Take out the Garbage

garbage

I once facilitated a group for people recovering from severe mental illnesses. We met once a week and they talked about how things were going for them. They tried to support each other. One day a man came in and said his landlord was going to evict him if he failed to clean his apartment. Landlords can do that if it’s really bad. We knew that just talking about it and offering moral support was not going to help him much, so we all went to his place to help him clean. In the end, he got to keep his apartment and I got a story about forgiveness and letting go.

As soon as we walked in, we could see that the landlord was right to threaten eviction and we were right to help him. It was too much to overlook and too much for one man to clean. He was a major hoarder. I can’t even begin to describe everything we saw, but what really got me was the pile of apple cores by his chair. This guy must’ve really liked apples and every time he ate one he would throw the core on the floor and never pick it up. The pile was, and I’m not exaggerating, as high as the arm of the chair. There were worms and flies and mold and it stunk in a way you would never expect a pile of apples to smell.

We got right to work and in a few hours we had straightened and cleaned things to the point where he would not become homeless. As we cleared out the junk, and the apple cores, we discovered that, despite his hoarding, something important was missing. He didn’t have a garbage can.

There was one more thing we knew we had to do before we were done helping this man. It was not enough just to help him clean. We knew we had to get him some garbage cans; three, in fact; one for every room in his apartment. I thought I was wise to put one by his easy chair where he dropped the apples.

A year later, I was still facilitating the same group and we had many of the same members in it. In some ways they all had made progress, I thought, until the day the same man came in and said he was at risk of being evicted again.

“My landlord says my place is a mess. It’s a health hazard,” he said.

“But we cleaned your place. Have you been using the garbage cans?”

“Yes,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself.

When I got to his apartment, I encountered a familiar smell. The stench was the same as before. Indeed, he had been using the garbage cans. In fact, there was the one by his chair, right where I had placed it, filled to overflowing with apples. He had been using the garbage cans, just like he said. He just hadn’t been emptying them.

It’s easy to say that this man is not like you. I’m sure you would never let your apartment get in this condition. Well, maybe you wouldn’t; but there are plenty of people who let their lives get to this point and they see nothing wrong in it.

For instance, some let their lives become unmanageable by hoarding grudges. They get to the point where they are filled with pointless anger and resentment. Things continue in this way until they decide one day to forgive, so they forgive and think that’ll take care of it.

Deciding to forgive does take care of things for a little while, but you can’t help but have angry, resentful feelings for time to time. Deciding to forgive is a lot like deciding to get a garbage can for your apartment: an important and necessary step, but not, in the long run, sufficient. As long as you generate those angry and resentful feelings, you have to empty the trash.

What Color are Your Glasses?

Rose-Colored-Glasses

You know what rose colored glasses are, right? People who are said to be wearing rose colored glasses are said to be seeing the world as only pleasant and happy. We scoff at people wearing rose colored glasses. They are naive, sanguine, and overly optimistic. But, glasses come in all colors. They all distort your perception.

It’s important to know what color your glasses are, so that you know how you are misperceiving the world and the impact you have on it. The glasses you wear change both how you see the world and how the world sees you.

There are red colored glasses. People wearing them walk around seeing red. Everything is a threat to them and they must take action immediately to remove it. They’re on edge, ready for anything. They get angry all the time and figure that everyone is angry with them.

If you don’t know what color glasses you wear, you can check by comparing your perception with someone else’s. If they’re looking at the same thing you are, but coming up with vastly different conclusions about it, then you know that one of you, or both, are wearing colored glasses. However, you’ve got to pick someone who thinks differently than you and sees the world as a different place; otherwise you are only confirming your own bias.

There are blue colored glasses. You put them on and you get the blues. Perhaps having the blues helps you sing well, but you’re so preoccupied by what you don’t have and what you’ve lost that you forget what you do have.

Having colored glasses is a lot like having a car that needs a front end alignment and pulls to one direction. If you keep your hand on the wheel and compensate, you’re fine. If you let go and allow the car to steer itself, you drift off the road or into oncoming traffic.

