I want to keep growing stronger during this pandemic period. I don’t want to be the kind of psychologist who can only live vicariously through the growth of his clients. I want to practice what I preach—even though I don’t do much preaching. My downside as a preacher is that I’m too introverted and I also don’t have conviction about what is right or wrong for other people. I am still trying to figure out what is right and wrong for myself. One day during this pandemic period I thought it was right to do five hundred push-ups. I have no push-up regrets. It was fun to duplicate an endurance milestone that I reached about ten years ago, but now I realize I am searching for a different kind of strength.
I woke up the other morning and imagined what I might tell a therapist about the kind of strength I’m searching for. I don’t have a real therapist so I have to rely on an imaginary one from time to time. I understand that my imaginary therapist is actually a part of me. I also understand what you tell a therapist is often more important than what a therapist tells you. So I started telling my imaginary therapist how I was searching for a strength that could also allow for moments of helplessness. I think we all have to make peace with helplessness right now. Helplessness is the elephant in the room. Some of the people who once felt most in control now feel the most helpless. There are helpless football coaches, helpless business owners, and helpless surgeons. Needless to say, these are not people who are used to surrendering.
In war, surrendering to an enemy means you are the loser; in life, surrendering to an experience means you are willing to learn from it. I think we can all learn something about humility from this virus. Granted, lessons about humility often aren’t fun, since they make us feel small and take away our self-importance. We all once felt small and helpless in the face of our parents’ power. For some of us, this was a nurturing experience and helped to develop our own power; for others it was traumatic and drove us to have power over others.
I don’t really want to have power over anyone or anything—that is not the kind of strength that interests me. I’ve never had fantasies of ruling a kingdom or being a part of a royal family. There was a time when I fantasized about being a part of a happier family and my fantasy eventually came true. I now understand that happier families also go through setbacks, losses, and disappointments. They just do it without turning on each other. They accept that there is disappointment for which no one is to blame.
For some people, it is easier to blame themselves than to accept what is beyond their control, and yet growing stronger isn’t about choosing the easiest path. It is about choosing the most meaningful one. The path of a psychologist is meaningful to me because of the honest connections I form with my clients. It would break my heart to have a career where I felt compelled to tell lies. Each lie you tell weakens your spirit. Each lie that is told to you weakens your trust. I have worked with clients who have survived countless lies and still found ways to grow stronger. I believe our country will find ways to grow stronger. When a team has a coach who is a weak leader, the players will often assume greater leadership roles in an attempt to pick up the slack. The strongest athletes develop their own authority instead of just following the authority of their coach. Voting can be a way to develop our own authority. I don’t take my right to vote for granted, because I was raised by a mom who spent years in a Russian prison camp. You don’t need to be a prison camp survivor or have been raised by one to cherish democracy. You just need to be able to imagine life without democracy. It is a scary possibility, but a part of strength is being able to look at scary possibilities and become willful enough to keep them from happening.