It’s fascinating to listen to people talk to themselves and about themselves. I’m included, of course, on that list of people. Crafting and nurturing ideas and conclusions about self is unavoidable. It’s also important in service to knowing oneself. But it’s also fraught with the temptation to “homestead” on the ground of ideas and conclusions unexamined.
Some — many — of our conclusions about ourselves are, on a good day, unnecessary. Not useful. In some cases, untrue. Illusion. Self-protection disguised as insight. Unadulterated horse patootie wrapped around us serving only to provide the familiar miseries of inertia, stuckness, fear, self-doubt and even self-loathing.
Human beings are a lot like the fox in “Aesop’s Fables” who cannot jump high enough to pull the delicious grapes off the vine. So the fox walks away concluding the grapes are sour, anyway. He walks away assuaging himself with a truth he doesn’t know to be true. In fact, it’s unlikely to be true. But horse patootie conclusions are perversely soothing to the fears and vulnerabilities we’d have to mobilize were we to continue a course of hope and expectation.
Hope is a real taskmaster that way. To live in hope, we must make peace with the foolishness of hope. We must accept that the discipline of hope comes with knowing not all our hopes will be realized. Disappointment is a regular companion on the journey. To live well, we must negotiate a truce, or perhaps even a friendship with this companion. Yet, the reality of disappointments is no excuse to give up. We keep extending ourselves in hope to possibilities yet unimagined. We hope that life is meaningful, worthwhile and good, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
But, from time to time, for all of us, hope just exhausts us. So we craft ideas, stories and conclusions protecting us from the risk of hope. We lean into these ideas. We assert them to ourselves and each other as if we were handed them on golden tablets in God’s handwriting. We talk as if we know that we know the bitter limits of our happiness, our well-being, our contentedness, our forgivability. (I made up that last word. It means “the extent to which I could rightly hope to ever be forgiven or to forgive myself.”)
But, often — usually — we don’t know anything at all. Which brings me to the woman in my office. …
She’s in her early 40’s. She’s a disciplined person — thoughtful, loyal and hard-working. She has depth and courage. She came to therapy last year on a journey of growth, integrity and selfhood that has been compelling and admirable. Her picture should be next to the word “courage” in the dictionary. Now, she stands on the “light side” of her journey. She has done the work. Before her is her own life, now firmly and in some ways for the first time in her faithful possession.
But here it comes: a conclusion that sounds like truth, disguised as truth, but smells like … well, horse patootie. “I regret the time I wasted,” she says, “and I fear it may be too late for me now.”
“This is dirty pool on my part,” I say, “but …”
I tell her that I’m turning 55 in a few weeks. That, for reasons unknown to myself, I’ve decided this birthday will be iconic for me. On that day, I’ve decided to start my life all over again. I’m going to make changes. Extend new hopes into the world. Change my thinking. Try some new things. I’m really looking forward to it.
I give her two choices. I ask her to take a breath, count to five, and decide between two things to say to me. Either, “It’s too late for you, Steven.” Or, “Steven, it’s not too late for you.”
Her face roils. She shrugs and says, “You know which one I’m going to say.” And I shrug back: “You get to pick.”
She centers herself, meets my gaze and says, “Steven … it’s not too late for you.”
“That’s good to hear,” I answer back.
Her eyes fill with tears: “I’m sad about the way my life has turned out.”
“I’m sad about the way a fair chunk of my life has turned out, too,” I say. “But, just a minute ago, somebody told me it’s not too late.”
She leaves the session looking a bit dazed. She knows she’s just been had. She knows she can’t have it both ways. If it’s not too late for me, then …
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.