Tag Archives: happiness

The fanciful alternative

“When a dream comes true, you lose a dream”  Dr. K.


The future provides an endless parade of fanciful alternatives. “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” – you say to yourself and suddenly that thought becomes, well, a possibility. We are immersed in figments of our imagination that add false trajectories, existences, and memories. Some imaginings like nostalgia and daydreaming sweeten the memories, and upgrade the present. Other, painful imaginings e.g. anticipatory anxiety, pessimism, bitterness, and vengeance mar our happiness.

Enduring fantasies can feel very real. So real, in fact, that we often experience them as an alternative to our actual life. That alternate “reality” is a cause of many bad decisions and wrong turns into second-rate life trajectories. We can assume therefore that decisions based on reality vs. fantasy are bound to produce choices more beneficial to your life.

Unfortunately, you are by definition totally subjective and biased about your own life. Moreover, the fantasy bias increases with the importance of the choice. In other words, the higher the stakes the more your imagination hinders your ability to be accurate. And so, ironically, the more trivial situations engender more accurate decisions. We make numerous small decisions every day and very few are truly regrettable. So choosing for example a blue shirt over a green one, even if it is the wrong choice, has negligible effect; hence the potential for serious error is minimal

Conversely fateful decisions made at major crossroads in your life, invoke various worries and doubts. Tying the knot on the route to irreversibility, be it professional, personal, or material, carries the possibility of a big mistake. Some just dive in and try to make the most of it. Others are paralyzed by the odds and drown in hesitation. Your imagination is rapidly fluctuating between the blissful and the catastrophic. This quickly devolves to a battle between hope and pessimism – a battle between rivaling imaginings. Indeed, the richer your imagination the greater your indecision would be. Your dreams so elusive, your fears so preposterous all suddenly become credible. Agonizing and ambivalent, we become susceptible to anything that would point at the right direction. Pessimism paralyzes, optimism liberates; so many crucial decisions are predisposed towards the fanciful, the fantastic, away from the real. The misguided person is left to a lifetime of growing awareness, the sinking feeling that it had all been a mistake. The decision was made based on a fanciful alternative, that misplaced beacon luring you to the barren rocky shores.

We are often encouraged to follow our dreams. We are encouraged to work hard, to sacrifice, to deny ourselves many pleasurable experiences. We are told it is the honorable way: hold tight and persevere, and what seemed a fantasy would become true. It is up to you. It is your choice, just follow your dreams!

But why should you?

Well, it really depends on the dream. The more modest the dream the more feasible. The greater the dream, the wider the gap from reality, the less control you exert over your life’s outcome. Similarly, fanciful goals that require great dependency on the others are tremendously risky.

But how would you know it? How can you determine or calculate the distance between your dream and the reality? Key future trajectories are formed at an early age, usually in early adulthood. The mind still smolders from the fires of adolescence; you are still discovering your newly formed sense of restraint. You are not a good judge of future realities. How can you make a wise decision?

I suggest you start from the reality. It makes sense: Being already present and measurable, it is a good frame of reference. Planning your life based on your dreams is a risky business. If you are wrong, and miscalculate the distance between the reality and your dream your leap of faith can potentially send you tumbling into the void, comprised by poorly fitting, misadjusted, and increasingly difficult life.

So you follow your dream at your personal risk.

I made up an example to illuminate this point: Say that you have always been fascinated by the charmed, nomadic life of a traveling circus. Here today, gone tomorrow, endlessly parading down main streets and touring far-off, wondrous countries. One day, the famous Mederano circus set its tent in your hometown. Holding our mother’s hand in the gathering crowd you were fascinated by the circus’ legendary “little people” show. In a flash everything made sense to you: I will be a little person at a circus. That is your dream, that is your future.

One day the moment had arrived: a small advert in the newspaper called for applications to the little people show. You applied, got the job and promptly appeared for your first rehearsal. The act itself was quite easy: all you had to do is roll round, feign fear of the monkeys etc. The problem lays elsewhere; you are over 5 feet tall whereas the other little people were less than 4’. You were simply way too tall for the job. In order to play a little person you had to spend hours contorting yourself, tying your legs with straps, walking on your knees. After each performance you had to spend agonizing hours, stretching your aching legs and getting the circulation working. Conversely, your short statured colleagues easily hopped into the role, performed with ease and subsequently transformed into their non-stage persona in a matter of minutes. You have achieved your dream, but you were a misfit in your chosen career: gone were the sweet reveries, your fervent young heart was dealt a painful blow; forever doomed to futile mediocrity. You surrendered the reality to your dream and hence, despite your honest efforts and your daily sacrifice, you condemned yourself to a second rate life.

