How to Handle Trouble: A Guide to Peace of Mind
By John Carmody
First, we consider data - facts, information, what we need to know to get our bearings. Most troubles imply enormous amounts of information, only a little of which is directly relevant to muddling through. For example, to understand the basic processes of multiple myeloma takes only about fifteen minutes. However, to get on top of all the current research would require specialized training in biochemistry that lies beyond most of us. Similarly, to understand the basic tack of a given case of alcoholism is seldom difficult: Peter gets depressed at his job prospects and staggers home drunk; Jill feels Unattractive and so hides in the bottle. However, to cure Peter or Jill may well be a long, painful enterprise. One may have to learn reams about them and show the patience of Job. On the way to that, it is boon enough for those who have to live with Peter or Jill to work out strategies for helping them get work or feel more attractive, as well as strategies for coping with the drunks they go on when their hopes crash.
Second, related to data are techniques for gathering information. Many people stay stuck in first gear, unable to make much progress with their troubles, because they do not possess crucial information, are unaware of helps available to them. Thus, it is worth sketching how to go about gathering information - how to become a small-scale, part-time researcher. Once you learn that the telephone directory, or the local research librarian, is a marvelous source of information, the task of gathering helpful information starts to look easy rather than impossible.
Third, we deal with imagining. Most of what we can do depends on what we can imagine. As we shall discover when dealing with feelings, images have a great power to dominate our emotions. In this chapter, however, we are concerned more with the role that images play in understanding. Until we get apt images, we are not likely to crack our problems, to see the light. Thus it helps to discuss how the human imagination tends to work and suggest ways of harnessing it to the task at hand.
Fourth, we deal with understanding proper. When we understand we say, "Aha." A light dawns. The data fall into a pattern that makes sense. We see our way to some practical consequences - some concrete ways of attacking our problem. And, as a result of any of these good things, we feel encouraged. We're no longer in the dark. We've started to make progress toward the light, the day when we feel in control. Understanding is always in part a function of our native intelligence. The education we have received to date is also a factor. But typically people underestimate their ability to grasp what is happening to them. In fact, real trouble can bring out an intelligence, geared to survival, that makes us equal to the tasks our trouble sets us. Thus, understanding our understanding tends to be encouraging. We realize we are made to get the point. If people will be patient with us, and we will be patient with ourselves, we can master much more than we initially expect.
Fifth, we deal with judging, which differs somewhat from understanding. Understanding produces bright ideas, things that may be so, hypotheses. Judging is the process of checking out our bright ideas, finding whether they hold water. It may be a good idea to put fifty thousand dollars into your cousin's new bologna business, but it may also be the way to lose your shirt. If you are prudent, you will ask many questions about the business he is starting and not give him your money until you're convinced he's prepared a good thing. Wise people are those with good judgment. Wise people have a nose for what is bologna and what is prime rib. They do not act on every bright idea. They take time for testing, getting more information, assuring themselves an idea is solid.
Sixth, one of the key moments in a good process of judging comes when we take stock of our prejudgments - the prejudices, in favor or against, that we brought to the matter in question. Suppose, for example, that you never could stand luncheon meat. Or suppose, to the contrary, that you've loved bologna, ballpark franks, salami and pepperoni and Polish sausage since the cradle. To make a good decision about your cousin's venture, you'd better get your feelings about bologna out on the table. Otherwise, irrational factors could cloud your judgment. Otherwise, pictures of luscious sandwiches could leave you fifty thousand dollars poorer.
Seventh, having gone through some of the operations that constitute thinking, I invite you to take possession of your mind and learn how to enjoy it. Thinking should be a pleasure. Learning should be lifelong and delightful. However, so many people have bad memories of school that perhaps a majority of the population limps along without such pleasure and delight. That is a shame, because it inhibits careful, disciplined thinking and so keeps millions mired in their troubles more than they need be.
When we do not feel pressured, as though the worst of our old teachers were popping a quiz, our minds are naturally inquisitive. Indeed, they are even naturally judicious: When calm, we are quick to sniff out nonsense, slow to get taken in by wild ideas. And this judiciousness, like solving practical puzzles, brings with it a distinctive pleasure. For then we know that we are being especially human, are exercising uniquely human gifts.
