I’m sure most everyone knows who Ivan Pavlov was. If you don’t recall the name or perhaps have never heard the name, certainly you recall the experiment he did with dogs. The experiment is often and simply known as “Pavlov’s dogs.” During the 1890s Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov was looking at salivation in dogs in response to being fed, when he noticed that his dogs would begin to salivate whenever he entered the room, even when he was not bringing them food.
As a designee on the crisis services team with which I work, I am required to be on call one week approximately every other month. The on call time period begins at 5 PM Friday and goes through 9 AM the following Monday. It then continues throughout the week at 5 PM and expires the next morning at 9 AM. The last day is Friday at 9 AM.
During this time period, I become one of Pavlov’s dogs. Every time my cell phone rings, I am overcome by a sense of dread. I am afraid to look at the caller ID. Minimally it is a response to one of the phone aides and at its most involved It involves me going into the community to meet with the person who made the call to Crisis Services. This means the thought of making any plans become tainted by the thought that “I have to be anywhere in the county within 30-45-minutes.” Dinner in a restaurant is out. If we attend a family gathering I need to drive separately from my family. Movies in a theatre are out of the question. The other day as I was walking into a store with my daughter and grandson to purchase a bike for him, my phone rang. Before I even pulled it from my pocket, the thought of “Oh Fuck!” crossed my mind. After pulling the phone from the depths of my pocket, I tentatively looked at the screen and found it was only my son.
It’s Thursday evening and I finish this on-call tomorrow morning at 9 AM. I don’t mind the on-call but I’d be lying if I told you I’m happy to have it completed. There have been periods of time earlier in the week when there have been no calls and I have wondered if/when the phone will ring. The same will be true tonight until 9 AM tomorrow when I can breathe a sigh of relief.
What sometimes surprises me is I know all of this. As a social worker, I know about anxiety, how to respond to it proactively and what I do myself to increase anxiety. yet, like many other people, I can find myself neglecting what is important and going on autopilot. I have written about auto pilot before and while it can be a good thing, it can cause tremendous stress when we fail to look around us and keep tabs on our speed, direction, etc.
It’s that time again. I return to “on-call” status this Friday. Wish me good luck.
What follows is a letter written in 1958 by a then 22-year-old Hunter S. Thompson. Hunter wrote this letter to his friend Hume logan after Hume had asked him how one can find meaning and purpose in life.
I hear complaints frequently in my work as a therapist. People come to me complaining they feel ‘burned out’, stressed; that they cannot ‘find the time” to do the things they want to do, that their time is taken up by the things they ‘need to do.’
The majority of my clients do not want to hear my response. They want medication or another ‘quick fix.’ As Hunter says in his letter to Hume, there is no quick fix. Hunter talks about the importance of identifying a goal. This is another issue that the majority of my clients struggle to understand. They come to therapy with a vague goal of ‘wanting to feel better.’ Trying to ferret out a more in-depth response is often a difficult proposition which is precisely why so many of us struggle to find our way. We remain adrift throughout life like a sailboat lacking a rudder. Wind can fill our sails but lacking a rudder to ensure we are traveling in the right direction will get us nowhere.
I am going to let Hunter take it from here and share his thoughts on this question.
April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City
You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.
I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles …” (Shakespeare)
And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.
But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?
The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.
So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?
The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.
I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called “Being and Nothingness” by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called “Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre.” These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors.WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.
But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires — including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.
Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN — and here is the essence of all I’ve said — you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.
Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.
So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”
And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.
If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo — this merely happens to be mine.
If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.
And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,
I hope Hunter’s advice helps you find your way..
Sometimes, it’s not possible — or at least not easy — to feel happy. However, it’s sometimes possible to feel happier. Here are some strategies to consider:
1. Remind yourself of reasons to be grateful. When things look really dark, it’s hard to feel grateful, but remembering what’s good in your life can help put problems into perspective. I have a friend who recently suffered a big disappointment at work. She said to me, “As long as my family is healthy, I can’t get too upset about anything.”
2. Remember your body. Take a twenty-minute walk outside to boost your energy and dissolve stress. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Get enough sleep. Manage pain. It’s very tempting to run yourself ragged trying to deal with a crisis, but in the long run, you just wear yourself out.
3. Do something fun. Temporarily distract yourself from the stress, and re-charge your battery, with an enjoyable activity. Watching a funny movie is a reliable way to give yourself a pleasant break, and listening to your favorite music is one of the quickest ways to change your mood. When my older daughter was in the intensive-care unit as a newborn, my husband dragged me off to a movie one afternoon — and that few hours of distraction made me much better able to cope with the situation. Be careful, however, not to “treat” yourself by doing something that’s eventually going to make you feel worse (taking up smoking again, drinking too much, indulging in retail therapy). My comfort-food activity is reading children’s literature.
