Monday, April 18, 2011

Lesson #8: What Is Real Cannot Be Threatened

This lesson has helped me to eliminate a tremendous amount of fear.  What is real cannot be threatened.  What is true is never in jeopardy.  Every living thing is temporary, yet the impact of those living things does not end.

As human beings we affect each other all the time.  For example, let's say you are feeling cranky and having a nothing-is-going-right day.  You walk on the subway and suddenly you are in the company of a child who is laughing and smiling with her mother.  Soon enough, you can't help but feel like laughing and smiling too.  Then the child and her mother get off the train.  That affect doesn't go away just because the child does. The impact that laughter had on your nervous system, on your blood vessels, on your digestive track,  and on the chemistry in your brain doesn't cease to exist just because the child walked away.  You had a very real experience, and you continue to be impacted by that experience even when the person is no longer physically present.  

That is because what is real cannot be threatened.  When my life has been enhanced by someone, that doesn't end just because their body dies.  Our authentic connection remains strong and vital even when their physical body is absent.  Many of the 40 Lessons of 40  have been shaped by people I've had genuine connections with, who are physically dead.  For example:

-Chris Bender (died 2011) was instrumental in teaching me patience (Lesson #24), compassion (Lesson #35), and that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional (Lesson #11).
-Jhan Dean Egg (died 1998) demonstrated the courage and rewards of stubbornly being your own person, and how not compromising to social norms had its benefits and costs (Lesson #16)
-Ntombi Howell (died 2003) was fundamental in helping me understand that an angry activist on a soapbox helps no one (Lesson #12).   She told me, "A liberal helps "them", an ally helps "us."
-My grandfather Benjamin Jacobs (died 1997) told me, "There Are No Small Jobs, Just Small People." (Lesson #27)
-Ruth Van Horn (died 2007) was the first person I ever told I wanted to write a book about "shoulds."  She responded by saying, "Oh! The world needs that!" That conversation ultimately led to the writing of Absolutely Should-less. 

I no longer have these individuals in my world, but our connection lives on.  Our relationship cannot be severed by death or separation.  What is real cannot be threatened, and knowing this through experience has provided me great comfort, and reduced suffering.

The same principle applies when a relationship comes to an end with someone who is alive.  There may be valid and healthy reasons why two people choose to terminate a marriage or a partnership.  Nevertheless, if there was anything authentic to begin with, it cannot be dismantled by a divorce or a separation.

This is also why I take the somewhat controversial stance that a third person cannot "come between" two people in a relationship.  What is real is not subjected to influence and manipulations of others.  If a dyad is in jeopardy then a third person could certainly take advantage of that.  But what is truly there cannot be swayed.

In this past week, millions of people were devastated by the cancellation of two long-running ABC soaps, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, and ALL MY CHILDREN.  For many viewers these shows are more than just escapist fair.  Viewers have a real and meaningful attachment to the consistent, comforting, and reliable friends portrayed in these dramas.  Erica Kane and Viki Lord have been coming into people's living rooms five times a week for over 40 years.  Their presence provides reassurance, stability, and comfort in an ever changing world. The loss is quite devastating and traumatic for many.

But even in this scenario, what is real cannot be threatened.  ABC can terminate the shows, but they can't cancel your memories and joy of the characters.  They can't take away the experience you had watching these shows when you were sick, when you were depressed, when you were lonely, when you lost someone you love, when you were nursing your first child.  They have no ability to destroy how these programs enhanced your life unless you let them.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  The pain I feel when someone or something I love goes away is real.  The suffering about that grief is optional.  If I perceive a loss as a permanent severance of joy, fun, and laughter, then I will indeed suffer.  If I perceive a death as a change in a relationship, and an opportunity to internalize and express all the wonderful things about that person or thing, then I will still have pain, but suffering will be lessened.  Knowing this lesson helps me to feel joyful and excited about getting older, even knowing that the more I live and love, the more I will lose. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at

**If you are in the New York City area, please come by for Damon's "Fabulous at Forty" workshop on Monday, April 25th, at 8pm, at 208 W. 13th Street, Room 410**

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