Back when I ran a sawmill, I couldn’t look at a tree without counting up how many two by fours I could get out of it. I don’t know what color glasses those were, but it was hard to simply get pleasure from trees. You find a lot of people like that, so preoccupied with their work that they can’t kick back and enjoy.

There are some that have a different pair of glasses on every day and see the world differently on Tuesday than they do on Thursday. They may believe they had it all wrong before, but now they have it right; or they may conclude that they can’t trust their own perception on any day of the week.

I suppose there are yellow colored glasses that expose cowardice, green colored glasses that make everything look like money, and purple colored glasses that allow you to see fairies and unicorns. The colors and varieties are endless because there are infinite mistaken ways we can perceive; but, because there is only one world out there, there is only one way we can perceive accurately.

The worst are the shit colored glasses. Wear them and everything looks like shit.

If your view of the world does not change from day to day, then maybe it’s not colored glasses that are affecting your view of the world, maybe it’s your eyeballs that are tinted. Maybe you can’t do anything to significantly change your perception. People are born with different temperaments; they have different happiness set points, degrees of reactivity, and levels of affability. You’re well off when you just know what your default setting is, and make adjustments accordingly.

Is there anyone who sees the world accurately? Anyone whose view is not tinted by their own biases, prejudices, and preconceptions? I don’t see anyone, but maybe that’s my bias; I haven’t checked everyone yet; and, even if I did meet someone who had it all right; how would I know?

This, I can say for certain, though. The person who questions her judgment, who checks out her perceptions with others, who is always willing to be proven wrong and to learn something new is more likely to be more right than anyone else.

How to Live Up to Your Potential

Let me introduce you to another object in my office: the jade plant.

Jade

This plant, I think you will agree, is a beautiful specimen; as good as a jade plant can be. It is lush and green and healthy. It propagates well. It has lived a long time.

Let me show you another plant, a philodendron.

philo

I think of these two plants whenever I think of the concept of teleos, defined as a thing’s design, meaning, purpose, or potential. All living things are programmed to fulfill their teleos and cannot rest until they do. The jade plant is living up to its teleos. It is being the best damn jade plant it can be. It’s everything that the original jade seed was programmed for when it began to grow. The philodendron: not so much. Something is standing in its way from being the best it can be.

Botanists say that it is a plant’s teleos will determine the shape and color of the leaves. All plants will grow towards the light. If you break off cuttings and put them in soil, they will grow roots; but these roots will limit in that they cannot ambulate anywhere. They are at the mercy of their circumstances and the water and sunlight available to them.

When a client decides to come to my office, they often look and feel more like the philodendron than the jade. Something is standing in the way of fulfillment. They are not living up to their potential and they feel a teleological imperative to do something about it, so that they can continue to grow.

Let me show you another picture. Someone who has never set foot in my office.

miss-new-york-miss-america-2015

This is Kira Kazantsev, the reigning Miss America. Although some may say she’s too skinny, the Miss America judges thought she was very pretty; as beautiful, in her own way, as the jade plant in my office. Is she fulfilling her teleos, though? Is she living up to her potential? The teleos for people is different than it is for plants.

For one thing, all a plant has to do is sit there and look pretty. I guess all Miss America has to do is look pretty; so, as far as that goes, she’s fulfilling her teleos; but she’s not only the reigning Miss America: she’s human, too, and there’s a lot more to a human’s teleos than looking pretty.

Let me show you another image, a famous one this time, by Dorothea Lange.

Lange-MigrantMother02

No judge at the Miss America contest would ever say that this woman was pretty. There are wrinkles and imperfections in her skin. Her hair is relatively lifeless. We can’t see her teeth, but, if we could, it would not be hard to imagine that they are bad. Her clothing is old and needs attention. Moreover, there is a general aspect of careworn worry. She does not have happy children. She is clearly not fulfilling her teleos. Or, is she?

To really understand how one is doing teleos-wise, we need to go further than to just look at images; you have to know the narrative. Let me show you what I mean with respect to the plants. Let me tell you something that’s not obvious when looking at the images I gave you.