4. Take action. If you’re in a bad situation, take steps to bring about change. If you’re having trouble with your new boss, you could decide to try to transfer. Or you could change your behavior. Or you could find ways to pay less attention to your boss. Ask yourself, “What exactly is the problem?” It’s astounding to me that often, when I take time to identify a problem exactly, a possible solution presents itself.
5. Look for meaning. Re-frame an event to see the positive along with the negative. Maybe getting fired will give you the push you need to move to the city where you’ve always wanted to live. Maybe your illness has strengthened your relationships with your family. You don’t need to be thankful that something bad has happened, but you can try to find positive consequences even in a catastrophic event. Here are some examples.
6. Connect with friends and family. Strong relationships are a KEY to happiness, so fight the impulse to isolate yourself. Show up. Make plans. Ask for help, offer your help to others.
7. Make something better. If something in your life has gotten worse, try to make something else better – and it doesn’t have to be something important. Clean a closet. Organize your photographs. Work in the yard.
8. Act toward other people the way you wish they’d act toward you. If you wish your friends would help you find someone to date, see if you can fix up a friend. If you wish people would help you find a job, see if you can help someone else find a job. If you can’t think of a way to help someone you know, do something generous in a more impersonal way. For instance: commit to being an organ donor! When you’re feeling very low, it can be hard to muster the energy to help someone else, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. Do good, feel good; it really works.
By taking whatever steps you can, you give yourself a deeper reservoir to deal with your happiness challenge. What other strategies have you used to make yourself happier during an unhappy time?
I greet you with hands clasped together in gratitude.
I am here.
I stopped by the Niagara River this evening with my journal in hand. I needed to see the sunset, to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, to feel the breeze and listen to the sound of crickets as their music entertains my ears. Those things are integral to me and to my ability to feel grounded in the insanity with which we define our world.
In between peeks at the setting sun, I was reading an essay by John Burroughs called, “The Gospel of Nature.” I am struggling to maintain my focus as I read, the sounds of nature are overpowering but in a good way.
Recently we experienced a full moon, a Supermoon. The brilliance of the light reflected will provide enough light to continue to read but I decide against continuing to read and instead focus on my breath. I time my breath with the sound of water lapping at the shoreline.
I greet you with both hands clasped together in gratitude.
I’m here. I arrived at my home away from home yesterday, the Adirondacks. I came “home” because I needed time to rebalance my life. This is the place where it is easiest for me. My phone does not usually work and there are many miles of hiking/running trails to be had within a few minutes drive.
Puterko’s pizza was not to be had. The owners decided to take an ill-timed vacation. Their vacation was ill-timed in that I love this pizza and look forward to eating some slices when I arrive here. NY style pizza with the thinnest of crusts and delicious!!
I woke Saturday morning with the idea of revisiting some places within the Adirondack Park which I had not visited in several years. I look forward to fall every year. There is something magical in the colors which begin to slowly appear on the leaves of the trees which blanket the countryside. These same leaves, soon will fall from their perch and blanket the ground in those same bright colors. Those same colors will soon begin to fade and they will be forgotten with the first snow.
Henry David Thoreau says it best in his description of fall. “October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year nears its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight.” – Henry David Thoreau
My first stops were Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake. I stopped at one of my favorite put-ins on the Middle Saranac Lake and reminisced about past paddles on this lake. I stopped in Lake Placid for a quick visit. There is much history in this town with both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics being held. After a brief walk through town and a stop at a bookstore, I remembered what I struggle with when I visit this town. That memory was brought to the front of my memory when outside a wine store was a white Ferrari. Now I hold nothing against this beautiful car or its owner who I do not even know. It is the attitude of many of the visitors, visitors such as these with which I struggle. I took my book and made my way back to my car with a new destination in mind. As I walked, I enjoyed the light rain which fell giving the area a fresh scent.
As I walked briskly along the sidewalks in Lake Placid, this small town for which I have a love/hate relationship, I found anxiety beginning to rise. I needed to leave, to travel down the road and away from the throngs of people. I needed to return to the woods and the cathedral which is the woods with its silence and brilliant colors displayed for all who wish to see. Thoreau said, “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” I could not agree with this more.
I traveled to Whiteface Mountain and marveled at its beauty. The summit of the mountain was bathed in fog as the rain which has accompanied me since the start of this trip, remained. It was this rain and the accompanying temperatures which brought the fog. More beautiful memories were made this day. I remained at the base of the mountain not wanting to take the time to travel to its summit as “a lot of snow” was being forecast later in the day. Not to mention, I had a strong desire to return to the Ausable Chasm. I haven’t seen the chasm in all of it’s fall glory in several years and this was a sight I did not want to miss. Whiteface was otherwise bathed in the beautiful but fading colors of fall. The colors, had I arrived a week earlier and the sun had been shining would have been even more delightful to behold. Regardless, their beauty did captivate me. Several times I stopped in pull offs along the Ausable River to snap photos and to write in my journal.
