Gerald Lucas, a psychotherapist who runs an institute in New York City, used to tell his patients he regretted he couldn’t make the world a better place – he could only make them better able to handle it the way it is.
Sometimes the key to happiness is a little like the key to Weight Watchers – learning to stay away from things that are bad for you.
Luck certainly plays a role. My relatives fled to the United States from Poland and Lithuania because the Czar and other nasties were oppressive, violent rulers. Forty years later, Hitler rolled in and committed the worst crimes in human history. It could have been my relatives in those Nazis death camps, but for dumb luck and the determination to leave the bad behind and seek something better.
The world can seem like an unpleasant place sometimes. If you need evidence, open this morning’s paper and take a look.
As a psychotherapist, patients bring plenty more proof that evil exists. It’s a good wake up to some harsh realities. As with everything else in psychotherapy, awareness is all.
One of my patients was violently raped in her early twenties. Working with a rape survivor taught me a lot about human dignity and the process of recovery from trauma. It also taught me about rape. Knowing someone who has been victimized by violence introduces you the fact that it really happens, to real people, all too often.
This woman gave me a book to read about rape, “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold, the author of “The Lovely Bones.” It is a memoir of Sebold’s own experience of rape, and a book I shall never forget. My patient taught me another important lesson: if something like that happens to you, you will do everything in your power to avoid letting it happen again. She took a self-defense class, carried a can of mace, and never again walked home alone late at night. There are predators out there, and at very least, you can take all available precautions.
So this week, when a beautiful young female patient complained to me about what she’d been through recently, I wasn’t surprised. In the past year she’d had a guy slip a drug into her drink, an older man – a professor, no less – approach her inappropriately for sex, countless construction workers whistle at her, and a best friend fall victim to domestic violence, then return to the boyfriend who beat her up. It was quite a list, but I believed every word. We talked about how she could be careful – and stay away from people who mean her no good.
Another patient I saw recently had a run in with a sociopath, a person who lacks a conscience. A sociopath will tell you whatever you want to hear, take pleasure in lying to you and generally not give your feelings a thought as he pursues his own agenda. “Sociopath,” or the technical term, “Anti-social Personality Disorder,” are arguably just mental health lingo for a criminal. Many of the people who populate our prisons – the hard-core law-breakers – are socipaths.
The sort of run-in that happened to my patient could happen to anyone, and all too often it does. It’s not a nice experience. This guy was very charming, and appeared to have a successful career. He moved in with her and said he wanted to marry her and have a child. What he didn’t mention was that he already had a family – a wife and children – who knew nothing about this other relationship. The “business trips” were spent with this family, 20 blocks away.
My patient asked what she could do now that she’d discovered the truth. I gave her my blanket advice for dealing with sociopaths: stay far away. She moved somewhere else, and hasn’t seen him since.
Obviously, women aren’t the only people who are victimized by evil deeds – although they do seem to receive more than their fair share. Children are victimized in terrible ways each and every day, and I’ve worked with adult men who have survived domestic violence, sexual abuse and other ills. Bad things can happen to anyone.
My point here isn’t that the world and everyone and everything in it are bad. There is plenty of good out there, too. It’s just that you need to keep what is bad far away – and, at the same time, pull the good nice and close.
In everyday life, that means more than just staying away from predators and sociopaths.
It also means:
Don’t date someone if he doesn’t treat you with kindness, consideration and respect. He should be grateful and appreciative to have you in his life – or you can find someone who will be.
Don’t work in a setting that is hostile or toxic. Your workplace should make you feel appreciated for the work you do. You should look forward to coming in to work each day – or you should work someplace else.
Don’t consider someone a friend unless he’s got your back. “Friend” is a powerful term – it means someone you can say anything to and who can say anything to you. It implies loyalty, caring, trust and respect. Anything less is an “acquaintance.”
Breathe in the good. Breathe out the bad.
Sometimes it’s that simple.