September 26, 2010

To Be, or To Do? That Is The Question

Over the years I’ve met with many dozens of patients who say that they’ve reached a point (and some are quite young when they say this, while others are past middle age) where they just don’t like who they’ve become.  In one way or another, they feel as if they’ve hit a point of stagnation in work, love or another important aspect of life.  Sometimes they are struck with the sense that time is passing by and the high hopes they had for what might be accomplished, achieved, obtained or experienced in life—have not become realities.

In our culture, it seems we are urged toward “bigger and better,” toward “progress” and “having it all.”  A friend of my wife says she is quoting the Duchess of Windsor when she states, “A woman can never be too thin or too rich.”  To that, she adds, “or have too many silk blouses.”  But I’m not so sure.  Beyond the basics necessary for life, I’m not sure that we benefit from all that striving, all that wanting more.  In the final analysis, it probably comes down to a couple of questions that one can answer only for oneself—and the answers might change as life offers opportunities to address these things.

The first big question is” Who do I want to be?”  (Notice that the question is not, “WHAT do I want to be?”  That’s quite a different matter entirely.)  Deciding who I will be entails developing a set of internal standards and values, and measuring my own actions and attitudes against them.  It seems to me this question is answered dozens—if not hundreds—of times a day, as one chooses whether to tell the small lie, whether to try something new, whether to pause before answering the angry accusation.  In other words, by deciding to “be a considerate friend,” I am deciding to re-commit to that definition of myself in every interaction, not simply to sending the requisite birthday card.  Announcing to my inner self that I want to be a good friend will mean that, at times, I will question my actions, my attitudes and even what it means to BE a good friend.  Sometimes being a good friend will mean telling a hard truth that others will not, maybe it will require an apology for something left undone.  It’s hard to say where this “who do I want to be?” question may take you, but worth asking nonetheless.   Without some ongoing consideration of “who I want to be” it’s likely that self-deception will have me believing that I am always doing exactly the things I believe in.  From that point, I’ll justify my behavior (of course we all do this to an extent anyway) even when it has a negative impact on others.  So this first question is one that deserves to be mulled over from time to time.

As a second question I ask, “What must I do to have a satisfying and fulfilling life?”  As with the first question, this one can be answered only by the individual.  Even committed couples must consider individually what makes for a satisfying life experience before asking the same question of the marriage.  Some of us will answer that a life of service will be most fulfilling, while others will devote themselves to spiritual endeavors, and others to lives of pleasure and enjoyment.  There is no one answer for all people, and it’s likely that the answer shifts a fair amount depending on the many social roles we take on, and also throughout the life span.  Early psychologist Erik Erikson was the first to put forth the interesting ideas on how the purpose and maybe even the satisfaction of life changes for all of us, as we grow older. For more on Erikson’s ideas, see:

All this relates to my hope that you’ll find more ways to slow down, to enjoy vacations, and to relax—because we don’t ask ourselves these important questions while hurrying to the grocery store.  We don’t pause to reflect on whether our lives are meaningful during time spent in traffic, taking a class, changing a diaper, or paying bills.  These questions are ones meant to be turned over and looked at from all angles, given the time they deserve.

In coming months I will write more about how we come to envision a positive possible future(s) for ourselves and set goals, to prepare and take action.  I’ll write about motivation, and how to maintain it in the face of adversity, all with a more satisfying life experience in mind.