You probably have a modicum of control, but that may be all

Earlier this week I wasted a number of hours on a draft that I ultimately deleted. I couldn’t get it right, couldn’t work it out. It was about illusions of control. This is how my thinking went:

       I really want to go back to Japan! I hope my husband gets orders back there because that’s about the only way it’s happening…

       Shit, the timing is screwy. How am I going to finish my degree in time for the move, if he does get orders to Japan?!… 

       Almost three years since I got out, and what did I do? Went and married a Sailor so that Navy could continue to control my life!…

       No, no, no, no. Faulty thinking! Control is an illusion!

So then I went on to write about the Navy actually doing me a favor by teaching me that however I might like to have complete control, I just can’t have it. I actually consider it a Christian principle, too, because as Kierkegaard explains far better than I shall even attempt to, we need to need. If you want to feel intimacy, you need to feel need. If you want to know God, you need to need him–to know you need him. I’ll leave it at that, except to say that Kierkegaard really does explain it better; try reading the Kierkegaard book that changed my life, “Works of Love.”

Reading this post by Am I Thirty Yet, I figured out where my thinking went wonky on the aforementioned post: I was being, dare I say, uncharacteristically, black-and-white.

I stand by my belief that much in life is beyond our control, and things are no worse for military folk dealing with orders than they are for civilians dealing with natural disasters, medical bills, economic recession, transportation accidents, and so on. I stand by my belief that we need to need. Keenly feeling one’s dependence on God is a blessed thing, though it is not without suffering.

I understand what AmITY is writing too. When she described her anxiety over HIV, I was shocked to read it because one of my closest family members went through many months of severe anxiety over the same thing! I understand better than I wish to because honestly, though I do not like to admit it, I deal several symptoms of OCD. There are things I do to keep myself in line, but there are also things that I… can’t see as being within my control, much as–God knows– I want them to be.

But there is also power in belief. I’m not speaking so much about Jesus right now, as about the placebo effect. I spent a few years of my life depressed, and there is just no way that I would’ve emerged from that terrible gloom had I never believed it was within my power to do so. I believed that with sustained effort, I could get better. And I put in the effort, and I continue to every day. And I am better.

The problem with motivational posters and naturally optimistic friends is that they tend to tell you you’re thinking or feeling in a flawed way, and that you can just decide to stop. That’s not right, and is, I think, akin to telling an overweight person to just decide to do ten pullups.

I think mental health depends as much on behavior and environment as physical health does.

When I was depressed, I became inspired by the belief that I could climb out of the pit. As if I were in a literal pit, I looked around for tools to help me accomplish my goal. I began to observe the things and the people in life which made me feel worse, which encouraged nihilism and thought on the topic of suicide, well why not. Silly as it may sound, I had to quit listening to Elliott Smith. I still abstain from his music because it still has the power to stir up within me the terrible things. Why I ‘enjoyed’ his music back in those days is a psychological question for another day (or never!), but the fact is that when I listened to it I felt hopelessness and pain and what else it is hard to say. Franz Ferdinand doesn’t give me that. Lady Gaga doesn’t. Led Zeppelin doesn’t. J Cole. Beethoven. Elliott Smith did, and so I ceased to listen to him.

There are numerous changes I made to my behavior to encourage good moods, constructive thoughts, and pleasant feelings within myself. The important point is that I made changes to my behavior. I did not choose to be happy, but I chose people and things which would help my happiness.

Over the years I have done the same thing with my body. I ran a marathon, learned to swim, hiked Mt. Fuji, lost fifteen pounds, and did my first pullup. I did not decide, “Today I am able to be thinner!” I made changes to my behavior, which eventually led to those accomplishments.

All I’m getting at is that nothing can improve without work, but work requires motivation, and it is extremely difficult to feel motivated to do something you believe is actually impossible. So I say keep the motivational quotes coming, but maybe don’t tell people, “It could be worse!” because they are probably just thinking, as I used to, “Yes, or it could be better!” Or they are thinking you’re being awfully insensitive. Or you’re making them feel guilty, because they already know that kids in Africa are starving. Or a combination. So again, maybe don’t go with “It could be worse,” or “Look at the good things.”

Maybe talk to your friend about what’s causing his or her depression or anxiety or perpetually shitty mood. Suggest some behavioral therapy, if your friend has money for it. Or do some amateur BT like I did on myself (oh, better believe that I still do).

You don’t have total control, but you probably have some. It’s not either/or. Look for it. Study yourself, your surroundings, your reactions, what makes you cry, what makes you fume. Change your behavior and you will eventually change yourself. I do not say you can perfect yourself, but I think nearly all of us have a great capacity to improve and even heal ourselves. Cheers.

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