Throughout his life, Daniel has searched for answers – through religion, meditation and psychology – with one goal: to release the past/pain and become genuine, to live without pretense, able to connect more deeply with those in his life. He began writing in the 1980s, with a nationally syndicated newspaper column. His current project is This Human Condition, a series of sixty stories, each meant to ease one of life’s inner struggles or outer conflicts.
I answered the door to a draft of cold air, and stifled a moan. He was dark, ugly and far too big. Guilt moved to come in, but I blocked him.
“What is it this time?” I asked, hearing the fear in my voice.
He just stood there, staring at me.
The nervous silence stretched, until I blurted, “It’s about my assistant, isn’t it? I yelled at her, and now I am supposed to feel guilty. Well, I have no more room.”
In a vaguely threatening voice, Guilt asked, “No room?”
I panicked, and stuttered, “I, I am overloaded. There is just, well, no more room!”
He gave up trying to come in, and leaned against the door frame, pretending he did not care. “So you are hanging on to the old guilt,” he said. “Why?”
“Hanging on?” I asked.
He looked irritated, and said, “Guilt is just a feeling that says, ‘You missed the target.’ When you yelled at your assistant, you missed your target of treating people considerately.”
“Yes, yes,” I said impatiently. “What did you mean by ‘hanging on’?”
He shook his head, and sighed. “After you make yourself feel badly enough, for long enough, you have paid for missing the target.” He looked at me like I was an idiot, and added, “Once you have paid, you are supposed to let it go.”
My eyes dropped to the floor. Silence surrounded us. Finally, I whispered what had never been spoken: “After all this time, I still feel awful about hurting my sister – before she died.” I looked up, and with tears in my eyes, pleaded, “How much time is enough?”
Guilt shrugged and said, “How should I know? My job is to help you with the next load, although I have to say, you have never needed much help.”
Suddenly, I felt angry and yelled, “Well, I have too much now! I just cannot take any more!”
Guilt leaned over me with his towering bulk. I cringed. His voice rumbled, “Like it or not, you already feel guilty about yelling at your assistant.”
Slowly, I eased back.
He straightened, and, with a sarcastic edge to his voice, said, “Besides, you are the one in control. You can change your behavior, and hit the target, or you can change the target.”
As I began a question, he shook his head at me, as if I were stupid, and asked, “How do you feel when you overeat?”
I scrambled to switch topics, and said, “Bad. I feel guilty.”
“But you are not overweight.”
“My mom told us that eating too much is hard on the digestive system.”
Guilt laughed and said, “So your mom set the target. When you overeat, is it really too much?”
Thoughtfully, I said, “No, probably not; but wait. Do you mean that I can reset the target, and make it okay to eat more?” With some excitement, I added, “Or I can decide not to have a target at all!”
Guilt turned to leave.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Deciding targets is about stopping new guilt. How do I get rid of the old?”
He stopped, looked back, and with unexpected kindness said, “You can, of course, forgive yourself for being hard on your sister. You were children; you were doing the best you could at the time; and, she died from a heart operation, not from anything you did.”
As I turned back into the warmth of the room, tears flooded my eyes.
Softly, I asked, “Forgive myself?”
I watched my spaceship swirl round and around until it disappeared. My mother found me crying, shirt soaked, hand deep in the toilet.
Pulling me into her arms, she murmured, “Don’t cry dear, it is alright. Stop crying now.”
That evening, I was calling my dog. As I stepped into the backyard, my father said, “Hey Sport” and broke the news: my dog had bitten the mail carrier, and Animal Control had taken him away.
For a long time, my mother tried to console me, saying again and again, “Stop crying, now. It’s okay. Please stop crying.”
Finally, my father yelled, “Stop that crying, or I will give you something to cry about! Stop it now!”
“And you did stop,” said the lanky psychologist, Dr. J, a therapist my wife had forced me to see.
“I did stop what?” I asked, fist clenched.
“Why did you want this session?” countered Dr J. He had an annoying habit of switching topics. “You know, my, uh, wife left me.”
“She says that I do not share myself, that I am too distant.”
“And so you are,” he said. “At forty-two years old, you continue to obey your parents’ directive: ‘Don’t feel’.”
“But I feel!”
“What?” he challenged, “What do you feel?”
“I, uh, well, anger,” I said, forcing my fist open.
Dr. J leaned forward, and said, “Anger is an ‘instead of’ emotion, a defensive emotion. When was the last time you felt something else, like hurt for example?”
I sat there thinking, searching my memory, reaching back. Dr. J finally sat back and motioned with his hands. I blew out an exasperated breath, admitting defeat.
Dr. J smiled sadly and said, “Your wife just left you.”
He let that sink in and then added, “You stop yourself from feeling uncomfortable emotions. If you felt more, you could share more, with your wife and others.”
I heard the defeat in my voice, as I said, “How am I supposed to start feeling more?”
He asked, “A few years ago, when your mother died, how did you handle it?”
“I went right back to work,” I answered, with a touch of pride.
“And last week when your wife left?”
“I, uh, I have been working more.”
“Working more,” he repeated, voice flat. “And when you are not working, what do you do?”
I shook my head, trying to keep up with him, and answered, “I like to read, watch a movie, or go out with friends.”
I added, “Wait. I am confused.”
“Come on,” said Dr. J. “At the first sign of a negative feeling, you automatically distract yourself with work, a movie, or people.”
“No!” I blurted. “I have been working more because I have the extra time.”
“Do you snack when you are not hungry?”
Reluctantly, I admitted that I did.
“So, there is yet another way that you avoid negative feelings. Some use alcohol and/or drugs; others use extreme over-eating, gambling, and sex.”
“Alright, okay,” I said, “Just tell me what I have to do to bring my wife home.”
“You must be willing to feel uncomfortable.”
“Of course, or you will just continue avoiding.”
“Okay, I can do that,” I said. “I am willing to feel uncomfortable. Is that it?”
Dr. J laughed, and said, “In that first moment, when you want to begin what might be a distraction, gently ask yourself what you are feeling.”
As I opened my mouth to reply, Dr. J added, “Also, when you feel irritable or angry, take a peek underneath, and, again, ask yourself what you are feeling.”
He pushed himself out of the chair and began pacing, something we were not allowed to do.
He continued, “And whenever you catch even the hint of a feeling, voice it. Say, ‘I feel sad’, ‘I feel hurt’, ‘I feel afraid’ or whatever you even guess you might be feeling.”
He was now motioning with his hands and waving his arms. “Say it aloud. Say it several times. Shout it from the roof tops!” he yelled.
I began to laugh, and stopped abruptly. I said, “Sad. When my wife left, I felt sad; angry too, very angry. And sad.”
At that moment, I felt my eyes tear, and thought seeing a psychologist might not have been such a good idea.