Culture

You're Not As Happy As You Think You Are

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Last fall Bret Baier from Fox News interviewed author and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer about his best-selling book, Things that Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes, and Politics. They discussed Krauthammer’s spinal cord injury that paralyzed him in his twenties while he was a medical student at Harvard. Krauthammer said,

“I made one promise to myself on day one. I was not going to let it alter my life except in ways where were, sort of, having to do with gravity. I’m not going to defy gravity and I’m not going to walk and I’m not going to water ski again. That’s fine. So that you know. But on the big things in life, the direction of my life, what I was going to do, that wouldn’t change at all.”

Krauthammer told Baier that he never entertained the possibility that he would walk again. He accepted his fate and focused on accomplishing his goals in life regardless of his disabilities. Despite overwhelming hardships, Krauthammer managed to graduate from medical school with his class and went on to a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

He ran into some unexpected problems, however, during his psychiatry residency, when all residents were required to attend “group therapy” once a week. Krauthammer refused to attend. “I thought, it’s a pointless exercise. So I was called into the chief’s office after about seven weeks of non-appearance.”  Krauthammer explained that he was there to give therapy, not receive it. “The chief of residency told Krauthammer he was in denial. “And I said, ‘Of course I’m in denial! Denial is the greatest of all defense mechanisms. I could be a professor of denial. I’m an expert at denial!’ Krauthammer said. The chief “was not amused.”

Krauthammer completed the required therapy, though he mostly refused to participate in the sessions:

“I’m not a big therapy guy…I don’t like to talk about myself…I’m not a touchy — I’m not a feely guy. That’s probably why I quit psychiatry. If you’re not into feelings and emotions and all the backstory then you ought to be doing something else.”

Happy place

It may seem counterintuitive that one can be happy, content, and successful in the midst of such pain and suffering. Krauthammer’s story gives us an alternative to the narrative that everyone in difficult circumstances needs extensive therapy or counseling to cope with or process the suffering. Human beings are remarkably resilient and in many cases, overcoming trials (or making peace with them) has more to do with one’s focus than with receiving psychological assistance from trained professionals. In some cases, spending too much time focusing on oneself can exacerbate the problems. Often, it’s better — and perhaps easier and healthier — to focus on something other than the suffering.

I live with disabling migraine headaches. I have headache pain nearly every day, quite often it’s the kind of pain that you get with an ice cream headache, if you know what that feels like. I’ve dealt with this since I was in middle school and no medical intervention (including alternative treatment) has yet been able to alleviate it. (Yes, I’ve tried that!) I hate to talk about it and rarely do unless someone asks me about it — and then I’ll usually change the subject quickly. But years ago as part of a headache evaluation at a well-respected headache clinic, I was required to have a psychological evaluation. I had recently given birth to my first child, had a happy marriage, a great church and life was good — or so I thought. I was stunned when the verdict came back: “You’re not as happy as you think you are.” The doctor actually said that to me. His basic thesis was that a person with my level of pain could not possibly be happy. Happiness and pain are not compatible.

I call bull-pucky on that!

What that doctor and many people don’t understand is that circumstances don’t have to define one’s happiness. I can honestly say that I don’t consider my migraines at all in the equation when I think about whether I’m happy and whether my life is good. Perhaps, like Krauthammer, I’m in denial. If so, I agree with him that it’s a great defense mechanism. Bring on the denial! There are probably experts who will say that this is unhealthy and that I need to share my feelings about my chronic pain with a trained professional. The problem is that I don’t really have any feelings about it. In a sense, I’m agnostic about it. It’s not that I don’t get frustrated and irritated about the limitations on my life or that I don’t still seek a cure for my condition — I do all of those things. It’s just that I don’t spend a lot of time there. I don’t have the energy to waste on “why” questions or “what ifs” in my life.

This. Just. Is.

I make the best of it, living the good days to the fullest and making it through the bad days.

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I choose instead to focus on something else when I go through a rough period — when it’s been three weeks with no break from the pain or when I feel guilty because I’m letting down people in my life. I’m a Christian and I trust in God’s promise of something better. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4,

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Paul goes on to say that we “walk by faith, not by sight” so we should be of “good courage.”

Faith doesn’t make one immune to suffering — in fact, in many cases (and in many countries), the lives of Christians are characterized by suffering. Some people — like Krauthammer — can get through terrible and even horrific physical and emotional trials without relying on a particular faith. I admire the strength it takes to do that. For many others, myself included, faith provides a boundary to suffering that gives us the courage to endure — knowing that God will eventually say, “This much and no more” and that someday, as he has promised, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

The last thing I ever want to do is give simplistic advice for complex theological or psychological problems and that isn’t my intention. Therapy and counseling may very well be the best option for someone confronted with pain and suffering. But it’s not the answer for everyone and if that’s the case for you, don’t be afraid to call “bull-pucky” and tell the “experts” that you really are as happy as you think you are!