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Sunday, December 29

Two Ideas Will Change Your World

Little girl with a surprised face

Who knew language could be 
so surprising? (Photo credit: 
Josh Engroff, 2012)
A casual comment dropped at church blew my mind

One of the many wonderful things about living abroad is this: New language; new thoughts.

We now live in France, my hubby and I. And so the church services we attend are conducted in French. 

My nascent French requires me to mechanically translate each word of the service. I don’t catch everything. But I do seem to learn at least one useful thing from any given homily. F’instance:

Some time back, one of my fellow congregants was describing a challenge she faces, and used the phrase On dois garder le désir de changement. 

“Safeguard the desire for change.” 

That little phrase has been rolling around my brain for several months, and I’ve shared it with some of my counseling clients, notably those who are feeling stuck in their quarter- or mid-life crises. (These crises do seem to crest at 25-year intervals. I’ve had clients in their seventies who also wonder what to do with their lives.)

Problème numéro un

It’s pretty normal to feel a little stuck — especially after passing some significant life marker such as graduating college, sending the youngest kid off to kindergarten, or retiring from work.
Crises crest at 25-year intervals…even people in their seventies wonder what to do with the rest of their lives
But in working with a large number of lifestage-stuck clients, I’ve discovered that the problem isn’t the change itself; it’s this sad thought: “I’ve accomplished (or abandoned) my major goal and now there’s nothing left for me.” 

For many people, unfortunately, that sad thought can get traction, and then send them right over the cliff into sadness, to clinical depression, or even to suicidal ideation — especially if the life change contains some element that feels like failure: “I’m divorced, and nobody loves me.” “My kids left home and they don’t call.” “I dropped out so I’m a loser.” “I left my job, and now I have no friends.” 

Problème deux

The problem of feeling stuck commonly is compounded by a second problem: Getting stuck drains us of energy. Loss of energy is perhaps the most difficult factor in treating depression, but you don’t have to be clinically depressed to feel lethargic and pointless. 

Note that depressive states with co-occurring energy drains aren’t always caused by biological or medical factors. Sometimes they occur because we face overwhelming grief or haven’t processed trauma. And sometimes energy loss happens because we’ve gotten sloppy about things like sleep hygiene, our environment, nutrition, finances, addictions, relationships, or personal hygiene.

A silly story

I’ve had some genuine difficulties in my life, but the one I’m about to share will sound silly and privileged and a bit unserious. Bear with me. (And keep in mind that story takes place at a time well before the internet or cell phones, back when we used carrier pigeons and smoke signals to communicate with the outside world.) 

Here goes:

When I finished my undergrad degree I was pregnant with child number three and broke as it’s possible to be before robbing a bank. We had negative dollars and no sense. But I had a job offer. In Taiwan. And it was a good one. So we packed up the family, threw our meager belongings in a crate, and got us on a plane. 

When we arrived, someone kindly agreed to rent us an unfurnished apartment, rent-free for the first month, on the promise of an extra rent payment when I got my first paycheck. We were supposed to be settling in for the three weeks before the start of my new job, but with no money and all our worldly goods on — literally — a slow boat to China, plus our inability to read the language, we did this instead:


Literally n.o.t.h.i.n.g. We sat on the floor. Then we walked around. Then we sat on the floor some more. We tried walking on the street, but there were no sidewalks and we nearly got sideswiped by a speeding driver, so…um…nope. Back to the apartment. Go to the bathroom. Try to nap. Boil some water. Portion out the day’s food. Tell the kids to stop poking one another. Walk around some more. 

For three weeks.

I nearly lost my mind. 

Lesson learned: Having nothing to do can drive people mad. And that was after less than a month, while knowing that I would have a million things to do at the end of my short imprisonment. 
Having nothing to do can drive people mad
Imagine looking into the future and having it gape back at you, a black abyss of nothing. What could be more energy sapping, more depressing, more pointless than that?

