Suffering and the Quest for Wisdom
By Kevin Anderson
There’s something about healing from the deep emotional suffering that feels like death and rebirth—not the quick kind that some claim to receive in religious conversion. It’s the kind that asks us to be open to changing our contract with life.
When I was 15, my father gave me a sailboat-making kit. This wasn’t a snap-together-in-a-day project. It involved many months of meticulous work: cutting and sanding imported marine plywood, applying multiple coats of epoxy, and creating watertight joints with fiberglass mesh. When I began, I had no idea what I was doing, and I continued to feel that I was just on the edge of incompetence as I progressed through each new phase of the project. Slowly the boat began to take shape, but when I hit a step that was beyond my abilities, my progress stalled. Tired of the thick sawdust that covered everything in the basement, my father decided to hang the unfinished boat in the rafters of a shed belonging to the company he co-owned. Thirty-five years later, a decade after my father’s death, I received a call from the company’s manager: “There’s a boat hanging in the rafters of our shed. Someone says it might belong to you. Do you want it? If you don’t, we’d like your permission to burn it.”
“Burn it,” I said.
From the hundreds of hours I put into that unfinished boat, I’ve salvaged a metaphor for my personal and professional life that also describes the lives of lots of people, both inside and outside my practice. Most of us have some secret suffering or shame hanging in the rafters of our lives—something stalled, unfinished, untended, or even forgotten—that needs to be completed or burned.
When I finished graduate school in counseling psychology, my life was at least as unfinished as that boat. As I began making my living as a psychotherapist, like many others in this field, I was seeking to become a wise person. I remember being struck by an article on wisdom in American Psychologist, in which a wise person was defined as “someone who has expert knowledge about the meaning of life (what really matters) and how to plan and manage a meaningful life.” That’s what I want to do, I thought, plan and manage a meaningful life and help my clients do the same. As I entered the adult world of marriage, family, and a psychotherapy career, I harbored the fear that I was sailing in a vessel that wasn’t entirely seaworthy. Though I could deal with the sailboat in the rafters by giving someone permission to torch it, I couldn’t so easily get rid of the perfectionism and sense of unworthiness that had made me afraid to try to complete that boat. An unholy duo lay dormant in me, waiting to be triggered by a violent storm in my adult life.
In the two decades after my graduation, my marriage, family, and career cruised along in relatively calm waters. With 50 or so physicians and clergy in my community referring to me, I had more cases than I could handle. My wife and I lived with the usual array of unresolved conflicts and ongoing issues, but our marriage seemed sturdily constructed and on course. Our five children, then aged 3 to 14, were healthy and well-adjusted. We had no marine radar to show us that our ship was sailing into a perfect storm.
After what I thought would be a routine surgery in late 2000, I developed chronic pain so intense that I couldn’t focus my energy on anything else. Weeks of sleep deprivation and trials of pain medications that offered little relief left me barely able to function at work. It took falling asleep mid-session with a client to help me decide to take a break from my practice. After reading a medical article describing my pain syndrome as a known surgical risk and learning that it could be chronic and debilitating, I went into full-panic mode. What kind of Bermuda Triangle vortex had sucked in the ship of my life, I wondered.
One night, I had a dream about a plane crash, my wife and children watching from a distance as a plume of smoke appeared on the horizon. “Was Daddy on that plane?” one of the children asked. “Yes,” my wife said as the dream ended. But my dark night of the soul, my time in the belly of the whale, my exile from any sense of physical or emotional comfort—I’ve never really known what language to use for it—had just begun.
While I was taking a break from my practice, my father was dying of a reaction to a medication prescribed to treat a case of scabies he’d contracted from his dog. The medicine—a pesticide now banned for use in agriculture, but still used to kill scabies mites—poisoned his liver and led to a yearlong ordeal of multiple organ failure. Now it wasn’t just my own life that seemed to be sinking; life itself no longer made sense. How could a good man die from hugging his beloved dog?
The mental, emotional, and spiritual state of my being wasn’t described adequately by any list of symptoms in the DSM-IV. Sure, there was depression and anxiety, but the angst I felt, moment to moment, day to day, month to month had me feeling like I was marooned on an island that I couldn’t find on any map of the human experience.
After we buried my father during an ice storm, I began to feel a sense of shame and humiliation for falling apart so completely in front of my wife, children, extended family, and community. For years, I’d kept the confidences of so many patients who sought my help. So it was strange to hear people I didn’t know well say things like, “I heard you’ve been really depressed lately; anything I can do to help?” I felt I’d lost the credibility needed to be able to practice psychotherapy in our community—or anywhere else—ever again.
I remember the day when I opened my mind to the possibility of never returning to practice. Being a therapist had become a mainstay of my identity, but I felt so unsuited to the role. I found a line in Wayne Dyer’s Your Sacred Self helpful: “If you are what you do, then when you don’t, you aren’t.” I decided to stop pressuring myself to return to clinical work as soon as possible and focus on healing.