I am not one to criticize. Since the age of five, I wanted to be a physician. That was my dream, my ambition, and my sole future plan. Fortunately, it worked out very well – many years after graduating, I love my profession with a passion that never subsided: I am lucky this way. But I am fully aware that I took a wild gamble, following the dream of the 5 year old me. I do not know what sparked that trajectory. Perhaps it was my amazing pediatrician Dr. Chlenov: I still can see her listening to my chest; a Lucky Strike cigarette (no filter!) dangling from her lips. My mother would fuss before the doctor’s arrival, changing my PJ’s combing my hair and giving me last instruction not to speak unless spoken to etc. Finally the doctor arrives, thin and Spartan, her salt and pepper hair closely cropped, her eyes deep and sad sparkling kindly above her reading glasses. My mother would rush to bring the doctor tea and cake with deep respect and gratitude for all the times the doctor came to our house.   And she was there in rainy cold December nights or the intolerable afternoons of august, looking after my sister who suffered from asthma. Nothing seemed more exciting than being a physician, and it still does not fail to fascinate and delight me.

But most people spend inordinate amounts of time questioning themselves and their choices. Instead of exploring all possible choices and try to fit yourself into one of them, a preferable strategy would be to invest your time familiarizing yourself with yourself. Every revelation, every authentic piece of character is a solid investment in a life of thoughtful decisions, and flexible attitude towards the reality, and acceptance of the passage of time and how you spend it. But that requires discerning between a false beacon and a safe heaven. Following a far-fetched option -no matter how alluring – will almost always lead to a bad outcome. We are constantly offered accounts of those who dreamt big and made it against all odds. We find it inspirational, perhaps even a road map for turning an otherwise regular life into their fanciful possibilities. But another’s dream could be your nightmare. It so depends on your life, your luck, your personality, the people you choose to associate with, your abilities and inabilities: in short, it depends on the unique building blocks that make you an individual. Dreaming another’s dream is merely a competition with someone who has already won – and it makes the same amount of sense. Safer dreams, those based on your reality are not as exciting as the Fanciful alternatives: but they are yours.













Remembrance of Times Past – Personal vs. collective memories and the ownership of your life

“…when you dared not go to sleep for fear of your dreams.” Terry Prachett

Once, many years ago I was rowing in a small French lake with a young Swiss woman I had met on the bus going there. I was twenty, in medical school, and used the summer break to backpack across Western Europe. The day was spectacular, the young woman was lovely, and I was very happy. It struck me however, that this is it. Even if we returned here tomorrow, it would not be the same: I will never be 20 again, on this lake in this boat with this young woman whose name I still remember. Faintly, a poem formed in my mind: A simple, inelegant lament for time lost. The following day, or was it several days later, on the train to Amsterdam, I wrote it down.   I still have it somewhere, a page, torn hastily from a copybook, with pale blue ruled lines.

My young self, a sentimental rover, spent many lovely days with amiable, ever shifting cast of backpackers: earnest morning conversations in an Amsterdam café; predawn on a ferry deck watching the starry night my sleeping bag touching another’s. Who were they, what was I? Too late; time erased all memories like waves lapping letters in the sand. My life, once languid and clear, has quickened its pace and now the years are wheezing by me, my days a fuzzy blur.

Marcel Proust, the genius of capturing time lost, wrote: “For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which—by means of a sort of snapshot—we take cognizance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilizing it.”

Conjuring up snap shots of the inner world – fading scenes faintly etched in the memory – is Proust’s prescription to immobilizing time. But we want to immobilize the good times – the ones worthy of the effort. Yet only few fortunate ones can remember extended periods of unbroken joy. For most of us sadness is a frequent companion, lingering stubbornly however much we try to cheer. Conversely, happiness is sporadic and frail, collapsing at the first sign of adversity.

We seem to be wired for sadness. We are unable to delete bad memories, and spend sleepless nights in lonely struggle with uninvited thoughts. Adulthood, with its daily burdens, turns our memory into a foe, an albatross weighing down our life. Tethered to each other by a sameness girdle, we amble through life, dreading being alone, in the authentic solitude of the real self.

It wasn’t always this way. As a child, the world surrounding you was scary and unfamiliar whereas your inner world, your imagination, offered you the best refuge. There, you could daydream for hours, making up little stories, enjoying your self, literally. Your childhood experiences, lacking in substantive history, were mostly fantasies and blissful ignorance.

Come puberty, and whatever equilibrium you discovered between you and the world surrounding you, is irrevocably upset by adolescence’s push for conformity. Being compelled to try and be like everyone else, you grow ashamed of your originality, you consider your private fantasies weird. This reversal of perspective – growing more comfortable among the others, while becoming scared of the inner you – is viewed by most of us as the right of passage into adulthood.