La solution

Living far from lifelong friends and family means that I’ve had to face a few of my own demons. (Being a therapist doesn’t inoculate people from emotional struggles.) Spending birthdays and holidays apart from loved ones can lead pretty easily to loneliness and even a bit of self-pity. It takes just one dark night to go from there to wondering about the point and value of life.

Here’s what works for me, and what seems also to be working for clients who struggle.

Step 1: Embrace the desire for change. This is a philosophical task where you sit quietly and do the following thought exercise: My life can mean something or it can mean nothing. I can add value, or I can subtract it. Do I want my existence to have meaning? Do I want to add value? Do I want to leave this world just a little better off than it would have been if I’d never arrived? Yes? And if yes, what is it I can do to make the world a little bit better? What are my particular talents or gifts, and how could I use those gifts to change the world? What’s my mission? Why was I created? In spite of my limitations (and everyone has ’em. I’m not alone in that!), what value can I add?
Whether on a macro level (end child abuse), a community or family level (stand up for someone who’s being treated badly), or a micro level (break the habit of gossiping), there is inarguably some way that you, and you alone, can make something change for the better. 

You do have a purpose, a mission. And that mission didn’t end because your educational, marital, financial, or social status changed. Those status changes were just ruts on the road of you accomplishing your mission. 

The engine for that journey is your desire for change. Safeguard that desire. It’s precious. You must never let loose of it. You can expand it, you can shrink it to fit those seasons of life where the task of staying alive is all you can handle, but never, ever, entirely lose your grip on the desire for change.

Step 2: Safeguard your energy. I get it. Sometimes you can barely keep your eyes open. Sometimes a Netflix binge is all you’ve got.

But when binging looks more like addiction, when your eyes are always barely open, when you can’t even put on a pair of pants…When that happens, you’ve lost hold of your own energy.

Energy is the fuel for your mission. Reclaim it. It’s your energy. You can keep it, you can grow it, you can totally own your energy. 
Energy is the fuel for your mission.
Rise up! If you’re over the age of 18, you’re an adult who can say no. You get to have boundaries. You get to choose the number of hours you’re willing to trade for pieces of green paper. You get to choose your own bedtime, your own meals, your own weight, your own fitness, your own faith.

Infographic with the equation Desire for Change plus Energy leads to Progress. Guard both. They’ll bring you joy, protection

Safeguard your desire for change 
and your energy. You’ll need them both 
when you head out to change the world. 
(Image credit automobile: 
Wikimedia Commons)
I know, I know. I’ve had so many broken bones I lost track of ’em about two decades ago. We raised all seven of our kids and several of their friends. I’ve been too broke to shop at thrift stores. I fried my brain earning three post-graduate degrees. I’ve been abused and beaten up. I’ve moved eleventy-three times. I lost my best friend shortly after we finished high school. My husband’s had cancer twice. Believe me, I know how hard it can be to get off the couch.

But I also know that when I’m doing the things that lead to good health — both physical and mental — I have far more energy than when I’m failing to do those things. Good nutrition, sufficient exercise, daily sunlight, rigid bedtimes, disciplined schedules, clean sinks, and positive people provide the fuel I require to stay excited about my mission and my life. 

And if that doesn’t quite do the trick for you, do whatever it takes to get a good therapist on your team. Life is short. Self-awareness is eternal.

On the road again

A new year, and a new decade, are upon us. Life is an adventure. Yes, you’ll encounter potholes and breakdowns from time to time. But you can safeguard both the engine (the desire for change) and the fuel (your personal energy) to make that journey joyful. 

Join me in 2020, and choose to pursue your mission with all the energy you can marshal. You deserve it, and the world you inhabit needs you to give it your best. 

LauraMaery Gold, LMFT, lives with her husband in a 400-year-old castle just outside of Paris. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with couples and parents. She is also the director of The Relationship Institute and the author of oh-so-very-many books on family concerns.

(This article is published simultaneously at Relating magazine.)