Category Archives: Therapy

Do it Now!–The Meaning of Death

What is the meaning of death?

The finite quality of  life is disturbing for many people, not only because they are forced to consider their own lives as temporary, but because there is a commonly held notion that, since it will all end anyway, a person’s efforts in life are futile.  There was once a humorous poster of a woman standing over her husband’s grave.  On the headstone, there was a list of vices that the man successfully overcame, along with the respective year he gave each one up.  At the bottom of the list was the final inscription, “DIED ANYWAY”.  The use of the word “anyway” reveals a certain implication that, although one may succeed in this or that endeavor, for a certain amount of time, one will not succeed in overcoming the ultimate hampering of man’s striving–death–and that, by extension, death represent a type of immanent failure which then strips all events before it of meaning.  This notion seems to pit life against death.  Interestingly, I myself have also come across an attitude, when working with people who have very self-destructive habits such as drug addiction or promiscuity, of, “why should I give this up if I am going to die anyway?”

This concept of death is opposed by Logotherapy.  Frankl dubbed it “neurotic fatalism”, whereby one gives up one’s responsibility for one’s life by claiming helplessness in the face of inevitable factors, such as death.  In fact, says Frankl, the fact that life is temporary is precisely what bestows meaning upon it.  With a deadline as it were (pun intended), a person knows that he or she must accomplish now, that he or she ought not to let opportunities pass, that he or she should invest all of his or her efforts in realizing his or her values.  If life were eternal, that would indeed rob all endeavors in life of meaning.  There would be nothing negative about procrastination and nothing inherently meaningful about getting things done on time.

The inevitability of death enables a person to ask him or herself, “what can I/should I contribute to others, to the world, to life?”, “what can I/should I experience in the world, with others?”, “what stand should I take vis-a-vis what life is presenting me with?”   And he or she is encouraged by the finiteness of life to respond to these questions in the here and now, to rise to the occasion of life–which is here and now!  Life’s temporariness allows for the fullest expression of human consciousness and responsibility.  The person who is aware of the meaning of the moment is able to harvest this meaning through positively engaging in it, and is then able to store what has been reaped in the “full granaries of  the past”, preserved forever.  Death, then, can serve as a glorious monument to a life lived to the fullest.

I will leave this post with a question that I will attempt to answer next time.  How does the imperative to act now in this life according to Frankl, accord with our belief in the afterlife, where, in fact, life IS eternal?  What implications does a concept of Olam HaBa (the World to Come) have for our sense of mission in the here and now?

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Seasons in Therapy: Take Heart, Shrinks!

Cow abducted by aliensHave you ever had a time your career in practice where a good portion of your client load just disappeared? No, I do not mean that they were abducted by aliens or just happened to all get caught in the Imperial tractor beam at the same time. I mean, they seemed to all come to the conclusion–simultaneously–that the time had come to end therapy? Well, at the risk of sounding like a therapist who is incompetent but unaware of it, this is an experience I’ve had.

It’s easy at a time like that to lose perspective entirely and wonder why you had the nerve to step into this profession to begin with. It’s all too tempting to doubt your own abilities and to go scrambling for the next continuing education opportunity, or to concern yourself with the impact this will have on your bank account.

Slow down.  I have a few words of encouragement to offer you.

First of all, we should never forget that we do what we do–primarily–to help others.  If you didn’t become a therapist with this at the forefront of your mind, perhaps you should consider sales.  I know that sounds a bit aggressive, but really, we cannot look at people as income.  This is true even though we do this professionally.  That’s what makes being a therapist by profession unique: on the one hand, this is your vocation, the way you make money.  On the other, until you can put aside all of the financial aspects of this career when dealing with clients, you will not be able to do therapy with them.  There cannot be another concern other than doing this work and helping that person.

This is really no different than the challenge facing artists: how to set aside all other items that can preoccupy the mind, such as the worth or creative value of the work being developed, the potential for fame and critical acclaim, wanting to be the famous artist, etc., in order to do the art, do what you’ve been blessed with the talent to do.  Many people in the creative arts can attest to the fact that only when they buckled down and just painted paintings, just made music, just wrote the novel, did they do something genuine that was then able to resonate with others.

The same is true of therapy.

Second, you have to try to evaluate why a particular client chooses to end therapy at a specific time.  Sometimes, the concern is purely financial. Other times, it is because you did not manage together to build the type of relationship that is necessary for good therapy.  And sometimes it just isn’t the right fit, or the client feels he or she is getting nowhere.

But, there is another type of situation, one that any therapist should consider to be a triumph and a gift.  That is when a client turns to  the therapist and says, “I think I’m OK.  I think it’s really up to me now.”  The life cycle of the therapy will end, perhaps, but then again, this was a client who came in however long ago thinking that he or she was not OK and not capable of facing his or her problems.  Sometimes this happens before the sun rises again in the client’s life, before the house is reorganized and refurbished, and you don’t get to see the client in his or her full glory.  He or she is simply leaving with gratitude and the hopeful assertion that he or she is able to fly again.  If this is why your client is leaving, please tune in and appreciate the great honor you are being given.  You did it!

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