The jade plant has a distinct advantage over the philodendron. It has a privileged position by a sunny window, while the philodendron has not been getting sun. The philodendron may be doing the best it can do with the resources given to it.

The same could be said of the woman in the Lange photograph. If you know the story behind it, you know that this woman was a migrant farmworker, living in a tent in California, a refugee from the dust bowl during the Great Depression. I think we can cut her some slack.

Let’s see if we can define a human’s teleos. A human embryo is programmed to grow two arms, two legs, a top-notch brain, and hands with opposable thumbs. It will eventually walk upright. Because a human can walk, she will move to another area if resources are lacking where she is. Because of the brain and thumbs, she will ingeniously adapt herself to every circumstance. She will care for her children longer than any other species, even when she barely has enough to care for herself.

You might even say that, just as a plant requires sunshine to fulfill its teleos, a human requires adversity to fulfill hers. She must not like it where she is, so she will move. She must encounter trouble, so she will change. She has to feel like a misfit, so she can adapt. If you look at the determination and dignity of the woman in the Lange photograph, you might say that she fulfills her teleos better, for all her trouble, than another who has enjoyed more advantages, even the reigning Miss America.

The Broken Window Theory of Personal Relationships

Go to any down-in-the-heels, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken inner city and you are certain to find one thing. Lots and lots of broken windows. Most of these broken windows will be in abandoned buildings, where no one appears to care and no one seems to be affected. Windows don’t break on their own, someone picked up a rock and winged it. It’s fun. If you’ve never done it, try it. Try it on your own window. Please don’t do it on an abandoned building. Even though it may appear that no one is affected, people are.

The presence of broken windows, besides just looking bad and being a safety hazard with all that shattered glass around, signals that no one cares about the neighborhood. They advertise that minor laws can be broken with impunity. Someone else’s property can be damaged and no one will stop you, they say. Broken windows proclaim you can do what you want, whatever feels good, because the consequences don’t matter. There are no consequences. There’s no reason to be restrained, no cause for self-discipline, no rationale for the delay of gratification. Pick up whatever rock you want and chuck it. It’s fun.

The presence of broken windows can have a profound impact on the psychological health and social functioning of everyone in the area, but you would never know that if you looked at the priorities of many police departments in many cities. They’re more interested in going after the big crimes: murder, grand larceny, kidnapping, rape; not in hassling kids chucking stones. However, it is those very kids chucking stones who grow up to be murderers, thieves, kidnappers, and rapists when no one intervenes when they commit the petty crimes. It is for that reason that many of the smartest police departments have chosen to focus on quality-of-life issues, like vandalism, littering, fare-dodging, and loud music, as well as major crimes. There is some evidence to believe that it makes a big difference.

Some people have credited the broken window theory of community policing for the dramatic turn-around that occurred in crime statistics over the past few years. Some others have blamed it for the poor relations that police departments have with the people they serve, people who are sick of being hassled and criminalized over trivial stuff.

The broken window theory has fallen into some disrepute as it’s used to justify stop and frisk police tactics, vigilantism, and as a cover for the blatant harvesting of fines. Then there are the critics who question the methodology of the studies that draw a link between broken window policing and the drop in crime. Nonetheless, I believe we can learn from the broken window theory, both in its application and misapplication, even if we are only people in personal relationships, and not people charged with the law and order of great cities.

If you were to apply the broken window theory to your personal relationships, you would pay attention to the small annoyances before they get a chance to fester and corrode. If you let the little things go and then go all ape shit over the big things, then you can learn from the broken window theory. Learn to intervene, earlier, before you lose it. Talk to your partner about what bothers you. Show respect, admiration, and express gratitude. Practice simple civility.

However, if you go after the small annoyances with the same assertiveness that you address the larger issues, then you’re doing it wrong. In the same way that a police officer must deal with a murderer differently than a vandal, you should complain about infidelity differently than, say, the toilet seat. One requires decisive action. The other, nuance, discretion, forgiveness, and mercy. If the police are perceived as coming down too hard on the vandal, or you are perceived as complaining too much, you both alienate the very people you are trying to enlist.

