“It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.” - Commissioner Ervin Burrell, The Wire
A few years ago, I had to commute from Brooklyn to the Bronx for my job as a social worker at The Legal Aid Society. It was a hellish commute. What should have been a 50 minute to an hour commute, ended up being 75 minutes or longer on most days. (Anyone who lives in New York City can attest to the awfulness of the MTA.)
The only upside to the commute was that I read a lot of books and listened to a lot of interesting podcasts during that time. One morning I was listening to a Zen Buddhist podcast on WZEN. To be honest, I was barely listening. I was tired and a bit hungover. The day had not started yet, and I already wanted it to end.
But something changed somewhere in midtown Manhattan. The quiet monk, speaking in quiet, hallowed tones started shouting into my headphones. Without warning, he started bellowing, “No one is coming to save you. No one is coming to save you. You are on your own. Stop expecting it.” It rattled me. And it still rattles me today.
I think secretly most of us assume that something will come along that will make everything ok. Maybe it’s the perfect partner or the perfect job or a magical amount of money that relieves all of our stresses and where we all feel perfectly content. It fits into how human beings think in narratives. If our life is a story, then surely it will have happy outcomes with a lovely denouement at the age of 85 where they pass away peacefully surrounded by many loved one.
But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe there is nothing that’s going to make it all ok.
A patient of mine, who is a senior citizen, recently was reflecting on their life’s work. This person had been involved in leftist politics for a good portion of their life, including working with unions and was even involved in the communist party in an American city. This person had spent a good deal of the 1960s and 1970s for integration and desegregation especially in schools.
“Institutions won’t ever save us,” this person said. “My work didn’t save us.” This person’s voice trailed off as they reflected on their career and on the resegregation of schools in American life in recent years. This statement might strike a young person as cynical, but it struck me as true. This person had dedicated most of their adult life to causes, whether it was unions and strikes or desegregation and anti-capitalist work. And in the age of Trump and resegregation, this person had seen many of the gains they had helped achieve start to regress.
“So what does save you?” I asked them.
This person reflected for a few moments, “My children. My siblings. Just trying to appreciate my last days and just really be here.”
I bring up this story because unconsciously I’ve always thought my work could save me, that it would give me purpose and meaning to my life. But this conversation left me a bit shaken too. What difference does being a therapist make really? It can help a little, but it’s like a slowly leaking faucet trying to fill all the oceans of the earth. What difference does me writing a blog post like matter? Why does it matter if I do anything?
I suspect that many people feel this way on some level about their work and their lives, but it’s too frightening a thought to make conscious. So they find their own ways to fill that void in their lives. Some seek vanity and fame. Others money. Others dedicate themselves to religion. But in my experience, that kind of worship has plenty of insidious effects of its own. The irony is that those things that are supposed to fill the void are the things that make us feel more anxious and insecure. Smarter men than me have said a similar thing,
“ If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.”
I didn’t mean for this blog post to turn nihilistic. It started with the idea that “institutions will inevitably fail us,” and it expanded from there. But it’s been a good exercise because I get to consider the “why” of it all a little more deeply than I have for some time.
I don’t think there any perfect solutions for the question of existence. It feels like a bit of a cop-out to say this, but everyone has to find their own answers, I suppose.
But as I’ve started again to reflect on my existence more in the last few weeks, I always go back to the answer that seems the most honest to me: awareness.
Awareness of my own fragility and vulnerability. Awareness of my own mortality. Awareness that there are people I love dearly, and that I need to do whatever I can to help and support them through things, because as a therapist, I know better than most, that people are suffering more than we’d ever like to believe.
And in that same vein, an awareness that my work is valuable even if it is on a tiny, granular level because I spend every day with suffering people at their most fragile. And that means something to me and them. And in that way, I am trying to live my life as honestly and vulnerably as I can. Today that feels like enough despite the fragile state not only of the world but of my mortality. And maybe that’s enough for now.
(I am a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY. If you're interested in therapy, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am open to Skype sessions as well.)