Living the Life We Have

Photograph of Dr. Dan Gottlieb with his grandson Sam

By Guest Blogger Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D, psychologist and author

Several years ago, someone asked me if my practice specialized in people with disabilities. I replied, half jokingly, that I really specialized in helping people live with stuff they didn’t necessarily want to live with, but had to. That would include disabilities, but it would also include any chronic illness or a family member with a chronic condition. And it would also include people who had a traumatic history or a body they didn’t like. Or caregivers who never bargained for the life they have.

So I guess my practice could include almost all of us.

How do we live with something we never thought we would have to live with? How do we live with a body or a mind or a life we don’t particularly like sometimes?

I think part of the answer comes from Marley, my daughter’s adorable three legged pit bull. When people first meet Marley, they react with sadness for what they believe she must endure. They inevitably bring up all of the things Marley can’t do, and they feel sorry for her. Meanwhile, Marley doesn’t suffer with her three legs. She just has three legs.

But when we wind up in a wheelchair or in a hospital, we may suffer. We may suffer because we think we are not living the lives we want to have, should have or deserve. Marley, on the other hand, is simply living the life she has. Marley doesn’t have those great big frontal lobes that humans have. Those frontal lobes where we craft all sorts of stories about who we are and who we are not, what will happen in the future and what life should be like. It is in those big frontal lobes that we pass judgment on ourselves and others. You see, Marley’s reaction to her three legs really underscores that having a mind is not all it’s cracked up to be!

So we may suffer because of the stories we tell ourselves about what our pain means. But we are human, and we tell stories. But we may also suffer because we think something has been taken from our grasp. Whether it is dreams of tomorrow or memories of yesterday, we may feel like we have lived through the injustice of a theft. And our problem-solving brains always look to restore what we have lost.

And that can be very healthy in that it can motivate us to make things better in our lives. But the desire to find personal justice can also be self-destructive. I know so many people who feel that their lives are in limbo and that life will begin when…. Every day I hear people who are waiting for their spouse to change, for the weight to come off, for improved function, for their brains to function differently and on and on. It breaks my heart to bear witness to these good people whose hearts are closed so tightly that their spirits are not getting the sunlight and nurture they need to grow.

I used to hate my body, calling it a terrorist. I resented that I had been so good to my body, and it felt like it was so mean to me. And then, I began living my life more fully. I began to enjoy my work, my friends and the love I felt for others. I didn’t think much about my body until I developed a severe double pneumonia two years ago. I don’t know if I was close to death, but I sure did feel that way. And as I gasped for air, I realized that all my body was doing was trying to survive in the face of this horrible bacteria. I felt at one with my body – that we were finally working together in order to keep me alive.

This was the beginning of a great sense of compassion I feel for my body. It works hard, and it suffers. When I go into dysreflexia, my body is in crisis but does not know how to repair itself. My body feels as though it is desperate for remedy, and I feel compassion.

How do we live with something we never thought we would have to live with? We cannot decide what kind of body or mind or history we have, but we can decide to choose to try to be positive about life. And once that is done, we can learn to be more compassionate with ourselves. Not self-pity or self indulgence, but a sense of understanding and kindness for the person we are. Nothing correlates more highly with overall happiness than self-compassion.

Dr. Gottlieb has been a practicing psychologist and therapist for 40 years. He is also the host of the “Voices in the Family” radio show on WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate; and author of “Letters to Sam,” “Wisdom of Sam” and “Learning from the Heart.” Dan is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, and answers questions each week in the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s “Healing the Mind and Heart” discussion forum. He is also a public speaker, proud father of two daughters and blissfully happy grandfather of Sam.

Note: This post also ran earlier this week in the “Healing the Mind and Heart” discussion forum on the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation website.

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