There is a second misapplication of the broken window theory to look out for. It is not the kid chucking rocks through windows that starts a neighborhood on its decline. He is only creating the symbol of that decline. The decline started when the building became abandoned in the first place, when the business relocated, when the banks redlined loans, when realtors busted blocks, when landlords stopped making repairs. Is anyone intervening then? Does anyone stop and frisk people in business suits? If not, then why go all fascist when a kid picks up a stone? Why does the kid get probation, when the board of directors gets a raise?

Similarly, in your personal relationships, that thing you are so annoyed about is seldom the beginning of the annoying chain of events. If you are angry that he doesn’t put the toilet seat down for you, do you put it up for him? You do stuff, too. If you are wondering if there are things you do that are part of the problem, there are. If you’re still wondering what they are, ask your partner. He or she will know better than you.

The broken window theory teaches us that small things matter, that there are consequences to our actions; both when we break a window and when we make a complaint.

How to Re-Traumatize Yourself

First, a bad thing happens. Rape, murder, combat, abuse. You don’t have a lot of control over it. That’s the point. Something happens way, way out of your control. You barely make it. Now you’re left with the memories. That’s the trauma.

Second, the memories come up. You don’t have a lot of control over them, either. They come up when you come across something you associate with the trauma. A plastic bag on the highway that looks as if it may be an IED. A dark alley like where you witnessed the murder. A program on TV too similar to the incident. I knew someone who had a hard time every Saturday throughout her adulthood because, when she was a kid, her step-father would creep into her room Saturday nights. You find yourself caught up in the memory and start feeling as though it was happening all over again. It’s like a trance you are in, a spell you are under.

You’ve learned to do things that’ll break the spell. You found a dramatic action will do it, the more outrageous, the better. It has to be extreme enough to compete and overpower that memory. You’ve got to drive fast, run hard, take a risk, get a good, stiff drink, or fuck the living daylights out of a stranger. You pick a fight, get some blow, or find a high, high place, hang your toes off, and flirt with death. Maybe, you don’t go quite that far. Maybe you just go over the incident, again and again. Maybe you feel everything you had been feeling. Maybe you reenlist and return to the war zone, find another abusive man, or return to the old one, one more time. Maybe you blame yourself for what was out of your control. Maybe you figure you deserved it.

Congratulations, you’ve just re-traumatized yourself.

It gets to be that the original trauma is nothing; it’s just the beginning. The bulk of the injury occurs over the years afterwards. If, for instance, you were raped while walking through your college campus, that, in itself, is an evil thing. But, if for years afterwards, every time it comes up in your mind, you feel terrible, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you can’t have sex with your husband because you feel the shame and the terror of that rape, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized every time you try to have sex. If you cannot be reminded of it without getting blind drunk, driving recklessly, shoplifting, yelling at your kids or doing something regrettable, just to break the spell, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you watch Law and Order – SVU, go to the scene of the crime, confront the rapist, sleep with a hundred men just to get over it, but feel that terror all over again, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. It gets to be that the original trauma is just a small part of the pain you feel.

If you go to a therapist to get treatment for PTSD and tell the story, only to fall again into that pit of terror, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized.

It seems as if you can never get past it. It seems that every effort to straighten out the mess only ensnares you more thoroughly. It seems as though people are right when they try to deny it ever happened and avoid anything associated with it.

However, you can get past it. PTSD is one of the most readily treatable conditions there are. Plenty of people get past it. ONE – STEP – AT – A – TIME.

The first step is not to tell your story. Don’t go into your therapist’s office and get into the whole thing all at once without first considering what will happen when you are done. Oh, you have to say a little bit about it, just so your therapist knows the issue is there, but don’t go into detail. Talk first about what happens when the issue comes up; how have you coped with it so far.

For example, many traumatized people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their trauma. But, if you’re going to need a stiff drink or to shoot up after leaving your therapist’s office, then nothing will be gained. You will only have succeeded in re-traumatizing yourself by adding one more drink you don’t need, one more relapse to the series of problems associated with this trauma.

