Thursday, August 27, 2009

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Senator Teddy Kennedy was, by most accounts, a good man.  Yet, he had a life that was riddled with tragedies.  By the time he was 32 years old, he had lost all three of his brothers to violence and had lost the essence of a sister to a lobotomy.  He would later survive two near death experiences, one resulting in the death of another.  Two of his three children would battle cancer, one eventually losing a leg to it at the age of 12.

Bad things can happen to good people.  I say this to say that sometimes the things that happen to us may not reflect our innate goodness or our innate badness, they just happen.

From the moment that we recognize that when we cry as babies that we can make our magical mommy appear with breasts full of milk, we are encouraged into the idea of our omnipotence.  Yes, our earliest experiences rightfully encourage us to believe in our own power.  This experience, while vital in the development of  self-esteem, may also leads us to incorrectly conclude that we can control more than we actually do.  It is a sad state of affairs when the child has to come to terms with the reality that he or she may not have the wished-for power. The child comes to realize, for example, that she cannot make her annoying brother disappear, he cannot convince mother that he must have that special toy, or she cannot stop daddy from having another drink.  It is a developmental achievement for the child to continue to believe in his or her own power, even in the face of such disappointing and painful realities, but come to recognize the limits of it.

The child who survives infancy and childhood into adulthood psychologically intact does so by surviving these experiences and by accepting that which is the most difficult to accept - that we are often powerless over these events.  At the same time, the child must also accept that these life experiences are not a reflection of the child's innate badness or goodness.  Great things don't happen to the child because she or he is inherently good.  Bad things don't happen to the child because she or he is inherently bad.  Most importantly, the child must  believe in being inherently good and believe that she or he maintains her or his goodness, even when bad things happen.

To be sure, there are those who spend a lifetime trying to control bad things from happening, by trying to find ways that they can control the outcome of each event.  The fantasy is that they can keep bad things from happening by their own actions.   The woman who believes that she can be relieved of horrible feelings of dread should she wash her hands 17 times.  The man who must have his directions in all aspects in his life followed to the letter so as to make sure no unforeseen events occur and that the possibility of a bad thing occurring is controlled.  When they are not able to ultimately stop a bad thing from happening, they become excessively vulnerable to depression because they are unable to separate out the bad event from their definition of themselves.

Now, I am not arguing that we have absolutely no control over our lives.  There are choices that we can clearly make every day that diminish the possibility of a bad outcome.  Not drinking and driving is one of them.  Getting a check up with the doctor when one becomes ill is another.  What I am suggesting is that when bad things do happen, we could fall victim to depression should we entertain the idea that something about our being is  responsible for such a bad thing.  Belief in being 'cursed' or 'unlucky' reflects such an identification with external events that may reflect a belief in being inherently bad.

Healthy psychological adaptation means being aware of one's powerlessness in the grand scheme of things, while at the same time believing in one's own power.  Having belief in one's own power requires a belief in one's inherent goodness and sense of omnipotence borne from good enough early childhood experiences.  That is,  even when bad things do happen, we believe that we are made up of good stuff and that that good stuff can survive.

I suspect that that is how Teddy did it.

"The work begins anew.  The hope rises again,  And the dream lives on."  Edward Moore Kennedy (1932-2009)

No comments:

Post a Comment