Lifelines

The truth about life and love.

Beware of things on which we all agree

Creating a reality-based map of the world

One way of looking at life is that it requires a sustained effort over a long period of time to construct a map in our heads that conforms to the world in which we are attempting to navigate. To make our maps accurate we need to discover as much as possible about life that is true. If our maps are inaccurate we are at risk of getting lost and bumping into unanticipated reality.

Example: When Timothy Treadwell chose to live among and film the Alaskan grizzlies for extended periods, he imagined that they reciprocated the affection and respect he felt for them. He even gave them names. It turned out that while he was indulging his naïve delusions about these wild creatures they had also given him a name. That name was “food” and his life was ended by a hungry bear. Moral: Nature and its laws are intolerant of fools.

In our daily lives we are confronted by what might be termed “the conventional wisdom,” things we are taught from an early age and have heard repeated so often that we assume they must be true. Much of this information has been boiled down to aphorisms and clichés that pass for useful guidance in constructing the maps of reality we are using for guidance. Sometimes those promulgating these principles are “experts,” which gives them added currency, but does not make them true.

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Take, for example, the old chestnut that is a favorite of marriage counselors everywhere: “Any relationship is hard work.” Belief in this canard has the advantage of reassuring people (presumably including the experts) that they are not alone in their marital misery while preparing them for the instruction in compromise and negotiation that is at the heart of most marriage counseling. Belief in this nugget of wisdom sets the stage for innumerable suggestions like sharing household responsibilities and going on date nights, while ignoring the frequent reality that the marriage is in trouble because the participants no longer love each other. No one usually points out that the truth is that “Bad relationships are hard work.” Since few people have been exposed in their lives to a really good relationship, we are all in agreement on what I like to call the “ditch-digging theory” of marriage. If it’s not satisfying your needs, you’re not working hard enough. A derivative falsehood is, “All couples fight.”

Love in general is the subject of endless clichés, most of them untrue despite their frequent repetition. Even the word love is felt to be mysteriously indefinable. (How about this? We love someone when their needs and desires rise to the level of our own.) And so we come to believe in the brainless concept of “love at first sight.” Or perhaps the equally disprovable idea that “love conquers all.”

An aphorism that I particularly hate is, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” This bit of pseudo-wisdom is imbedded in the culture through long repetition and ignores the impact of losses like the death of a child. It would be obscene for a bereaved parent to imagine that they have been strengthened by their grief. They are still alive but forever diminished.

We are by now all in agreement that alcoholism (and by extension other addictions) is a disease. You see it on billboards; it must be true. But few diseases are controllable by voluntary abstention from a substance. Try substituting other, more trendy addictions, say sex and shopping, and the disease model of substance abuse takes a serious hit. The fiction embodied in this conception was meant to mitigate the moral judgments leveled at substance abusers. This has come to pass but at the expense of families who wonder what is fair to expect from their addict, given the fact of his or her “relapsing disease.”

There are many other things we are expected to believe because we have been told them so often. Perhaps the above examples provide a reason to begin to decide for ourselves how many of these things are actually true. What do you think, for example, at the end of this painful election season about this? “There are two sides to every story.”

 

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

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