Therefore, the first step is to take a look at the ways you have been re-traumatized, not traumatized, and get control over that. Let’s be sure what your reaction will be to dealing with the trauma before we try to deal with it.

The second step is to tell your story, but maybe no second step will be necessary. It may never be essential that you go over the original injury. It’s not like you’re going to change what happened, anyway; and it’s not like you were responsible. What you want to change is how you respond to the triggers. That’s something you can change. In the case of the woman raped on her college campus, she probably wants to be able to watch Law and Order without freaking out. She wants to be able to have sex with her husband, be free of nightmares, visit her old college, and see her daughter off to college. She doesn’t want to have the need for all those crazy, dangerous, unhealthy behaviors that she used to turn to in order to break the spell. Really, all the important stuff is in step one. It’s essential to end the re-traumatization.

By the time you get to step two, you may want to tell your story, anyway; if only because now you can. You are no longer silenced. You can speak out, testify, warn others, and join with those who’ve had the same experience. You no longer have to be alone with the secret because there is no longer the risk of re-traumatization.

If you take step two and tell your story, then tell it in a place, at a time, and with a person who can contain it. You’ll want to be able to leave the room in better shape than when you walked in. You let some feelings out as you tell the story; you may not be able to contain them within you, but we want to keep them contained in the room.

When you are done telling the story, the story is told. You, at last, may have been able to fit the pieces together in a way you haven’t been able to fit them before. You couldn’t complete the story because you were getting re-traumatized. The hurt would start all over again, so you had to drop it. This left it unfinished and scattered in pieces all over. When you end the re-traumatization, it becomes a story and not just fragments, jagged pieces of memory that poke you all over.

Step three? Step three is up to you. Step three is living your life as you want to live it. Something awful still happened. You still have a memory, but it doesn’t matter as much. You no longer are getting re-traumatized, you no longer have to bear a secret, unless you chose to, and the story is complete. You’ve reached the end of trauma.

Marriage Rights for Singles: The Buddy System

We live in remarkable times. For decades, heterosexuals have been fleeing the institution of marriage; first, by divorcing in great numbers, then, by living together outside of marriage and by delaying it to later in life. At the same time, many homosexuals have been advocating for the right to marry. They understand the benefits of committing yourself to someone, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live. Go figure.

Consequently, the state of marriage has been, for the same number of years, the source of deep social and political conflict and polarizing culture wars. Into that maelstrom, I would like to float a proposal.

Marriage rights for singles.

Yes, that’s right. It’s about time that single people reaped the considerable benefits that marriage affords.

Many say the decline of marriage is responsible for many ills in our society; everything from juvenile delinquency and crime, to entrenched poverty and mental illness, to child abuse and the undermining of fatherhood. We’ve got more fractured families, more economic insecurity, less social mobility for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and more childhood stress. Our common culture is fraying. The decline of marriage endangers the very foundation of a middle-class society. Everyone should have the opportunity to marry: that’s what gay marriage has taught us. Let’s be more inclusive, if only to repair our culture.

I know what you’re going to say. Single people already have the right to marry.

Yes, but they have to get married to be married.

Getting married is a difficult thing. First, you’ve got to find someone compatible from a field of thousands, or millions in urban areas. For modern singles, it’s a problem of too many choices. If your potential partner has a minor flaw, you move on because there are plenty more to chose from. The odds of two people being perfectly, mutually compatible in every way are astronomical. Then they’ve got to find each other. Who’s got the time? Working people are working eighty hours a week, and unemployed people are, well, unemployed.

Even if you find someone compatible, then you’ve got to bet that they’ll stay that way. You’re going to be expected to stay with that person for the rest of your life, and life, these days, is very long. The demands on spouses are great. Your spouse has got to be the hottest lover, the most effective parent, the most diplomatic in-law, your best friend, tennis partner, travel companion, helpmeet, bed-warmer, boss schmoozer, and arm candy, all in one, forever. Just try to find that on match.com.

So, you see, it’s very difficult to get married and stay married. If single people are going to reap the benefits of marriage, we will have to lower the threshold. How can we do that, you ask?

