Grateful and Frustrated

Happy Thanksgiving.  A couple of days ago a friend on facebook explained that she had started to write down a list of things she was thankful for.  She set a goal of 50 but easily came up with 86 items and suggested that others follow her lead and perhaps set a goal of 100.  I have a lot to be thankful for, so because I am trying to move away from the more negative aspects of my deeply ingrained cynicism, I started to type.

1. Children 2. Parents.

I paused there and commented on her post.  “I started my list with children and parents and realized that my list is probably going to be more aptly titled, things I am grateful for that simultaneously frustrate me”.  As with most self hating, attention seeking, balding, bookish, Jewish comedians that want to please other people, a simple list like this can be difficult for me to get through without a little bit of humor.  Also, like most jokes, there’s a lot of truth to this sharp barb.

It is also true though that I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am trying to be more aware of that.  I am a filmmaker, and I tend to focus on making films that I either want, or need, to make, rather than what I believe people want to see.  That is to say, in a very un-American way, I think about the product first and then the marketing.  I understand what people generally like, but despite my aforementioned need to please others, I find it difficult to make work simply to please people.  My cynical side gets in the way.  However, I have been working on correcting this imbalance in my work and in my life, and I’m pleased to say that I’m making some progress.

For the last decade, my partners and I have been struggling to make a film about a doctor named John Sarno.  He is widely known as the author of several books on back pain, but very little is known about him because he has been very focused on his work and has done little to promote his books through the press.  It has taken so long to make the film because we have struggled to both find funding, and a way to tell the story.  Also, we have a great deal of respect for Dr. Sarno and his ideas and we want to make sure that we do this right.

The process of making the film has taught me not only a lot about the subject but also a great deal about myself.  The truth is, I am deeply grateful for the love and support of my parents, but I also find them, and their love and support, to be confusing and frustrating.  When we suppress the feelings that are confusing and frustrating they tend to cause dissonance (how can you say that your parents’ love and support frustrates you?).  The energy expended in denying feelings/truths pushes us out of balance, and this imbalance is at the heart of the problem.

In a nutshell, his theory about back pain, as he came to understand it, is that the pain does not have a physical genesis, but instead an emotional one.  He postulates that the unconscious suppression of emotions triggers the autonomic nervous system to deprive blood flow to sensitive areas of the body when the unconscious fears that long repressed thoughts might break free.  The pain acts as distraction so that the attention is diverted away from those thoughts.  He came upon this theory after many years of struggling to help patients using the standard care that he had been taught.  People came to his office reporting that they had herniated discs, but the pain that that they had often didn’t correlate with the site of their alleged injury.  Like his hero Sherlock Holmes, he was going through his patient’s charts looking for clues when he saw a pattern.  He discovered that over 80% of his patients had a history of illness with a psychosomatic, or mindbody, connection.  Most of them had a history of excema, psoriasis, ulcers, migraines, colitis, etc.

When he talked with his patients he found that the vast majority of them were people-pleasers.  They tended to tirelessly work to make sure others were happy and were often unaware of the fact that their efforts frustrated them.  Essentially, what he discovered was that the repression of emotions had an effect on their body. He found that when he simply got people to understand the connection between the repression and the pain, it often rapidly improved.  Over the next decades he honed his understanding of these ideas and he helped thousands of patients that came to see him and 100’s of thousands that read his books. However, his ideas don’t just pertain to back pain.  The repression of emotions leads to problems in all aspects of health.

Working on this film for 10 years has led me to do a lot of reading about research, philosophy, and religion.  It is clear that being grateful and generous are good for people’s well being.  It is also clear that being honest with ourselves is also important.  As such, my humorous response to the facebook post about being grateful was also a serious one.

Thanksgiving is a tough time for a lot of people and there will be a lot of migraines, stomach problems, and back pain in America.  However, the dangerous aspects of repression don’t just affect us on a personal level, but also as a culture.  I am very thankful that I grew up in America.  I know that my ancestors came here not only for opportunity, but also because it was likely they would have been killed if they had stayed where they were.  I also know that there are aspects of America’s past that we would rather repress.  Today, I will spend a lot of time practicing being grateful in a mindful and present way.  However, I will also take time to acknowledge a more realistic and balanced idea about the genesis of Thanksgiving.  An oppressed religious minority, acting as the vanguard of a colonialist enterprise, came to America with the foundational idea that because they believed in, and followed the precepts of  their god, then they had dominion over the heathens that did not believe in their god.   These heathens saved the pilgrims lives that year, and we can all be thankful for that. However, in the coming years their ancestors killed most of the heathens and ran them off their land.

This is the foundation on which this country was built.  We can be grateful for all of the good things that have come of these actions, but when we repress the complexity, we allow many of the same structures to exist.  I am grateful for Brown vs. Board of Education, which had its anniversary last week, but I am troubled by the fact that schools are more segregated now than they were when that decision was handed down.

However, I will enjoy my turkey, and I will enjoy my family, and when my back starts to hurt I will take it in stride.  I will also continue making my list of things I am simultaneously grateful for and frustrated by.

1. my children
2. my parents
3. my wife
4. taxes
5. my kid’s schools
6. my car
7. the pain in my foot that flares up to let me know I am repressing
8. success
9. religion
10. Thansgiving

  • Emily
    Posted at 17:27h, 28 November Reply

    Mike, Nicely done. Do we often repress things we are grateful for? I love the way you tied your thoughts all together. Here’s a wacky, sort of yogic, Zen thought — If we focus more on the side that gratifies us instead of the aspects that frustrate us, can these same things bring us more pleasure and less pain? After all, it’s all just information.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

    • Michael Galinsky
      Posted at 18:05h, 28 November Reply

      In the sense that cynicism represents an imbalance from gratitude this might be seen as repressing/failing to recognize things we might be grateful for, but I wasn’t suggesting that we repress what we should be grateful for. Instead I was suggesting that it might be unhealthy to focus on things that we are grateful for in a way that clouds or represses those less positive feelings. This is often done in a deeply ingrained and unconscious manner. I’m referencing Sarno in relation to this but also thinking a lot about Gabor Mate, and his book “When The Body Says No”. He ties the repression of emotions to a host of auto-immune diseases. Again, this repression is largely unconscious, so it takes some effort to recognize it. However, it is important to put forth that effort, not to embrace those bad feelings, but so that we might let them go. Happy Day!

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