No wonder we feel conflicted by originality, idiosyncrasy, and otherness. The child in you, the natural inhabitant of your private world, is fascinated by the different, the mysterious, the unknown. However, that fearless explorer, your innocent self, is mostly barred from experiencing the different. At the exit from childhood, you are banished forever from the Garden of Eden; you tasted the fruit of knowledge, your awareness efficiently draining the bliss out of your ignorance.

Adult life is often marred by uninvited memories of time lost, humiliating defeats, inglorious moments, feeling rejected and abandoned by those we once loved. We anxiously scan our memory: might we unearth some exuberance at last?

Reliable pleasant memories are necessary to immobilize time: Immobilized time is essential for observing your authentic personal experiences. Your personal experiences, those shared by no one else but you, sustain your ownership over your life. Our memories cannot be separated into neatly packaged capsules of “good” or “bad”. Even a blissful recollection crossing into your consciousness can drag with it a bad one. You might wish for a dream and end up with a nightmare. Your inner world, neglected by your frantic flight from sadness, can often appear unfamiliar to you.

So how can you connect with your individuality? How do you unveil your inner world to yourself? Creativity is a great facilitator. It works to externalize your inner self, and introduces your self to you. Now, you may argue that there is no need for introductions. You have been with yourself since birth. True, but who is the self you know? Most of us live with our manufactured self. The self we create to introduce ourselves to the others.

As toddlers we were very authentic – that sweet affecting innocence of children, is in fact an expression of authenticity. Not having learned yet the social games, little children are brutally honest and bad liars. But we learn to be inauthentic as a condition for social acceptance into adulthood. We try to impress, to distract, to lie, to exaggerate; we shed crocodile tears, fake our emotions and display phony sympathies. We say we expect the best of each other, but in truth we settle for the lies. (Just try to express for one day all that you really think and you will discover the social price of authenticity.) This deception, even if socially beneficial, hurts your relationship with yourself, and becomes a constant source for self-loathing.

Remember how you used to perform as a little child to your parents? You were assured adoration no matter how silly or untalented your little performance was. Buoyed by the glimmer in your parent’s eyes, you twirled faster and faster until dizzy and giddy you fell on the floor and pretended to sleep. You were a significant person in your parents’ life, why can you not be in yours?

Be creative! Do something that only you can do. It does not matter how silly or untalented, so long as you do it yourself. Make something out of nothing with your imagination. It is for you; you are the loving audience and the adoring fan. And it would be totally and truly yours, the only thing in your life that is exclusively yours. To quote Marcel Proust again: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.”



When Should You Stop Trying? The “Hunger Artist” Syndrome

Frequently, people reveal to me that they invest their lives in what has become a hopeless pursuit. Laboring over doomed initiative, despairing to repair badly broken relationship, undoing what cannot be undone – the possibilities for futile pursuits are endless. I have often wondered what is the underpinning of this behavior. After all, as we all know, letting go is sometimes the best remedy for unsuccessful efforts. In deciding whether to continue or stop a particular endeavor, we struggle with a host of competing forces. We often feel that we have to choose between two options: either stubborn persistence, or premature surrender. Either one does not make sense. Continuing to fight to the bitter end or giving up without trying are both depleting and distressing.

We tend to glorify perseverance in face of the intractable; those who “never give up” are perceived as heroic. Conversely, those who stop trying too soon are scorned as “failures”. Therefore, the communal pressure is to continue and try even when a recalcitrant issue becomes clearly hopeless. It makes us feel heroic for not giving up.

So many of us have thrown away precious pieces of our lives, struggling with the unyielding.

As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that one of my duties is to help my patient decide when to stop trying. This process is compounded by the dependency on the person’s perception and account. One of my methods is to look beyond the “good reasons” – i.e. the person’s subjective and often self-deceptive point of view, to uncover the “real reasons” – i.e. the complex, and more objective factors that produce the issue. In deciding when to stop trying, we should consider: 

  1. What delineates between the difficult and the hopeless?
  2. What is the difference between strategic retreat and a failure?
  3. What makes one kind of effort necessary and another superfluous?

Those questions are at the core of much anguish over a fruitless struggle.

Naturally, It feels wrong to quit something you have invested so much into; there seems to be no right or “good” timing to actually stop trying. How would you know if all this effort was in vain? Try this: juxtapose the time you have spent so far with the tangible and real results. The math is not straightforward but still possible. In other words do not think about the future – it is always elusive and uncertain. Look at the past. Look at your investment and the yield. Often this simple exercise results in a startling awakening; could it be that so much of your life, time and energy, has been invested with such disappointing results? I often think of the cartoon character that in haste continues in thin air after having overrun the cliff: Only when the character looks down, realizing its predicament, does it plummet. This zany cartoon logic is actually quite prevalent. Many continue to run on thin air not daring to look at the reality lest they drop.