The Buddy System

Remember the buddy system? You were in camp and it was time to go swimming. The counselor called out, Buddy up. You chose your buddy, or one was chosen for you. The idea was, that if one of you began to drown, the buddy would notice it before anyone else and rescue you before the lifeguard could even get into the water. The buddy system is used, for the similar reasons, in the military and by Mormon missionaries. Variations to the buddy system include AA sponsorship, the spotting that weightlifters do, and the partnering found in police cars. Buddies are found everywhere. Batman had Robin, the Lone Ranger had Tonto, Starsky had Hutch, and Thelma had Louise. The benefits of buddying up are obvious, extensive, and profound.

If single people were to buddy up they could reap many of the advantages of marriage. Going to college? Get a study partner. Need an apartment? Get a roommate. Starting a job? Find a mentor. Your girlfriend causing too much drama? Download it all to a friend and sort it out. Raising a child alone? Don’t do it. No matter what, don’t do it. Recruit some people to help you. Buying a car, a house, going into business? Don’t sign a thing till you talk with someone first. Getting old and afraid to die alone? Find someone to do it with you.

I’m not talking about just friends who you go bowling with, go to the game with, go shopping with, or get plastered with. I’m talking about a buddy. Remember, when you were set to go swimming at camp, you were about to do that with a whole gang of kids, your friends. Just having friends is not enough. You need to pair up with a designated, mutually-acknowledged, co-responsible buddy. Someone obligated to drop everything for you and vice-versa. A relationship as close as you would have with your spouse if you were married, with, or without the sex.

If fact, using the buddy system for sex is probably safer, healthier, more satisfying and more reliable than going home with someone new each night.

For the buddy system to work best, it’ll have to be a recognized institution, complete with religious rituals, solemn vows, communal recognition, rights, duties, contracts, lawyers, and privileges. You should be able to have a party when you buddy up. You should be able to have your buddy visit you in the hospital. All the things that gays and lesbians are looking for in their marriages. We’re not there, yet, but you can start the movement now, by getting a buddy and sticking with him.

Nine kinds of madness and the hole in the middle of it all

In the middle of everything, there’s this deep, dark, depressing hole. It’s a chasm, really, and when you fall in, sometimes there’s no climbing out. When we call it anything at all, we often call it death, brokenness, or despair. I like to call it the abyss, or, more familiarly, the hole or the pit.

A lot of us like to believe the hole is at the end of everything, not in the middle; but there it is in the middle, right in front of us. We walk around it, gaze into it, slip into it, and watch others fall into it all the time. We don’t like to think about it. It’s impolite to even acknowledge its existence.

We live at the edge of this hole; some, dancing at its rim; others, peering carefully in; most, with their back to it, as if it’s not there. We often find ourselves reeling, dizzy at the edge. We cling to something to prevent falling. Clinging to something enables us to live at the edge of the abyss more comfortably. We think, if we start to slip, we can haul ourselves out. Unfortunately, anything we cling to starts to fall into the hole, too; taking us down, with it. Everything must fall in the hole, eventually.

There are nine bushes that grow at the edge of this hole. Nine things to grab if you feel you’re about to fall. Nine supports that offer the illusion of security as long as they hold. Nine kinds of madness when they begin to give way.

Perfectionism

If you cling to perfectionism, you’re attempting to keep from falling into the pit by rejecting everything associated with it. You rid yourself of imperfection, remove any blemish, correct every deficiency, wash yourself clean with the soap of fastidiousness. You keep up standards, both with yourself and others, and maintain scruples. You’re the catalyst for reformation, an advocate for change. You’re attentive to details. You’re determined to leave the world better than when you found it. You believe your life will matter to the extent that you succeed. If this is a mission of your life, you may have become a lawyer, an accountant, a muckraking journalist, or a preacher with a prophetic voice. You have attention to details and you don’t miss a thing, just so you could seek perfection for a living.

