Sooner or later in long-term therapy, most adult patients will drift — or dive — toward their family history. They begin to take a more comprehensive, more honest and accurate inventory of realities they faced as children. The strength and weaknesses, health and unhealth, justice and injustice of the families in which they were reared. Because all families have some combination of all of those things.
Adult patients come to see their mother and father as they were and are, stripped of childish, idealized hopes and memories more sentimental than historical. They face and accept that some sibling relationships are close, some warm and polite, some dutiful, others distant or alienated.
The journey of an authentic adulthood includes the willingness to see ourselves and others as we really are. It inspires heretofore unacknowledged appreciation and gratitude. It also forces to the surface previously denied frustrations, unmet childhood needs, legitimate resentments, sadness and, if necessary, righteous anger.
Telling these truths requires tolerating discomfort. Ambivalence rests uneasily in the human heart. But the payoff is freedom. Freedom to live life as life is. To live well.
Yes, I sometimes hear heartbreaking, terrible tales. Other times less malicious but still significant stories of injustice, neglect and inconstancy. But the story I hear the most often comes down to one universal truth. That is, a truth that cannot not cycle through all human relationships.
The truth? It is not possible, no matter how hard we try, to always pay attention. All of us, in every relationship, regardless of our heartfelt commitments to the contrary, will, in cycles, stop paying attention. We fall asleep at the wheel of what matters most.
Our parents didn’t always give us the attention we deserved. Our teachers didn’t. Our friends didn’t. Then it hits us: I don’t always pay attention, either. I don’t see and appreciate the gift of life. I stop noticing the miracles. I’m not present, humbled and grateful to the blessings. I take for granted my beloved, my parents, my children, my friends.
I don’t mean to, but I do.
When the late M. Scott Peck (“The Road Less Traveled”) said that “love is paying attention,” he set the bar at a height that must thwart even the best in us.
I imagine that, should any or all of my sons ever have reason to undertake growth and discovery in therapy, they will come to talk about times and ways in which it was hard to get my attention. And they will be right.
I once was asked to speak at a gathering of some 200 survivors of lymphoma and leukemia. I asked them to recall the day they received the diagnosis. The fear. The sudden realization of how precious, short and fragile this gift of life really is.
The likely surge of remorse regarding ways in which they lived inattentive to joys, blessings and wonders of this beautiful life. How looming mortality called their attention back to all that was good and true. How they made fierce commitments to be present to life in whatever time they had left.
But then they didn’t die. They survived. And I wondered aloud to them: Do you notice that it is still impossible, even for you, to always pay attention?
They seemed to appreciate and even be comforted by my banal observation about the human condition.
In 1938, American playwright Thornton Wilder gave us “Our Town.” In the story, protagonist Emily dies in childbirth. She is granted the chance to relive one day of her life. She chooses her 12th birthday. She cannot bear it. See, she comes back in time with a view from eternity. In contrast, the mere mortals that are her family seem so detached, so mechanical, so not-present to the miracle of human bonds and sweet intimacies.
In “Our Town’s” crescendo, she wails to the stage manager, “Does anyone really live life while they live it?”
“Oh, a few,” says the stage manager, thoughtfully. “Poets and saints, maybe. Nobody else.”
I understand why the Christian New Testament says, “Awake, awake oh sleeper. Rise from the dead.” And I would understand even if I wasn’t a man of faith.
All great relationships require a built-in mechanism by which we could hear the reproval, “You’ve stopped paying attention.” And the correct response is NOT, “Well, you know I’ve been busy and I’ve had a lot on my mind and blah blah blah.”
The correct response is “Oh dear. Thank you. You’re right. And I’m going to do something about that immediately.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.