Not to mention, I had a strong desire to return to the Ausable Chasm. I haven’t seen the chasm in all of its fall glory in several years and this was a sight I did not want to miss. Whiteface was otherwise bathed in the beautiful but fading colors of fall. The colors had I arrived a week earlier and the sun had been shining would have been even more delightful to behold. Regardless, their beauty did captivate me. Several times I stopped in pull offs along the Ausable River to snap photos and to write in my journal.
Driving back to Indian Lake from Ausable found rain continuing to fall. As I neared my final destination of the day, the rain became heavier and had begun to transform into sleet. Within several minutes the transformation was complete and it had begun to snow. My first snow of the year. I retired to my room to eat dinner, read and write. I heard a sound outside my window which carried with it the eerie feeling that winter in my neck of the woods would not be far behind. That sound was a plow clearing the street.
On my solo drive home from the Adirondacks, I think about my return to my office feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I think about getting into a car again Friday evening, this time with company and traversing the highways as we travel to South Bend, Indiana to watch the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame take on Miami University.
With palms together,
I wish you all a Good afternoon
I woke this morning feeling physically and emotionally drained from a work week which left me, or should I say “I allowed the week to drain from me the energy which I need to live a happy, joyous life.” My weekly long run has moved from Saturday to Sunday more out of necessity than of choice.
My new job has left me with questions. There have been more questions than answers. This I can live with as I know the answers are there. Perhaps I am looking to hard and my expectations too great.
The biggest question has been “Do I want to do this anymore?”The first question is “What is this?” This is my career in Social Work. I LOVE meeting with patients and I LOVE the art of counseling and therapy. This job, not unlike others in the past is purely administrative. What I have been exposed to so far has left me speechless and wondering. Like the Seven Wonders of the World, I have been wondering if I want these responsibilities any longer.
My new best friend, in addition to the increase in stress and general unhappiness, has been a blood pressure monitor. While high blood pressure genetically runs in my family and despite running 30-plus miles every week, my blood pressure has been of concern; so much so I have been contemplating contacting my doctor to discuss medication. Medication is not a choice which I wish to pursue but experiencing a stroke is even less tasteful.
I want to believe I have a solid self-care plan which, in addition to my running includes daily meditation. These items in my plan have not been enough to counter my concerns. There appears to be no end in sight for the stress which I have been feeling. The coming week should if my prediction is accurate should bring with it an increase in stress levels which may force me to make decisions or at least a decision.
As I write this piece, I sit in one of the places where stress cannot reach me. It is the one place which actually energizes me and helps me to recharge my batteries and balance the scales. This is a place where finding joy is an easy task. If anyone has guessed, it is the outdoors. I have been walking for over an hour and thoughts of writing have been pouring out of me, so much so I found myself stopping, pulling a notebook from my pocket and writing down these thoughts. I am also reminded that there is no stress with me. My posture has improved as has the weight on my shoulders.
I reached my destination, remove my pack and begin to furiously scribble my thoughts. Happiness returns. For fun, I remove the blood pressure monitor which I allowed to accompany me on this hike. I place it on my wrist and press the start button. The whir of the electronics causes the cuff to tighten and begin to measure my blood pressure. The unit beeps indicating it has completed its task and I cautiously look at the results; well within normal ranges. The only other time during the week has been upon waking and upon returning from a run.
The thought of resigning flashes through my head as it does several times each day. A letter with Thoreau wrote to Harrison Blake on November 16, 1857, said, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about? This resonates with me as I feel once the key has been retracted from the door of my office and I have entered my office that I have stepped upon a treadmill not to get off until the workday has come to an unofficial end. I say “unofficial” because we reside in a society where leaving the office by 5 PM is often frowned upon and sometimes viewed as a weakness. This belief, in the past had left me with pangs of guilt. It now leaves me with a smile as I speed away from the building which houses my office and to leave it for another day. This treadmill of which I speak seems as all treadmills are to be never ending. Many days pass by with me wondering what I have even accomplished as most days there is nothing measurable but the deep waters over which I have traveled.
Almost as if on cue, a dark cloud passes overhead; the breeze which was cooling now increases and raindrops begin to fall. It’s not going to rain but it is enough to ensure I have cover. Within minutes, the sun begins to again make an appearance. This is my typical workday; cloudy with a chance of sun. The moments of sunshine are synonymous with the time during the day when stress feels less and I find myself smiling and thinking, “This isn’t too bad. I can do this.”
None of us ever wants to admit we are powerless over what happens throughout the day. We are however not powerless over our responses. Choosing to react or respond requires energy. It is this energy which we so willingly choose to give away to others by blaming them for our life situations and life stressors. None of us accepts it is the behavior and attitudes which we choose to respond which will indicate the energy which we have remaining. Amazingly, none of us would be willing to share a morsel of food or a few dollars with another but we are all willing to give others complete and total control over our minds, our responses and more importantly, our happiness.
Decisions will need to be made. My health and happiness are far too important to be impacted by a paycheck…
In Thoreau’s last letter to Myron Benton in 1862, he says, “You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing. My desire is to regret nothing and herein lies the decision which will need to be made.