Every one of these bushes represent something very positive and life affirming at first glance, but, when you rely too much on them, they become the agent of your undoing. Perfectionism contains its own special species of madness. The more you try to be perfect, the more imperfections abound. You become frozen, afraid to make a mistake. You easily slip into being rigid, repressed, critical, impatient, and resentful. You take pride in being better than everyone else. In cases of advanced madness, you become an avenging angel, or violent jihadist, bent on purging the world of evil, while becoming evil, yourself.

Helpfulness

This is the bush you hold if you say that helping others gives meaning to your life. You devote yourself to serving. You’re generous and self-sacrificing. You enliven others with your appreciation and attention. This keeps you from falling into the pit of despair. It’s how you say you matter. You may have become a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or a therapist, yes, a therapist, just so you could help more people. If you’re a parent, you’re an especially good one, the cool kind who bakes cookies. The kind everyone wishes they had.

However, the more important helping becomes to you, the more your helping becomes the very thing that is the most destructive. You neglect yourself and your needs, thereby putting both yourself and the people you’re responsible for at risk. You become frustrated when, despite all your care and sacrifice, the people you help continue to be dysfunctional. You begin to feel entitled, under appreciated. You believe everyone else takes, while you, alone, give. Furthermore, the bright sun of your kindness casts a dark shadow, it hides a tendency to manipulate others to get your needs met. In cases of advanced madness, you may actually need to keep people dependent, irresponsible, and innocent so that you can believe you’re helping them.

Achievement

If you need to be validated in order to keep from falling in the abyss, if you chase success and crave admiration, if you’re hard working, competitive, and super focused in the pursuit of your goals, then this is the bush to which you cling. You’re the star, the captain of the football team, the homecoming queen, the embodiment of the best and the brightest. The thing you most fear is to be worthless. In doesn’t matter what you do for a living, just as long as people approve of it.

Beneath this shining image, this attractive veneer, is often a person who is very empty inside. You’ve spent so much time earning the praise of others that you’ve have forgotten what you want and need. You secretly believe you’re a fraud. You have a bazillion friends, but you’re hard to get to know, because you fear that, if anyone knew you, they would never love you. In cases of advanced madness, this narcissism takes an ugly turn and you become cold blooded and ruthless in the pursuit of your goals.

Individuality

If you grab the bush of individuality, you save yourself from the soul effacing-abyss by asserting what makes you different from everyone else. You develop unique talents. You may also be uniquely underprivileged or flawed, but you can be honest with yourself and own all your feelings, motives, contradictions, and conflicts without whitewashing them. You see yourself, warts and all, because it’s this ruthless candor that sets you apart and makes you significant. You can endure suffering with dignity. Your openness equips you to express yourself in the arts. What you most fear is losing yourself.

Your self-absorption easily gives way to a self-indulgence and self pity. Validation remains out of reach. No one understands you. You may not be able to understand anyone else. Because you focus so much on changeable feelings, you lack stability. You’re moody, morbid, and impractical. In cases of advanced madness, tormented by self-contempt, you drive away anyone who tries to help you.

Learning

If you look deep into the abyss and want to know more about it, it is the bush of learning that keeps you from falling in. You want to know why things are the way they are, how the world works, both the outer world and the inner world of your psyche. You create order out of chaos. You don’t accept received opinions and doctrines, you need to test the truth. You’re drawn to the sciences. You’re the geek, extraordinaire.

Lean on this bush too much and you can easily become lost in the Byzantine complexities of your own thoughts. You become eccentric and socially isolated. You get so caught up in abstractions, that you become an absentminded professor. You may become the leading expert in a very small slice of natural or social science, but, for all your learning, you’re unable to boil water. You become so engrossed with collecting knowledge, that you have no idea how to use it. In cases of advanced madness, you see patterns that aren’t there. You fall into psychosis.

Loyalty

If you feel small and powerless unless you attach yourself to something greater than yourself, then you are relying on the bush of loyalty. You use structures, allies, beliefs, institutions, and supports outside of yourself for guidance to survive. You’re consistent and reliable. You’ll fight for your family, your community, or your beliefs more fiercely than you will fight for yourself. You keep your head down and try not to stand out. What you fear most is abandonment.

