I’ll tell you a little known secret and perhaps save you some disappointment: the idea that psychology can cure the pains of the human heart is mythical. For this reason I envy the achievements of modern medicine. Through good science and thorough practice it has managed to successfully cure many of the physical ills we face. It conquered Smallpox, combated many bacteria through the advent of antibiotics, and saved many lives from Malaria through the advances in preventative treatment. The biomedical science behind most illnesses has been carefully worked out, enabling effective treatment and greater longevity amongst the human population. However, when it comes to the symptoms of the “problems of living”, it is far less of an exact science. The emotional ailments of the human heart are not as easily bypassed as the physical ailments.
The problem is that a purely medical approach to the “problems of living” is potentially riddled with ambiguity. As the controversial psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, points out: you eat too much, it is a disease; you eat too little, it’s a disease; you have too little sex, it’s a disease; you have too much sex, it’s a disease…the list goes on. He cautions that a psychiatric approach to our troubles robs us of our free will and risks reducing human behaviour to the notion of ‘chemical imbalances’.
Although there is no doubt that there are biomedical aspects to mood and behaviour, it seems that we need to make room for the less scientific aspects of our existence in order to get through the “problems of living”. For instance, what role does self-discipline, responsibility, determination, hope, love, passion and finding purpose in life play?
This is where psychology does well to behave more like a philosophy than a science. For instance, some might argue that it is all about living a “balanced life”. But, I am more convinced by the work of acclaimed Parisian philosopher, Albert Camus, who wrote that we should “live to the point of tears”. For Camus, life was absurd and the things that occur during any given life could never really make sense. The most we can do is to try and “revolt” against life’s absurdities by trying to find a way of making sense of them.
However, Camus didn’t really leave us with much advice on how to go about making sense of life’s absurdity. He seemed to think that those who found themselves able to believe in a God, stood a better chance of enduring life. But, whether you are religious or not, for Camus the fundamental question in life was whether or not you found life was worth living. All other concerns were secondary to that.
So, perhaps, rather than attempts at curing “the problems of living”, psychologists will do well to help their clients discover what it is that makes their lives worth living, despite “the problems of living”? What is it, between your birth and your death that will make your life worthwhile? What is it that you should be doing with the time that you have? As contemporary classical composer, James Rhodes, writes: “My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure, and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.” Rhodes heeds the advice of Charles Bukowski, “find what you love and let it kill you”. He has found what he wants to spend his time on, the piano, and that is what he devotes himself to, no matter how frustrating.
Modern medicine, if we are lucky enough, has gifted us with more time. The popular reverend Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, wisely heeds that “Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you’ll never get back. Your time is your life. That is why the greatest gift you can give someone is your time.”
Perhaps it is, therefore, worth asking ourselves:
Despite the “problems of living”, what would make our time worth living?