Eighth, I say a few things about intellectual patience, which is a virtue especially useful to people who find themselves in trouble. The more we can quiet our minds and pay attention, the more likely we are to get a handle on our troubles - start to bring them under our control. The first step to bringing them under our control is understanding the mess we find ourselves in: how we got there, what the proportions of our trouble are. In the beginning our great enemy is panic. Intellectual patience defends us against panic, both in the beginning and through to the end.
Ninth and last, we deal with intellectual peace. This tends to occur at the end of struggling with our troubles, but we can also experience it while in the middle. The major stimulus to a sense of intellectual peace is a little progress in understanding where we find ourselves. As soon as we make progress, we start to think that the situation is not hopeless. Then it becomes possible to relax a bit, gather our confidence, and enjoy a patch of peace. We may experience deep peace only when our trouble is resolved completely. Only a full remission of cancer or Jill's having gone five years without a drink may let us feel completely free of anxieties. But every bit of progress in understanding our situation and mastering it invites us to trust that we can do the job handed us. And every increase in such trust invites us to be peaceful - confident that the divine mystery holds us in good hands.
We begin with data. Data are facts, "givens," the information determining the trouble or situation in which we find ourselves. We are so many years old, so many dollars wealthy, in such and such health, possessed of such and such a history. This is the first, or the fifth, or the eleventh time that we've bounced a check, mismanaged our finances, gotten ourselves in an embarrassing corner. Last time we swore off credit cards. Why did we get a new Visa and start overspending again? Last time we went to a credit counselor. Why did we lurch off the budget on which she placed us?
These are the kinds of facts and questions we need to assemble at the outset of dealing with any given trouble. Often we know all the relevant facts, at least the first tier, because they are part of our life's story. But sometimes we do not know them, especially when our trouble comes from someone else, and often there are further facts we ought to consider, though we don't realize this at the outset.
In general, we cannot have too much information about our situation. Yes, a few people tend to overdose on facts, usually as a protection against making decisions. But many more people remain stuck in their troubles because they are too stunned or afraid to start investigating - assembling the basic facts. Like a good reporter, we need to know, minimally, who-what-where-when-how-why. Who is this guy that cannot stop taking dope? What does his dope problem amount to in terms of money spent, time wasted, jobs lost, people hurt, damage to his health, and so forth? Where does he get his dope, take it, hang out with fellow addicts? When did he begin, when does he usually shoot up, when he has ever stopped or shown remorse? How does he talk about his problem, think about it? How might you stop his current patterns of drug abuse, protect yourself from the harm they are doing you, safeguard your children from following him? Why do you find yourself in this situation? Why didn't you see he was becoming addicted? Why did you marry him in the first place?
Some readers of this book will find that the data most relevant to their situation show them locked into behavior that is obsessive or compulsive. They keep overspending, or overeating, or drinking too much. Habitually they use tranquilizers wrongly, or beat their kids, or engage in incest. The first step toward changing this behavior is acknowledging it. Perhaps nothing is more courageous, more to be encouraged. When the data accuse us of serious wrongdoing, we have to treasure reform - the restoration of what is right - more than any image of righteousness. Any people who help us believe that honoring what is right is worth the great pain it can require are great benefactors. Anytime we realize the challenge latent in "facing the facts." we sense the claims of God on our conscience. It can sound fashionable, glib, to call people of conscience "heroes." The plain reality, though, is that telling the truth, owning up to the facts about one's life and self, is the foundation of all maturity. There are no heroes in God's sight who are not people of conscience. There are no saints, no admirable pilgrims even, who fudge the facts and refuse to begin at the beginning.
Some of the questions at the beginning are-clearly painful. Even the first step toward thinking clearly about your trouble - gathering what basic information you can - may make high demands. So you've got to realize, perhaps by getting others to reinforce the fact, that until you take your head out of the sand and face up to the facts, you'll never make any progress. Your pain will only continue, in all probability getting worse. Your frustration and fear will keep mounting, because you'll be like an animal, scampering around without understanding.
In the beginning of any cure, any good handling of trouble, lies a great act of courage: facing the facts. When you are able to say, "I have cancer and must do something about it," or "I am an alcoholic; clearly I need help," or "Jay shows all the signs of being a cokehead; I've got to find out," you're on the way to changing sour bad situation.