The Tense Young Man Who Didn't Know
That He Already Knew
"The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win,
The Rat Made Flesh
Buddhas, saints, prophets, and self-help gurus are madly popping up about us like mushrooms after a summer rain. Like mushrooms some are pretty, some are interesting, most are benign, and a few are poisonous. They are winking at us from nearly every page on Amazon.com and pitching their wares at us on almost every flickering TV channel. No doubt much wisdom can be gained from these sources if the foolish chaff and commercialism is screened out by our intelligent understanding of how books and media work.
From spiritual gurus peering out with a winning smile from seemingly every bookshelf in Barnes and Noble to pop psychologists manning the mikes with hot shot advice on the talk show circuits, spiritual and psychological wisdom is readily available. Such contemporary sound-bite wisdom is as ubiquitous today as indulgences used to be in the Renaissance Catholic Church, and with the same stipulation - money. We buy wisdom today like churchgoers used to buy indulgences, with cold hard cash.
Curiously, even though I have learned a tremendous amount from my readings in philosophy, religion, and self help, for which I am truly grateful, the most powerful bits of wisdom have come from the most unlikely of sources - everyday people who have managed to survive life's difficulties with some type of unassuming gracefulness. My best buddhas have often been those who did not know they were a buddha. And their wisdom came free. It was a wisdom that, born of pure hard earned experience, held the promise of pure hard-to-beat practicality. So it was with Timothy.
Timothy entered my office on a Friday afternoon, with the cool winds of Autumn launching their many colored kites into the blue skies of Pittsburgh. As a Chief Resident in Psychiatry I was housed in a small but cozy office just off the emergency room, where occasionally the quiet of the office would be interrupted by the muffled wailings of an approaching ambulance or police car bearing an involuntarily committed patient.
Timothy had nothing to do with my emergency room. He was a self-referred private patient, who by risking therapy with a resident in training was able to benefit from markedly lower costs per session. For patients, it was a bit of a crap shoot. If you happened upon a talented young therapist, you won. If you happened upon a not so talented young therapist, you lost. For most patients, it was a naïve leap of faith. But for some patients, who were forearmed with a bit of inside information, it was less risky. In Timothy's case, I had been suggested by someone who knew my work well - his brother - so the risk seemed less.
Timothy was a junior in college, struggling with a few inner demons, not of the psychotic nature but of the everyday nature, those anxieties that we all encounter and sometimes simply don't know how to battle effectively. He was a tad short but well built with an animal grace that proclaimed "athlete" with every movement. Indeed, he was an All-American. He was also an honors student and respected among his peers.
Timothy had just the right amount of ugliness to his face to be handsome in a rugged sort of way. His handshake was firm, his eye contact genuine. He was upfront, appropriately anxious for meeting his first shrink, and clearly motivated to succeed in therapy. He had a new quest to conquer - knowledge of the self - and deserved real credit for having the courage to enter psychotherapy. He approached one of my comfy chairs then looked about the room with a furtive glance like a soldier checking out the lay of the land. He looked at me, raised his eyebrow, nonverbally asking whether this was the correct place to sit. I nodded my head. And he plopped into the chair. Therapy had begun.
After our introductions I asked him what had brought him to my office. His answer was given with a quick and certain sureness, for Timothy was not a young man of hesitations or second guesses. He had mulled over this opening volley over and over on the nights before our current moment of introduction: "I seem to be succeeding at every thing I want to, but I'm not very happy." He paused, and then with his first smile, almost sheepish in nature, he continued, "Sort of weird, isn't it?"
There was something so earnest and serious in his demeanor, yet refreshingly naive, that I immediately liked Timothy. Here was a young warrior in life, sincere and hardworking, who was just plain battle fatigued. And to Timothy life was a battle. People needed to be tough. If you weren't tough, the answer was simple, you got tougher. No matter what the cost, you pick your quests and then you better damn well succeed in them. That was the key to happiness. The only problem was - it wasn't working. He had done his part for twenty years now, succeeding with every task, but life was not doing it's part, providing a feeling of happiness.
