Elly McDonald

Writer


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Another revolution (31 December 2018)

You say you want a revolution
Well you know, we all want to change the world

The Beatles, Revolution (1968)

earth-sun

Earth has cycled round the Sun once again. Another new year rises. I’ve been on this trip 57 times now, and every year opens as infinite promise.

The New Year’s Resolution thing is, obviously, a conceptual conceit. Choosing 1 January to make life changes is arbitrary – after all, as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, every breath is a resurrection. Every breath brings new life. Every breath is an opportunity for change.

Still, in Western culture, at least, a new year is viewed as a re-set button.

The nineteenth-century philosopher (and forerunner of contemporary psychology) William James wrote

To change one’s life:

  1. Start immediately.
  2. Do it flamboyantly.
  3. No exceptions.

Current psychiatric and psychological advice is to recognize behaviour change is hard, and there will inevitably be lapses (“exceptions”), and that understanding change as a gradual process, a process that requires we be kind to ourselves, and pace ourselves, is healthier and more likely to result in desired outcomes than what’s known as “all or nothing thinking”, or “black and white thinking”.

But current advice does suggest starting immediately (THIS breath, then again after a relapse, THIS breath) is smart, and that making our proposed behaviour change(s) public (“Do it flamboyantly”) makes us accountable, opens us to support, and is, all round, A Good Idea.

This week I had the dual experiences of attending a friend’s funeral and spending significant time with a vibrant young woman living with aggressive cancer.

I go to a few funerals. That’s a consequence of my parents’ friends being octogenarians, living in a community with an older demographic, working in aged care and community services, and having ties to a church community.

This funeral was different. The friend who died deserves a full obituary in his own right, so I won’t go there here. But contextually, I was struck by two things: how emblematic of my formative young adult years this man was; and the sense so many present had that this person, for many years, and for many reasons, after early glories had not lived to his potential, and had suffered sensing that.

He is not alone among my friends in that. It hurts me to think of the friends who died disappointed in their lives.

My living female friend presents a different picture. Despite being partway through treatment, with uncertain outcomes, and despite living with constant, often debilitating pain, she goes to the gym every day, walks her dog twice a day, continues a high-powered professional career part-time, cares for her primary school aged child, is a wonderful, loving, supportive partner, engages in a social life, and does all this with cheer and sparkling wit.

We must live until we die, they say (that amorphous, unattributable “they” – oh okay, maybe American country singer Clay Walker).

I have another woman friend with aggressive cancer at present. In this case, she asserts her will to live by continuing to be the combative, acerbic, fiercely intelligent, costume-loving, kick-ass broad she’s always been. She will not go gently.

This year, I want to live out the lessons I’m learning from those with a talent for living.

My resolution is to live like I mean it.

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Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a vogue for the works of psychologist William Glasser, who developed what he called Reality Therapy, and Choice Theory, and whose books include Positive Addiction.

Glasser is not fashionable these days, partly because it’s argued he places responsibility to change, to live well, squarely on the individual; it’s argued his theories don’t take sufficient account of environmental factors (social and political structures) or genetic traits.

However: there’s not a lot we can do in the short-term as individuals about the social and political factors that impact us, and nothing we can do about our genetic legacies, save for making the best choices we can to minimize our genetic vulnerabilities.

I find Glasser confronting, but useful.

Essentially, Reality Therapy is about client and therapist focusing on practical steps, practical actions, to improve quality of life. Choice Theory is the idea that it’s all a series of choices. Make the better choice, as they (“they”) say.

Glasser’s theory of addiction stems from Freud’s contention that humans find worth through love and work. If a person believes they’ve failed at love and work, they feel inadequate. In Glasser’s view, they may, objectively, be inadequate.

It’s painful to see oneself as inadequate, so, according to Glasser, we choose behaviours that mask that pain. Generally, these are not good choices: self-medicating emotionally through alcohol, drugs, obsessions, compulsions.

The pain of our addictions is a smokescreen to spare us recognition of that underlying pain – the pain of our failure, our inadequacy.

Addiction is a neural rut, a habit wired in the neural pathways that turns a choice into controlling urge.

It doesn’t work to swim directly into a current; we’ll just exhaust ourselves and drown sooner. Instead, if caught in a rip or strong current, we’re advised to swim at an angle towards the shore, to pace ourselves rather than fight the rip – to focus on staying afloat.

Similarly, with behavioural change, and especially with addiction, instead of going mano a mano with the behaviour it might work better to take a more oblique approach: to focus on a positive behaviour, and substitute a positive addiction for a destructive one.

At the time Glasser wrote Positive Addiction, in 1985, research suggested two highly effective substitute behaviours that can displace addiction: meditation, and running. Any behaviour engaged in to excess can become problematic, if it adversely affects a person’s physical health, relationships, work responsibilities, social life or other significant commitments, and there’s been a great deal of publicity around ways running, particularly, can be problematic, but generally speaking both exercise and forms of meditation are extremely useful strategies in countering damaging behaviours.

No one can promise exercise, or meditation, will shield us from disappointment, or ill health, or under-performance. But exercise and meditation can help allay depression, anxiety, and a sense of inadequacy.

So this year, even though I’ve said this before, I plan to put back some of the activities I’ve let drop.

I want to walk more, do more yoga, breathe more mindfully, ride my bike, swim, dance, tend my garden.

I want to play the piano, maybe the viola, sing.

I want to listen to more music, spend more time with friends. Enjoy my life.

I want to live.