“Suffering is wasted when we suffer entirely alone.” -Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.85
There is a myth in our modern culture that we got to make it on our own. A month ago, I was working with a bright young man in his early twenties. Tommy (not his real name) has a passion for the arts and literature. He hasn’t been able to sustain meaningful employment. He was struggling with bouts of depressed mood, existential crisis, and what I would call “analysis paralysis.” We hit it off well when we started, as we shared our deep love for the creative field. But I had a sense that he wasn’t too keen to continue. I wasn’t the first therapist he has seen. It was under the insistence of his mother to seek help. I broached this openly with him, asking if he would like to collaborate further in our work together to help him out of this rut, and he confirmed my hunch. He went on to tell me something important, that is pervasive in our modern culture: “Daryl, thanks, but no thanks. I think I got to do this on my own.” I began to understand that this wasn’t just an issue with not wanting to seek help in therapy, but rather, he was buying that myth of independence across all aspects of his life; he was alone. He had no help in guiding, coaching, and feedbacking with him in his literary work. He had no pastoral or community to walk with him in his journey of faith. He has cut off from friends since his was bullied in secondary school.
I suspect that this notion that we got to make it on our own is fueled by what we read in self-help books, popular media, and maybe even in biographical accounts of iconic personalities. When we think of successful people in the limelight, we are enamored by their achievements. They make even inspire us to persist in our dreams and aspirations. What we fail to realise is that we often only see the fruits of their labor. We see their outputs and not their inputs. What we also fail to see is the community of others that has helped them to reach great heights. In turn, we begin to value the myth of independence.
What we fail to realise is that we often only see the fruits of their labor. We see their outputs and not their inputs.
But the other end of the spectrum speaks loudly as well. What Tommy was telling me was actually something like this: “I don’t want to rely on you. I don’t want to become dependent on you. It’s scary to relate with others. People have failed me in the past. Why should I trust you? It makes me uncomfortable to open up myself to you.” It also doesn’t help for some who are affected by the myths of Shrinks cast by Hollywood!
We addressed this heads on. I pointed out to Tommy an analogy that sometimes life can be like walking in the dark forest, and it would certainly help to have someone guide you through. Since he’s a Christian, I pointed out that Christ would never send his apostles out alone. He would insist that they go two-by-two. I added that “Lets not forget, even the pros in sports have coaches.” Why do we allow ourselves to have fitness instructors to help us with our hardware (i.e., physical fitness), but are resistant to allow someone to help us with the software (i.e., our emotional world)?
I also framed the therapeutic work as a form of pitstop, to recalibrate his life. In response, for the first time, he said that he would give this a try. Tommy has since returned for therapy and is taking steps toward connecting with another person. His therapist was his first leap of faith to re-connect with the world .
This is not to say that we should shift entirely from being independent to becoming dependent creatures. Rather, these two ends of the same spectrum must come to a middle ground, a point of “meeting by the river,” by the banks of inter-dependence. The state of interdependence is a belief that “I can be completely who I am, I can also count on others for help, and I am capable of helping others in need.” This view assumes that whether you are the one giving help, or the one in need, we are all equals.
…These two ends of the same spectrum must come to a middle ground, a point of “meeting by the river,” by the banks of inter-dependence.
Psychologist and writer, Robert Francher puts it well. “Life is complex, often confusing and conflicted. Distress can come with the territory…When we’re distressed, and we’ve tried everything we know, we need outside counsel…A counselor provides an ‘auxiliary mind,’ so to speak. An alter ego. Someone to bring to bear, on your behalf, a range of knowledge that you simply haven’t had occasion to acquire before. Someone to provide emotional balance that your distress prevents your achieving alone. Someone to provide an objective eye on your circumstances. Someone to help you sort out your troubles.”
As anthropologist and cybernetics giant Gregory Bateson once quipped, “It takes two to know one.” As social beings, we learn about ourselves in relations with others, not in the silence of a cloistered room. There are times when we would need to build walls around ourselves in order to protect us, to work on our lives. But don’t forget to build windows too.
Gregory Bateson once quipped, “It takes two to know one.” As social beings, we learn about ourselves in relations with others, not in the silence of a cloistered room.
Our identity is formed by who we identify with. When we build relationships, relationships build us.
Daryl Chow, Ph.D.