Of course some struggles can never be designated useless. Such is the struggle of parents for their children. Parents cannot give up – we are conditioned by our genes to forgive our children and continue to support them. Sometimes, as in the case of drug or alcohol abuse, the struggle may yield no results other than the notion that the parent has been trying anything they can. This notion in itself is worth the struggle and provides the parents with unending energy. Another case is of those who dedicate their life to some pursuit larger than themselves: people who struggle politically, ideologically, etc. In these instances, the struggle is in itself the goal and as such cannot be deemed hopeless. But thankfully, most of us do not need to sacrifice our life for a sick child or a particular ideology. Our life’s “ordinary” futile struggles occur in the two Freudian spheres: Love and work.

Ask yourself:

Does your romantic partner merit the inordinate energy you spend hoping to be happy in your relationship one day?

Should you spend a large amount of your only life trying to succeed in a career you are obviously not happy with?

Let’s sharpen the focus: here you are, in charge of your only life! Even if you believe in reincarnation this is the only life you have as yourself. And yet, you throw away chunks of your precious life- days, months and years – on something or someone that is depleting your sense of well being, causing you pain and seems immutable.

What could be the reasons to this unhelpful behavior?

Here are some possible reasons:

  1. You do not like yourself and secretly feel that you deserve this life of punishment.
  2. You are an incorrigible optimist and hope against hope that your efforts would somehow succeed eventually.
  3. You do not see/realize the futility of your efforts.
  4. You believe, ideologically, culturally, philosophically in suffering.
  5. You believe in efforts for the sake of efforts.
  6. For you – trying harder, irrespective of the results, is satisfying in and off itself.
  7. You have extraneous reasons beyond your control: family ties, all kinds of debt, a deep sense of duty etc.
  8. You feel ideologically beholden to promoting sacrifice for the others over your own needs. You put your needs last.
  9. You believe that your life should be a life of service no matter in what context. (And perhaps in extreme, you have unconscious masochistic tendencies)
  10. You enjoy being a martyr, feeling sorry for yourself and/or receiving pity from others.
  11. It gives you something/someone other than yourself to blame for your unhappiness.

I am sure that there are more reasons, but usually it is a mix of many of the above.

My work has taught me that we are largely irrational beings. Our logical presentation to ourselves and to the world around us is merely the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The complex “you”, in all trillions upon trillions of cellular activities, is silently happening below the surface, ever present but not conscious. If you had to consciously operate even a trillionth of your cellular activity, you would not have survived even a split second. But the subconscious activity is not on “auto-pilot”. In fact often the conscious “you” is more likely to be operating on automatic predictability. The cellular activity, the unfathomable iceberg, is constantly piloted – fine-tuned by our nervous system and by the cells themselves. In the setting of this astonishing, wondrous machinery given to us at birth, we are like a goat trying to operate a space shuttle. Not only are we unhelpful: we are often an outright interference to our harmony and equilibrium. We consume and inhale manmade toxins, rest too little, worry and stress too much over petty issues, get enraged by the soon to be forgettable, etc. Luckily, our body’s resilience has the power to repair, at least to an extent.

But our body rightfully does not trust us. It lets us focus only on very narrow band of attention. And for nature at large, what we do with ourselves does not really matter.

Once our expiration date arrives, our body disintegrates to the basic building blocks, our molecules, which then get recycled into another cellular collection. But you, you are never going to be replicated. Not even one second of your life can be retrieved, repeated or lived again.

This is the question I ask myself every day: Does my life, my only life, my one time existence as myself, make sense to me?

I suggest you ask yourself the same question. Don’t be scared; you are not a cartoon character, you are not running on thin air, and looking down would not make you fall into the abyss. You have enough defense mechanisms that would soften the blow of the answer. You will be able to ask yourself these follow-up questions:

If something in my life does not make sense, what is it?

What is the price I pay for not examining this question?

What can I do to change what doesn’t make sense?

How can I live with the change?

Admittedly, this line of questioning is better off done at the therapist’s office. Why? Because the therapist can help you stay honest, and not let you disappear into another layer of myth and self lies that “ helped” you sustain the unnecessary suffering. We have little courage to face ourselves alone. And a good therapist is the right companion and guide for this particular journey.

There you are, holding the steering wheel of your life in your hands, looking into the future with a mixture of excitement and fear. At long last you are navigating your life in a trajectory that minimizes the negative and maximizes the positive. That simple and obvious concept always turns out to be better than what you thought of as “the only way”.