. Time-wise, I have to turn away far more people than I can help. But among those I can help, here’s what seems to make the greatest difference based both upon my own observations and my clients’ collected feedback. What matters most is whether people find themselves feeling helpless and afraid, even feeling unloved or unlovable, or feeling helpful and loving in relation to other people.
Psychotherapy has evolved over the years, from a rather primitive understanding of early childhood and the psychosexual bonds that helped develop our personalities, to a more advanced understanding of what we might call narrative formation. A problem narrative forms out of an experience of extreme helplessness. Such experienced traumas in life, often beginning in early childhood, create great anxiety for us and a profound fear of being “less than” or “not enough” in relation to ourselves and others. As we feel helpless in relation to our surroundings, we fear that we are unloved and as that narrative persists, even unlovable at times. Living out of such a narrative or “fear story” leads us to behave in some pretty unlovable ways. Angry ways. Controlling ways. Anti-social ways.
For all of us, I tend to believe, these traumas of early childhood situations where we felt extreme helplessness lead to adult flashbacks triggered by our current life stressors, whatever those might be. This is the problem narrative we return to again and again in life. The narrative in which what comes after the word “help” is “less.”
Were I to try, as I always do, to make our human experiences of anxiety and depression (and, yes, these are universal upon the spectrum of human life experience perhaps even more so than the common cold), more solvable, I would say this:
· Anxiety is what happens when we place more / all faith in our fear (helplessness)
· Depression is what happens when we place more / all doubt in our love (helpfulness)
Faith and doubt are universal experiences, in my humble opinion. We can’t have one without the other. And both are a part of our human conscious AND unconscious existence. They live within our minds as an unseen continuum somewhere between none and all. We live with an invisible 1-10 scale of fear and love that is dynamic and highly changeable.
Said differently, I am most anxious & depressed when I place faith in my fear and doubt in my love at a 9. I am least anxious & depressed when I place faith in my love and doubt in my fear at a 9. When I change my life narrative from fear (helplessness) to love (helpfulness) I find myself functioning with much more satisfaction and much less frustration in society.
When I see myself being more helpful and less helpless in my life situations, I feel free and liberated from my own mind’s dis-ease.
Which brings me to the subject of American freedom, a life narrative we attach to these United States of America as together we celebrate the story of our declared independence on today’s national holiday.
The story of America is the story of helplessness in relation to colonial government that existed in England prior to July 4, 1776. We sometimes use the phrase “taxation without representation” to tell our pre-July 4th part of America’s story. Our colonial rulers rendered us helpless. Our voices and votes were suppressed. We felt “less than” and “not enough” until the day when our colonist leaders became sick and tired of being sick and tired. They had had it with being anxious and depressed. They were through with their fear narrative!! And they declared their freedom from their fear, their independence from their helplessness!! Instead, they would help each other form a resistance and, yes, a revolution of helpfulness.
They would find their own voices and votes and AUTHORize their own (now our own) new narrative of love and helpfulness. They would feel free and liberated from their own mind’s collective dis-ease.
The new story of this new world we call America is, from this date 245 years ago, the story of helpfulness in relation to others. The story of love. The story of cooperation. The story of freedom. This is the story we struggle to now celebrate as Americans!! But struggle we must for the sake of our own collective mental health!
Because what comes after “help” matters most.