I’m not an idealist.
I don’t consider myself to be an amazing therapist, writer, or human. To possess any of those distinctions, one needs to suffer and suffer greatly. Many writers have struggled to perfect their craft in desolate dungeons. History is full of its share of martyrs. And there are countless clinicians who take on some of the most difficult patients imaginable. Tremendous sacrifice is built into the edifice of greatness. And for some, that degree of charity is the sole foundation for self-esteem.
I’m not an idealist because I can’t imagine making those sacrifices. The best therapists in the world treat individuals with severe personality and psychotic disorders; they’re able to resist the deep pull of leisure to serve their communities in highly admirable ways. But, as much as I admire them, I don’t want to become one of them. The circumstances of their work are harsh and unrewarding, and, unfortunately, I’m just a kid who needs too much external validation. I don’t want to save the world, nor can I, and I try my best to teach my clients why I don’t believe they have to want to, either.
Suffering and self-worth are deeply intertwined in our hyper-individualistic culture; when competition is fierce, you have to create daunting strategies to stand out. Fundamentally, your thinking becomes black and white and rigid because failure and rejection are so rampant. Therefore, many of my clients aren’t just searching for ways to improve; they also spend countless hours berating themselves, using words like ‘selfish’ and ‘cowardly’ when they choose to forgo suffering. In most of those instances, however, the terms don’t necessarily even apply. Cowards abandon their posts and responsibilities; most of the time, my clients do neither. Yet, our culture perpetually leaves us wondering what more we could have done. The thinking goes: If I can help, I should. But the term ‘can’ is often misused; it indicates both personal and circumstantial ability, not just the former. This means that even though we may be physically able to perform an action, doing so may leave us emotionally depleted, with no room, or ability, to subsequently do anything else. And consistently pushing ourselves to our limits can lead to burnout and depression.
The question to ask is: Is this sustainable? And if the answer is no, then I’d wonder why you believe you need to suffer to love yourself. Black and white thinking tells us that only the martyrs are allowed to enjoy the emotional spoils of their labor. So, if I don’t treat the more severe patients, then I may think of myself as a bad therapist. If I don’t help whom I think I can, then I’m a bad person. And if I don’t isolate myself from the rest of the world to do nothing but write, then I’m an unworthy writer. But, in reality, you’re just not amazing. Some of you may not be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become destined for greatness. And I just want you to know that this guy agrees with your choices.
In writing this, I’m reminded of the classic literary fork in the road moment in which the great warrior Achilles is confronted by his mother, the goddess Thetis, who tells him that he has to choose between greatness and mediocrity. She lays out the choices thus: he can go to war, die young, and become immortalized through his legacy or he can remain in Greece, create a family, and eventually be forgotten and engulfed by the sands of time. Of course, as we know, he chose the former and hence suffered immensely. To me, the narrative is less about what’s obvious and more about what’s true. I’m sure that, based on ancient Greek culture, Homer intended for us to agree with Achilles’ choice, but, more importantly, he informed us about the costs of glory. If you’re able to understand why someone would disagree with Homer and the rest of the ancient Greek world, you’ll be one step closer to accepting that you’re enough as you are right now. You may never become amazing, and I think that’s okay.