Tuesday, March 5, 2013
What Was Once Black Is Now Bright
Fifty years ago, a TV show that ran from 1958 to 1963 came to an end. Some of you may remember its iconic closing narration: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Every week, Naked City, a police crime drama, focused on unique stories about criminals and their victims. To me, barely past the toddler stage, the show demonstrated how even though there are so many different people, each has his or her own story.
"You are the best psychologist I ever met with" said my patient to me yesterday. "You are the first one to tell me not to focus on what has gone wrong, but rather to recognize the good that it represents." Although I am not a psychologist, I know one thing for sure. Harboring negative thoughts and being stuck in the past, even the recent past, serves no purpose.
The patient, a lady in her late 80s, conveyed in all sincerity that she felt like she had recently been tested by G-d just as he had tested Job in the Bible. Her tale included a string of failed refrigerators that had forsaken her--at least that's the way she saw it. There is little doubt that a refrigerator is a vital appliance in Florida. This lady's refrigerator broke, then the replacement broke, then the next replacement also broke, and finally the last one worked. It took great effort to resolve the problem. She had to make multiple calls to the store that sold her the refrigerators, to the manufacturer's of the refrigerators, and she had to live without refrigerated food for an extended period of time before the problem was resolved. She truly felt like she had been through an ordeal equal to a biblical epic.
I am sure she expected me to empathize with what she had endured. But I didn't. Instead I marveled at it. "Do you realize," I asked her "how amazing it is that at your age you were able to handle this entire situation on your own without the help of others?" It was a testament to the fact that older people, particularly those that hope to live to their 90s and beyond, can handle difficult situations with wisdom and aplomb duly earned over many years. I applauded the patient's efforts and reminded her that seventy-five percent of people over the age of 90 live independently and she had earned her stripes and showed her mettle to count herself among them. Suddenly, instead of thinking woe unto me, she was beaming at her masterful response to her latest life challenge.
In classical psychology, patients and their doctors often focus on what is wrong. In 'positive psychology,' the up and coming field which some call "the science of happiness,' the emphasis shifts to what works. Having read my share of 'positive psychology' books, I applied one of its simple lessons to my 'oy vey' patient. Together, we shifted her paradigm from the perspective of a personal travail to one of a sense of accomplishment. What was once black was now bright.
I wish it was so easy to help all my patients. But to paraphrase the Naked City, "there are many stories and this has been one of them." I hope in reading this anecdote, you recognize its fundamental lesson: perspective means everything. What's your perspective on life? Come see me and let's explore it together.