Shannon Alder once said “Forget about the things that hurt you, but never forget what they teach you”, and this is advice I’ve been trying to take to heart after my therapist recommended reading a selection of her self-help books. These books generally had a religious angle focused on strengthening the bonds of marriage and family, but there were still helpful pieces of information to be found within, according to what my therapist had to say. Normally I would’ve given it a pass, but I find myself at a point in my life where I’m trying new things and so here we are.
I started attending regular therapy sessions after clearing my battle with cancer and very recently getting the thumbs up for full remission. I understand that it can come back at pretty much any time, but I’m trying to do my best with regards to diet and exercise. Some of my closer friends will tell you that I don’t always do the best, and they’re correct. There’s something to be said for trying, however, and that’s precisely what I’ve been doing.
The Impotence of Anger
This blog post was mostly inspired by the weekly homework assignment given to me by the therapist, which reads:
This week I would like you to focus on a time where you were very angry, or multiple times. Ahead of our session this week I’ve asked you to write the names and abuses/offences of people that have made you angry or hurt you, and I’d like you to explore those emotions to the fullest extent possible.
Try putting yourself into the shoes of those people, as much as you might hate them. Attempt to experience life through the lens of their perspective, and arrive at a conclusion about how they might feel about the things they’ve done.
I think the first thing I noticed immediately was how full my card was; I wasn’t the only one with a full card, but most people only needed the front of theirs, or a corner. But my card, as well as a few of the others were chock-full of names and grievances against them. Some of the names on my card belong to people that are long since deceased, while other names are people that I still keep in contact with today. The biggest name, though? My own.
So much of our anger becomes internalized without our ever realizing it, and this is typically because the average person doesn’t experience the kind of deep-seated trauma that ends up requiring the help of a therapist. Everyone goes through difficult times, but a large majority of people have support structures in place as children in the form of parents and other family that allows them to learn how to cope with feelings of anger and depression. As a child I simply learned to survive by any means necessary, and this usually meant putting those things in a box, storing them in a figurative attic to be found at a later time.
There are times when I hate myself. There are times when I feel weak and useless, a sensation made manifold by cancer and subsequent chemotherapy. I had the love and support of close friends during this time and even then there were days where I barely made it through, convinced that it was all for naught. And toward the end of it all I lost my best friend in the form of my dog Booth, something I was certain was the last of too many straws on too weak a back.
Eventually I got better, though. Treatment was a success and I began to feel better, and the veil of sorrow and misery began to lift ever so slightly. I started to make daily lists of things I had done, accomplishments that I could reflect on at the end of the day to show that I’d done something. Sometimes the list was simply limited to:
- Got out of bed
- Prepared and ate a meal
But as time moved on, the list became longer and I felt that I was really making progress. Even on the best of days I still find it difficult to be happy about things, as the challenge of last year is still too close to be completely forgotten. A completely well-intentioned person will tell you that the best thing to do is to “let it go” or to “just get over it” because, to them, it is an event that has passed and is no longer an issue. In the rather immortal words of Robert Frost:
In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It. Goes. On.
Indeed life does go on, and moving forward is the only way to truly let go and process the things that we have experienced; to grow and become better than we were yesterday. But telling someone to simply “get over it” is akin to telling someone with depression to simply “be happy”. Those who have never confronted the terrifying reality of their own potential death cannot fathom what it is to find meaning and purpose after something so abysmal, and so they shouldn’t be counted on to provide you with perspective, meaning or understanding of your situation.
After all, unless someone has gone through the experience of surviving cancer and living with the specter of its potential return, empathy will only get them so far – and this isn’t a fault or flaw. If you pour your heart out to someone about how you’re feeling and receive a banal or unsatisfying response, you have only yourself to blame for placing so much value away from yourself and your own heart.
I’m of the mind that all of the people in your life that you have a close relationship with are family; friends, loved ones, significant others – all compose the rich tapestry of your life. But it’s also incredibly important to understand that while they offer their support, this cannot be substituted for your own healing and growth. People can’t fix you, and it’s not their job to do so. You – and I’m speaking to myself here, as well – are responsible for who you are, how you react to the things around you, and where you go from there. Counting on other people to “make you better” or fix your problems is a fatal mistake that results in a broken person.
From Survive to Thrive
As catchy as that motto may be, it does nothing without the proper tools and mindset to make it useful. In this way, it is much like the anger I’ve mentioned already in this post. All of the personal things in our life – experiences, emotions, knowledge – are tools that have a time and place, a purpose for use. Anger is valid and often justified, but letting it destroy who you are or erode your sense of personal responsibility is perhaps the most dangerous pitfall to someone that truly desires a deep and personal change on the journey to recovery. Sorrow and sadness are also perfectly natural, as is depression, but it’s what we do with these feelings and emotions that really matters.
To close, I’ll recall something my therapist said in our first session that has really stuck with me through this entire time. She highlighted the difference between supporting someone and helping them.
Imagine a road that’s blocked by downed trees from a terrible storm, but that road is your only way forward. Sure, you could turn around and wait for someone else to do it, or you could attempt to find a way through the forest, but for you: this road is your way forward.
Someone that supports you will acknowledge the inconvenience of the trees, will sit with you while you figure out what to do, or even walk with you for a while. Someone that wants to help you? They’ll clear the trees from the road and bid you well on your journey.
I want to help you clear the trees. I want to watch you disappear over that horizon.
Having both of these things in your life is the key to success. Make sure that you have loved ones in your life that will walk with you, that will console you when you are sad and cheer you when you succeed. But also make sure that you have someone in your life that is willing and able to help you clear a path so that you can continue that journey unimpeded.
I would like to provide my readers with my homework for the week, and perhaps you can share your answers in the comments below.
- Where do you want to go?
- How will you know when you get there?
- How can you help yourself along the way?