Cliffs Of Identity
Classic psychotherapy . . . starts at the bottom. So, you’ll look at those unconscious desires, beliefs, and wishes, and you try to bubble them up to the top, to the surface. The CBT therapists start up at the top, the everyday events that are happening, and begin sinking down further until we get to the point where the individual has achieved his or her goals. Now, the difference there is we’ve set the goals up front, and once an individual has achieved their goals, they’re no longer depressed, they’re no longer anxious, they’ve been able to establish a new social support network, there’s really no reason to continue excavating [in the subconscious].1
I’ve spent the last two years researching PTSD, the condition that occurs when someone is forced to confront the reality they are not, in fact, in control of their life. The “T” stands for trauma, the kind of trauma one gets when death or sexual abuse threatens one’s identity. As I researched, I looked for ways to apply what I learned to my own life. Mostly, that involved a lot of grappling with new ideas and old memories, and blending those two elements into something like 250 blog posts and an uncountable number of long, involved emails. My overarching goal? To stop reacting to people in the present as if they were the people who scared or hurt me in the past.
The part of my self-treatment style that I find most frightening and impressive is that it never occurred to me that I might need medication. Fortunately, it just so happened that I never did. It’s impressive because that was a lot of ground to cover with a lot of serious issues that probably could have been helped by the meds that I did without. It’s frightening because if the meds had proved to be vitally necessary, I don’t know that I would have known it or obtained them.
It’s rather like looking back at a cliff you free-climbed in a fog and realizing that you didn’t know that, when you started the climb, you were one step away from a three hundred foot dropoff. If you’d known what you were facing, you’d never have considered the climb off belay, without the ropes and the safety harness and well-anchored, well-trained aid, but you didn’t know and therefore didn’t worry. It would’ve been easy to get lost in the fog and fall off the edge, but somehow you just didn’t.
This isn’t the sort of thing that happens by wishing for it. People can ignore reality, but reality doesn’t return the favor.
But, at the same time, I didn’t survive my experience by coincidence. Yeah, I might have started this climb over a three-hundred foot dropoff that I didn’t know existed, but I only climbed up six foot to a ledge. Nobody harnesses up for a six-foot climb, that’s such a waste of time. You’re not going to die from a fall at that height unless something really, really goes wrong. So, yeah, short climb, easy-to-reach, no problem. Then I did another. And another.
Eventually, all those “merely-six-foot” climbs added up to something just as impressively dangerous as the initial dropoff, but I wasn’t ever beyond the means given to me. Sometimes I thought I was about to be, so I took a rest, gulped some water, and wiped my brow, but my wind would come back and I’d climb to that next ledge. Mostly, I didn’t have an end goal in mind. I just wanted to be up a little bit higher—end up a little bit better—than where I began.
Maybe if I had known where I was going, I would have wanted help. But I just wanted to affirm my friends who were troubled by what happened that first semester. Then I wanted to warn those friends who didn’t know what was coming. Then I wanted not to be bullied by my mother who didn’t think I should be talking about such things. Then I wanted to be reassured that my friends didn’t see things the way my mother did. Then this. Then that. Then make this person stop contacting me. Then restore this friendship. Then restart that one. Then discuss me being in my right boundaries. Then discuss others being in their right boundaries. Lots of particular variations on both of those last two, but the basic theme was “no fear, no anger, no pain.”
Someone recently told me that people make a lot of excuses for being in misery. That’s so accurate it’s profound, but it’s also a truth that no one wants to acknowledge. I guess we get so used to being miserable that we don’t even know that’s not who we are. It’s why people don’t leave abusive relationships, why addicts can’t stop, and why criminals so often go back to jail. Change is terrifying, and we have to wonder if we will still like the person we will become. Misery becomes a part of our identity.
“It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation . . . In the end, you will always kneel.”
“Never to men like you.”
“There are no men like me.”
“There are always men like you.”2
Loki’s claim was not wrong. In all that crowd of witnesses, only one arthritic old man placed his identity more in his freedom than in his life. People say they want freedom, but freedom from what? Men and women alike tolerate abuses they don’t even acknowledge, preferring manipulative love over the threat of loneliness, or a secure but hated job over the fear of unemployment, or a hellish, insecure life under an unpredictable tyrant rather than the certainty of a death sentence.
Is there a sense in which refusing to protect one’s freedom is equal to craving slavery?
And what does it mean to be free?
Well, as for that last question, I couldn’t summarize it any better than Franklin D. Roosevelt did:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms; . . .
Freedom of speech and expression . . .
Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way . . .
Freedom from want . . .
Freedom from fear . . .3
The important things in life are self-expression, reverential awe toward one’s Creator, the ability to provide for one’s needs (financial and social), and the ability to defend one’s personal, religious, financial, and social interests and responsibilities. Mental health and freedom are both goal-orientated. It’s a journey, not a destination, and just like the old German man, we may often find that seeking one goal (say, freedom of speech) conflicts with pursuit of another goal (say, freedom from want).
But for me, personally, the greatest, most important goal is the one found in freedom from fear. Freedom from fear is not dependent on one’s circumstances. It does not mean the neutralization of threats. It doesn’t mean silencing or controlling other parties. Roosevelt thought it involved disarmament, although I would disagree. Freedom from fear is the ability to feel fear without allowing it to dictate your choices.
Freedom from fear is the old man smiling at Loki and rejecting the lies, knowing what the probable cost will be. It’s the Buddhist monk who calmly looks his conqueror in the eye and refuses to beg for his life. It’s Nathan Hale telling the hangman that he only regrets that he has but one life to lose for his country. It’s the German double-agent informing his Gestapo torturers that they owe him a new shirt rather than informing on his British allies. It’s Rachel Scott at Columbine, proclaiming Christ with her last breath. It’s the black Christians in that South Carolinian church forgiving the racist shooter.
And none of this is anything that one just wakes up one morning, suddenly able to accomplish. It’s a strength of identity formed by repetitive habit and deliberate choice. The Cliffs of Identity are a long, slow climb. And, meanwhile, freedom from fear involves acceptance of the most fearful truth; someday, we will all die. It is that acceptance, that final reality, which allows one to face that climb.
Even if I had gone to see a counselor, it wouldn’t have done anything to that reality. I had already embraced it. I knew that I was going to die (it’s just a matter of time), and if that’s where I’m headed anyway, might as well see what can happen in the meantime. The ultimate outcome doesn’t change, not for the better and not for the worse, so why hurry to meet it? In a sense, by accepting my death, my death has already happened. This knowledge gave me the strength I needed to change everything about me.
2. Whedon, Joss. “The Avengers.” Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, April 11, 2012.
3. Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Address to Congress,” The Four Freedoms (New York: W W Norton, 1997), http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/workbook/ralprs36b.htm