As I took his history it became apparent that Timothy had more than his fair share of the typical stresses routinely associated with the simple fact that one has parents and siblings. If we are honest about our evaluation of them, families are great gifts but are sometimes equally great curses. It is not that families are by nature dysfunctional. It is merely that families by nature are composed of people. And people are often problematic, so no family is free of jealousy, hidden agendas, and politics. We just hope that, in our families, these negative attributes are far outweighed by feelings of acceptance, open affection, and genuine loyalty. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. I'm not telling the reader anything new here.
Timothy had taken upon himself the not so useful belief that love from his father was essentially based on success in his endeavors. For Timothy, the words "I'm proud of you, Son" were equated with the words, "I love you, Son." This confusion, a very common confusion between fathers and children - especially sons - leads to an ever spiraling heat on a child to succeed in grander and grander fashions. If you letter in a sport that is great, but now its time to be an All-American. If you have a 3.6 grade point average, that is wonderful, but why don't you have a 3.9?" It's a nasty game, where the winner is always destined to be the loser, for the winner can never be good enough.
As our interview proceeded, Timothy loosened up. His posture moved from a soldier "at attention" to a soldier "at ease", but it was still military all the way. A few more smiles slipped from his lips, and we even managed a chuckle or two. Near the end of the interview, I questioned myself whether I should formally test his memory and concentration, for he was concerned that deficits in these areas were hurting him in his tests at school.
In an initial interview with an elderly client I routinely test such cognitive functioning, for dementias can be easily missed and may masquerade as depressive or anxious states. It is less common to do such testing initially with young clients such as Timothy, especially if, as was the case with Timothy, they are carrying a 3.8 gradepoint average at one of the most difficult universities in the country. On the other hand, Timothy seemed concerned about these deficits. More importantly, I was having an intuition. My gut was telling me to do the formal cognitive testing, even though my mind did not see the immediate need. In psychotherapy, one learns to listen to the gut, for the gut often sees patient's souls better than the mind.
The cognitive testing proceeded quite nicely. As I suspected, although some of his depressive symptoms were straining his concentrating abilities, no striking cognitive deficits were present. But I was struck by a growing change in Timothy's demeanor. He had moved from being "at ease" to a state somehow even more rigid than being "at attention". His back had stiffened. His gaze intensified. And he nervously licked his lips. Something was up.
I reached a point in the testing, called digit spans, where we give the patient a set of numbers and then ask the patient to repeat them back. We move from one number to usually around seven numbers in a row. It is merely a method of testing the patient's ability to concentrate and to employ his or her short term memory. Our conversation went something like this:
At which point Timothy said something that I had never had a patient say until then and have never had a patient say since. He said, "Dr. Shea, you are not going to beat me at this, no matter how hard you try."
Here was an unexpected breakthrough. My testing had not found the cognitive deficits it was designed to uncover. It had uncovered something profoundly more important - a deficit of the soul. Our testing had, in Timothy's mind, somehow been malignantly transformed from a technique to help us both uncover whether or not his depression was causing significant concentrating problems to a celebrity death match in which one man and only one man would be the victor. Deep inside Timothy's soul, the sands of self-respect were so unstable that even the slightest challenge was a threat to self respect and, hence, to being loved.
And here is where our story begins to tie in with the relationship between success and happiness. For with Timothy we have our perfect example of a good human being, who was highly successful, who was desperately unhappy, for success had made a rat of him as Lilly Tomlin notes so wittily at the beginning of the chapter.
Our society is geared to put us all in the rat race, where worth is determined by how many quests we succeed in achieving. It has even begun to malignantly invade our pre-schools where, instead of enjoying play and socializing, our children are, quite literally, pushed to learn, and if you don't do this task, you are a failure at age four! How sick can we get? The answer is: pretty sick. There is a multi-million dollar business in "Learning Toys", one of the uniquely weird oxymorons of all time. The goal of such toys is to learn while you play. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like playing to me. That sounds like learning, you know, schoolwork. Maybe I'm missing something here.