Rely too much on loyalty and you will eventually lack confidence in your own judgment. Because you feel so insecure, you’ll attempt to build a network of trust on a foundation of unsteadiness and fear. The more important it is for you to trust, the more difficult it is to trust. When the bush gives way, you become paranoid, fanatical, and hysterical.

Enthusiasm

Since you only go around once in life, you’re going to grab for all the gusto you can. You want to live a full life, go everywhere, and experience everything. You approach life with curiosity, optimism, and a sense of adventure. You’re bold, flexible, and vivacious. You have chutzpah. This is the bush of enthusiasm. You’re the jack of all trades, and master of none. What you most fear is emptiness.

Cling to this bush too much and you will be unfocused and indecisive. As you speed up your pursuit of whatever seems to offer freedom and satisfaction, you make bad choices. You become impulsive and infantile; you don’t know when to stop. When the wheels come off, you become manic, claustrophobic, and panic-stricken.

Productivity

Some people see a hole and just want to fill it in, build bridges, and make improvements. This is the bush of productivity. If this is you, then you have enormous willpower and vitality. You take on any challenge. You leave your mark. You’re a born leader. You’re not afraid to take responsibility and inspire others. When you give commands, you expect they will be obeyed. You seek power and fear powerlessness.

When you’re this much into productivity, it’s easy to overlook difficulties that’ll bite you in the ass someday. You take the health of yourself and others for granted. You’re so intent on being tough, you lose touch with how you, or anyone feels. Under a steely exterior, you’re made of glass. When the bush gives way, you’re just a bully, a sociopath, a megalomaniac Sadam Hussein with no weapons of mass destruction.

Peace

Can’t we all just get along? Chill out, man; get grounded; connect with the cosmos. Sure, there’s a howling abyss right at your feet, but look at the view! Welcome to the peace bush; have a joint. If this is you, then you are accepting and trusting, optimistic and supportive. You’re a natural peacemaker. You could be a marriage counselor, a diplomat, a mystic, or a healer. You can see every point of view and empathize with everyone.

You can be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace. Because you want everything to go smoothly and be without conflict, you tend to be complacent, simplifying problems and minimizing anything upsetting. You can become slothful and inert. When the bush gives way, you’re catatonic, dissociative, and incapable of facing anything.

 

If you think the character traits I presented were stereotyped and cartoonish, then you got the point. If you thought one of those stereotyped and cartoonish descriptions were about you, then read on. By all means, read on, please.

The point is that, when we are faced with an existential crisis, when we see a vast, howling abyss right at our feet, when we are reeling at the edge of brokenness, despair, and nothingness, then we tend to grab on to something and get rigid. The nine kinds of madness are the things we grab onto. Perfection, Helpfulness, Achievement, Individuality, Learning, Loyalty, Enthusiasm, Productivity, and Peace don’t look like madness; but, when we rely too much on any one, when we put too much weight on it, it starts to give way and carries us down in the very pit we were trying to avoid.

There’s no point in saying, step away from the edge of the abyss. We live at the edge of the abyss, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not. So, what is there to do?

You’ve got to learn to swing from bush to bush. Grab on to your bush, by all means, but, when it starts to go, then look for another.

For example, if you’re into productivity and find that you’re starting to get bossy, reach over for the helpfulness bush and try doing things someone else’s way. When you’ve been clinging to helpfulness and you’ve lost yourself, then swing on over to individuality and find yourself again. When you’ve been hanging on to individuality too long, so that you become envious and emotionally turbulent, then try a stint of perfectionism, just to get more objective. Getting too hung up on perfection? Get a dose of enthusiasm and become spontaneous again. Too scattered now by all your enthusiasms? Go to learning and get more focused. Getting too impractical, professor? Well, go back to productivity, again. Do the demands of loyalty have you tense? Then chill out at the peace bush. Are you too chill, now? Then get fired up to achieve something.

Of course, this means you’re going to have to let go and reach across the void to grab on to something unfamiliar. You may look crazy, swinging from bush to bush over a bottomless chasm like a mad monkey; but you’ll be the most sensible person of all.