A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Just Breathe

How to live your life, one day at a time.

“Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in the opening line of his classic book, The Road Less Travelled. Yep, it sure is—some days more than others. Whether you are facing challenges of life and death proportions or the everyday challenges of life in the modern world, it is difficult to stay meaningfully engaged, day in and day out.

On the one hand, we try to escape. We turn away from the challenges of life through denial—“everything’s fine,” we say to ourselves and anyone else who will believe us. We try to take the easy way out. We bury our heads in the sand by ignoring our loved ones, leaving the bills unopened, or forgetting to read the fine print. We numb out with alcohol, drugs, food, video games, Facebook, or television.  We try to sleep life away. Yet somehow, it always finds us. We are chased by the very thing we are trying to escape.

On the other hand, we may deal with life’s difficulties by trying to take over and take control. We are tied to our phone, our email, our to-do lists, and our schedules. We never miss a meeting. We never meet an opportunity we don’t take. We helicopter around our children, driven to seize every chance to contribute to their success in life. We can’t let anything go. We rarely sleep—heck, we rarely breathe. Yet somehow, life catches up to us. We are controlled by the very thing we are trying to control.

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These are two extremes, to be sure. But perhaps you can recognize yourself leaning one way or the other. Most of us do. It is hard to be flexible, to know when to hold on and when to let go. It is hard to live in the dynamic tension of the in-between. But a good life—whether by good we mean “happy” or “successful” or “fulfilling”—is lived in the middle. 

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr captured this guiding life principle in his prayer, now such a mainstay of 12-step groups as well as spiritual seekers:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can change; and the wisdom to know the difference.

These words echo in my mind as I work with psychotherapy patients every day, just as it is a kind of North star in my own life. It captures one of the central truths of a well-lived life: balance. We need to stay engaged, work hard, face life as it comes. But we also need to relax, play, surrender, and accept life as it comes. We need to prune the roses and stop to smell them; we need to work and to rest when our work is done; we need to work things out and let things ride. 

As another theologian once wrote, there is a time for everything. The wisdom is to discern what is needed in this moment, what is called for right now

A wise friend once said that his go-to strategy in times of difficulty is to breathe. Three slow deep breaths, he says, change perspective. It settles the mind, opens the heart. It puts you in a discerning frame of mind in which you can better tell “the difference.”

Most may not know that Niebuhr’s prayer goes on…

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

It makes me want to breathe.  Just breathe.

 

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

 

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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