“A man's as miserable as he thinks he is.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca
On the morning I drove to the motel to take my life, I wore my seatbelt.
Sound counter-intuitive? Really, it’s not. The issue wasn’t safety, it was control.
In a dozen ways, I had lost control of my life. Control was something I’d always valued highly. I was never about chaos and drama. And on that day, when I looked into the future, I believed I’d lost the ability to have a positive impact on my family, my job, my tomorrows. I believed I had only one option, and that was death. I’d entered the “suicidal trance.”
Trapped inside the trance, I was zeroed in on one single goal. I wasn’t making a “gesture;” I meant business. I didn’t want anything to get in my way. That’s why I wore a seatbelt – I didn’t want to be pulled over by the cops, or to get minor injuries in a car accident, which would keep me from achieving my goal. Having lost control of all else, I had to maintain control over this one final thing.
Recently a friend recommended a documentary on happiness. I’m only part-way through it, but so far I’ve learned about someone else who also slit his veins and poisoned himself: Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger), a Roman philosopher who committed suicide in 65 AD on orders from the emperor Nero.
Seneca was a Stoic, and what he taught about anger sounds a lot like what we call Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy today. Essentially, Seneca believed that we become dissatisfied when circumstances go against our unrealistically high expectations of things that are outside of our control. If we prepare for the worst – if we assume things will go badly – then we’re less likely to be disappointed. Essentially, Seneca believed, optimism can be the enemy of well-being.
In the 1950s, pioneering psychotherapist Dr. Albert Ellis – whose theories would lead to today’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – said something very similar: that certain core beliefs (that we must always perform well; that others must treat us fairly and kindly; and that our lives must be favorable, safe and hassle-free), would lead to panic, despair and anger. Ellis called these beliefs “musterbation.”
CBT has become the most non-medical therapy for depression and anxiety today. But what struck me as I watched the documentary about Seneca was how this philosophy is completely opposite from the other popular movement in mental health today – the idea of positive thinking (or its siblings, the Law of Attraction, Creative Visualization, and Abundance Theology).
In these schools of thought, happiness comes about because we expect it to. We either see good things in our minds until they materialize, or we “act as if” these things are already true, or we pray and God (or the Universe) will give them to us. I wrote last March in “The Perils of Positive Thinking” about the fate of a girlfriend who was obsessed with “The Secret.” She actually became a millionaire. Within two years, she was bankrupt.
I think it’s fascinating that the two most popular theories of happiness today are diametrically opposed, and actually mutually exclusive. Millions of books are being sold about both theories, and millions of people attribute their happiness to one or the other.
But I believe both theories can be dangerous if taken too far. If we believe we have NO control over our lives – if we simply accept a bad marriage, or a lousy job, because we have no expectation that things can (or should) be better for us – then we resign ourselves to much less than we could (or should) have. And if we believe we have ULTIMATE control over our lives – with some kind of magical thinking – then we resign ourselves to bitter disappointment if things don’t turn out as we want.
Either way, the issue of control – not enough, or too much – can lead us down a pathway of despair.
The fact that both these philosophies are so prominent right now tells me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Part of my recovery will be in finding out where that truth lies for me.