By the way, God help you these days if a fellow parent turns to you and asks, "What are your kids doing this summer?" and you don't answer with something like, "Preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics. I have my kid enrolled in soccer camp, swimming lessons, bike repair (in case he becomes a tri-athlete), and intensive reading of important twentieth century authors that might be important in college board preparation, you never know. I think he's going to have a great summer. It'll be a lot of fun."
I made the mistake of answering this question honestly once by commenting, "You know, I'm just going to let the boys relax this summer. You know, do nothing. Just play. They worked hard at school. I think they deserve a break." Silence. Then I heard, "Oh, that sounds great" said with the tone of enthusiasm that one would expect had I informed them I was sending the boys to have a sex change operation over the summer months. That night I kept waiting for a knock on the door from Children and Youth Services saying that my neighbors had filed a charge of child neglect. I'm not kidding, it's getting ugly out there. And the people who lose are our kids, for they are no longer allowed to be kids. They are becoming rats.
You see, the culture is fixated upon this idea of questing for success in multiple endeavors. We all get put in the rat race and, naturally, we try to win. But as Tomlin suggests, winning is really losing in such races, for one is being trained to be a rat. In essence, my patient Timothy was Lilly Tomlin's theoretical rat made into the flesh. And it hurts. It hurts bad. In fact, some adolescents and young adults hurt so badly that they attempt and sometimes complete suicide, driven by the gut feeling that they are, and always will be, losers in this quest for the gold.
In this regard popular culture seems to love to make rats of us. For instance, outlandish statements - sometimes taken completely out of context - have a knack for landing on inspirational posters such as this beauty:
There's a nice quote. That must have been hanging on the walls of the Enron executive suite.
Pulled out of context - spoken to a roomful of professional athletes who hopefully understand that the statement is a motivational exaggeration - such a phrase can easily become less a dramatic ploy than an accepted truth. Plopped onto the wall of a Junior High locker room, Coach Lombardi is suddenly transformed from a brilliant motivator into a brilliant ratmaker.
Delightful! No guilt production here. And what about this motivator par excellence from the famous baseball manager Sparky Anderson, who I doubt was aware of its darker implications:
At first glance it doesn't look so bad - almost sounds logical; but take another look. Such a statement tells all young athletes who are playing to the best of their abilities, that if their play does not land them at "the highest limits," they are not a success.
These are the kinds of statements that create "Timothys". Beneath their adulation of winners, they house the metacommunication that one is never good enough, unless you win. And sometimes, even if you win you are not good enough, because you didn't win the way you should have.
Thankfully, there are people - highly successful people - who disagree, as witnessed by the following quote, from Arthur Ashe, one of the greatest tennis players of all time:
And here is one from Jennifer James, author of Twenty Steps to Wisdom:
And, finally, leave it to Bob Dylan to capture the essence of our argument with his inimitable no-nonsense wisdom:
This does not mean that one doesn't want to succeed with certain quests in life. We do. It just means that it is important to pick such quests, limit the number of such quests, and realize that we are not failures if we are not the best in all of our quests, rather it is much more important to realize that we did our best in such quests even if we finished last. In the end, the most important quest is to enjoy our quests.
For a moment let us return to that first session with Timothy. From the above discussion we can see how an overemphasis upon success can clearly backfire. But we need to dig deeper. You will recall that our goal in this chapter was to examine the relationship between success and happiness. It is Timothy who, despite all of his maladaptive anxiety and his extreme intensity, may hold a revelation concerning the relationship of success to happiness. It is a revelation that, as they say in Zen literature, is splendid in its simplicity.
After months of therapy, Timothy entered my office with a smile on his face (for the first time ever) and quipped, "Dr. Shea, I got the answer." He promptly plopped himself into the chair. I was pleasantly taken back by his casualness, his lack of tenseness, or a need to impress me. He looked happy.
