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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy Talk

(Another spiritual exercise)


Like many mid-aged, insecure American males of European descent, I fell into a profound, clinical depression about 20 years ago. Oooh! Black hole of the psyche.

After I was pushed by my partner to get help rather than to commit suicide, I realized that my dark cloud had been following me for some time. As a boy I always thought of myself as melancholic and identified with Hamlet. (I liked the idea of being the dark prince.) I still remember intermittently entering that dark place in my mind. I guess I felt a dissonance with what with what I could do or be as exemplified by my father. Perhaps the curse of being a junior. And that carried on into adolescence and adulthood. But I denied and evaded my somber moods by running marathons, by throwing myself into my work, and by occasionally binging with self-medicational alcohol.

Psychologists say that the roots of depression are both chemical and environmental--like almost everything else regarding our evolved, embrained bodies. My psychologist pushed zoloft for the chemical part and led me through cognitive therapy for the environmental part. It worked.

Cognitive therapy focuses on the self-talk a person has acquired in interaction with his environment. It rests on the understanding that inner language or thinking affects moods and behavior.  Positive thinking through positive speech makes for a positive outlook and mood. "Don't worry, be happy," sings Bobby McFerrin.

I've studied languages all my life, their vocabulary, their structures, their history, their origins. I studied languages mainly from a developmental point of view, but also have dabbled in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to further understand where words and thoughts come from. I wrote a thesis on the phenomenology of language.

So I should have understood the importance of self-talk to thinking and moods. My most important education came when I got into the practice of noticing and changing my negative self-talk. As a bonus I learned how talk-therapy works not only for depressed and depressing individuals, but also for communities, neighborhoods, and nations. And I learned that when others are enabled to change their self talk (e.g. through community organizing), it helps me too. The good organizer challenges people to hope in their own limited abilities and take responsibility, fighting instead of blaming outside forces.

Pessimism, including fear of the future and a sense of inadequacy, is a product of negative self-talk in which we put ourselves down, question our worth, and understand ourselves as victims of our genes, our past decisions, and others. Sometimes I feel that my brain is in control of the real me and holding me back. Sometimes, especially when I try to compare myself with others, I feel immobilized by my inadequacies.

The good news is that with a little help from my friends I can change my language, the structure of my brain, and my chemistry. And that is when I identify with my body, including my brain, and decide to use what I have to change what I am and strengthen who I am.

The first step is acknowledging the mood and the language that enables it. I first accept my feelings and my previous decisions, even the bad ones, as being there. I reflect on the context in which the words and the moods occur. I experience from where those words and moods are arising--the personal and social consciousness in which those words and their moods are taking on meaning for me. The response is not a pretense that I and everything are just great, that I am happy,  powerful, and secure when I am not. Indeed it may mean going deeper into that dark night of the soul. But most important it means taking responsibility for it. That is the move from being a victim that blames myself or others, towards becoming an agent of change.

Likewise, when the organizer goes into a situation that is bleak, she doesn't deny the poverty, crime, abuse, apathy that may be there. She feels it in the stories of the people who are being held back by the situation in which they are in and gets them to feel it in all its extremity. And she gets them to see that others are feeling the same way.  I remember organizers whom I was supervising coming back from meetings with residents and complaining about the people's apathy. Well, of course, I would reply, why do you think we are here?  Accepting the reality is step one in cognitive therapy.

But step two is choosing to do something about it. It means deciding what I want and in the case of an organizer or therapist, prodding others to decide what they want. And that includes knowing and paying the costs of getting what we want. We begin to focus on the positive vision and the abilities in ourselves and others. And we change our language from fear and despair to one of hope and decision.  Nobody shows up at a meeting? Well, what are we going to do about that?

And step three means taking the first steps towards getting what we want. Some call this process ACT: accept, choose, and take steps.

But beware! This is not a covering over of ruptures in ourselves or in our communities and their pains through drugs, doctrine, and rhetoric. Cult leaders and politicians claim to have the answers or to be the ones to save us from our happiness. Even positive thinking and happy talk can be the drug, doctrine, and rhetoric that merely whitewashes our blemishes. If it is not a continual process of integrating and transcending, forget it! Perfect happiness would be such a bore anyways, wouldn't it?

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