Sunday, January 19, 2014

Experiencing Peace and Happiness

I was thinking about my sister whose main method for dealing with her brain chemistry seems these days to be rage. She used to be depressed often and only angry sometimes, but now she's angry all the time. This is not real anger, of course. As I've said in earlier posts, real rage has a cause. A legitimate cause. Her rage is coming from inside her, but she won't acknowledge that, of course. I don't know if I'll ever get through to her; she completely rejects my theories and remedies. I don't know what I'm thinking, trying to come up with a solution for people that involves sacrifice of their favorite methods of dealing with their brain chemistry.

Yesterday I was feeling depressed right after I talked to my sister. While that is certainly understandable, since she was singing her same tune about "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," I've used that excuse for many years, and I don't think I want to anymore. And really I've been trying to examine it whenever I feel myself slipping into that mode. Here's how that works:

Instead of telling myself that I'm depressed about my sister's fate and leaving it at that, I tell myself that while I have every reason to be depressed about that, the magnitude of pain I feel is not commensurate with the reason for the pain.  This particular time, the bad feeling came over me around that same time, but I recognized the bad feeling as the same bad feeling I have when nothing is going wrong in my life. The bad feeling is actually independent of what's going on in my life. Or maybe there's something more subtle going on--an interaction between my finely tuned, sensitive-to-trouble psyche and the external environment. I'll have to think on that more later.

Meanwhile, instead of focusing on the usual "what's going to happen to my sister?" worry, I focused on "what can I do to get rid of this bad feeling?"  But when I say that it sounds selfish. I can hear my mother (and probably countless other people who have the same notion) saying: Don't you care what happens to your sister? That is the refrain my mother (and sister) sang my whole life--if you're not worried, you don't care. But worry is so useless.  Do something, yes, if you can, but worry about what you can't control? That might actually cause more harm than good. Why do you think alcoholics in AA embrace the serenity prayer: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In a Wikipedia article that delves into the origin of this prayer, there is a long history of people expressing the basic tenets of this prayer. I found it to be enlightening, especially the parts about ancient writers who promoted the philosophy it contains: Serenity Prayer.

I especially liked Epictetus' advice:  
Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us [eph' hêmin] and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions-in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.
It's as if this fellow from first century Greece (55-135) had the same idea I have, except I put a modern spin on it. Here is what the Wikipedia article says about Epictetus:

Philosophy, Epictetus taught, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

Suffering occurs from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power. As part of the universal city that is the universe, it is our duty to care for all our fellow men. Those who follow these precepts will achieve happiness and peace of mind. 
Epictetus is considered to be a stoic philosopher, but my understanding of stoicism was more or less negative until I read that passage. The sentence that seems to echo my vision is the one that says we are responsible for our own actions. Now, the stoics were big on control, but that sounds a lot like our notion of self-control: be Vulcan-like in denying your emotions.

But I'm not talking about denying your emotions, only understanding where they come from, especially if they're coming from your brain [read: body] and are not prompted by outside events. Understanding emotions leads to happiness much more efficiently than merely trying to hold them in or pretend they don't exist, the way Spock seems to. In the Spock vs Kirk debate, Kirk always wins, it seems, because we (and TV show writers) tend to favor the passionate person over the stoical person. But uncontolled passion is just as inappropriate as rigid stoicism, and just as likely to cause suffering.

So, what did I do about my bad feeling yesterday? I did some Solitaire, followed by a bit of walking while listening to a mystery novel, which helped, then when the bad feeling came back, I ate a bit of chocolate (remedy of last resort). Finally I started to feel better and could get on with what I was doing. Later I was able to receive information about my sister's decisions with more calm, which is good for me. But perhaps as important is that it is also good for her.

The more I respond to my sister's irrational behavior with calm and compassion, the more I will help her in the only way she will let me--by not rejecting her when everyone else does. If I don't let her behavior upset me, I can see the suffering she is inflicting on herself. I do not suffer from her bad behavior. I feel bad that she can't see her way clear to stop suffering, but that's not the same as her making me suffer. I can't control how she behaves; I can only try to do what I can do. And since I can't control her, I can accept her and still love her and try to help her as much as she will let me.

And I can only do that if I understand that my bad feelings (and hers, too) come from the brain we were given. A good brain but one that doesn't always work in a way that's helpful for experiencing peace and happiness. 

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