Timothy proceeded, "Now I don't know exactly how important this really is, but there is a part of me that thinks this is what we we've been looking for. I just feel that I have a better idea of what is important in life." And then he said the following. It was simple. It was accurate. And it ultimately changed my life;
He sat back. "You are a successful man if you are happy, not if you have accomplished all sorts of things. I've had it backwards all these years. That's why I've achieved all these successes, and I've not been happy. I need to sit back and find out what will make me happy, what I like to do, and how I want to do it. Then I need to set those things as my goal. Being happy will be my goal and making other people happy too. I think I can be productive this way. I just think it's better. You know, I think I sort of knew this all along, but I didn't really know I knew it, what it really meant I mean. What do you think?"
Here is where the plot thickens, for as I said those words, I felt a twinge of jealously towards Timothy, for he really had discovered something, something that he had not read or heard from me, but something that had arisen from his own soul. I knew the words, but I had not felt the words - not like Timothy felt them for his feeling was the feeling of stumbling upon a truth, not just understanding it intellectually but knowing it in your gut. And it made me think.
It was one of those rare junctions in therapy in which the therapist knows that it is the patient who is saying something that the therapist needs to hear. These are wonderful moments, moments in which two souls meet. They say the greatest joy for a teacher is the moment when the teacher realizes that the student has become better than the teacher. So it is in psychotherapy.
Timothy has taken us one step closer to understanding why it is so easy to lose sight of the ulimate goal, why it is so easy for questing beasts to get lost on their way to happiness. Apparently, not infrequently, the road signs are wrong. In particular the sign labeled "success" often points to the wrong town. If one doesn't keep Timothy's wisdom in mind that - "Success isn't happiness. Finding happiness is success." - it is very easy to become preoccupied with quests that follow roads to fame or fortune but not to happiness. Timothy has given us the first piece in the puzzle of the meaning of happiness. We have come a giant step closer to defining happiness by defining what it is not.
By the way, Timothy is not alone in this assertion. He is accompanied by quite an array of big guns in the world of philosophy:
And, finally, Timothy will be pleased to know that he and Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Prize winning physician and humanitarian, were on the same track:
Now how does all this help us to find happiness? I believe it is probably best for me to simply show how it helped me. About four years after Timothy ended his therapy, I was still involved in my job at a well known and highly respected academic center. Success, by the standards of Vince Lombardi was coming my way. I had been told by the Chairman of the Department that I was one of a handful of young turks that they were grooming to be national leaders in psychiatry. I had had a book published at a very young age. I had begun presenting on a national level. Like Timothy, success after success was coming my way.
On the other hand, loaded down with administrative duties and research pressures, my work hours had become extreme, my time with my family less and less. And when I was home, I wasn't home - my mind was still at work. I felt as if I was losing sight of my own clinical mission. Over the preceding two years I had slowly come to realize, to my surprise, that I wasn't so happy anymore.
It was then that I started thinking of Timothy. I had this fantasy that I walked into my office and Timothy was in my chair. I sat down, and with a tremendous sense of happiness, I turned to him and said, "You know what, I just figured something out."
Three months later I changed jobs, moved to New Hampshire to focus on providing clinical care for the indigent in a community mental health center and never looked back once. In my academic career, the time constraints, politics, and research pressures had outstripped my ability to use my time in a satisfying fashion. What I discovered, upon moving to New Hampshire, was that I was much better suited, by nature and temperament, to handle the unique and equally demanding stresses of community mental health work. I was happier.
As Timothy pointed out, one only succeeds in life quests - developing careers, finding rewarding relationships, or gaining financial security - to the degree that one has the time to enjoy pursuing these quests while doing them. Paradoxically, these seemingly all important goals are meaningless unless they help one to stay focused on the ultimate goal - finding happiness. Aristotle knew it. Santayana knew it. William James knew it. Benjamin Franklin knew it. Albert Schweitzer knew it. Timothy knew it. And, now, we know it.
We are now ready to hunt down the next piece to the puzzle of happiness. To find it, we must leave our cozy psychiatrist's office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and travel to a place that is not only distant in miles but also in years. It is a place where one of the most powerful leaders in history casts her rather corpulent shadow into the nooks and crannies of cities as diverse as London and Bombay. It is in these shadows that the next piece of our puzzle - a most elusive piece - awaits us. It is to England and its great monarch, Queen Victoria, whose unmistakable silhouette cast this great shadow, that we now turn.