Among the psychological problems that trouble my patients, none may be as common and debilitating as this: a foreshortened or rigidly bleak view of the future.
Traditionally, psychiatrists speak of this foreshortened view—a sense that one’s story is ending—as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. But I see this circumscribed perspective in the context of depression, too, as well as in the setting of significant loss—whether of a loved one, a job or a home. And I see it when medical illness steals one’s prior sense of vitality. It is as if the person were the writer of her own life story (as, of course, each of us is) and the ink in the pen she is holding seems as if it has run dry or darkened, ominously.
As a metaphorical writer of my own life story and as a writer of novels, I know this feeling. It is a profound sense of internal despair—as though the storyline of the character has gone so horribly wrong, or includes an unavoidable period of such great suffering, or has veered so far off the path that seems true to the character, that rescuing the storyline seems impossible.
At such moments, we, the “writers” of our own life stories, sense that an “edit” isn’t feasible (even though that would itself be daunting). We feel as though the manuscript is fundamentally flawed and cannot be rescued.
This is, by the way, never, ever true, and the fact that it is not is the best evidence for the existence of God (aka psychological rebirth) I have found in the world. As long as seconds are ticking on the clock, as long as a breath is being taken on the planet, as long as one person can remind you or me one time, with real empathy, that stories often course through horrifically dark chapters and, nonetheless, end well, then there is a next sentence to be written, and another day to be lived.
There is, in other words, always meaning unfolding in your life, even if you can’t quite see it or feel it or describe it. And the meaning has at its core potential goodness and light, even if you would swear otherwise. Every life story has the potential, regardless of how much it seems to have veered off course, regardless of how much suffering it includes, regardless of how much trouble has attended it, of turning into a triumph.
I know there are people reading this right now who swear otherwise. But consider this: No one walks out of a movie or throws a book in the garbage because, in the middle of the story, all seems lost for the hero or heroine. We instinctively understand that, no matter how bleak the circumstances, triumph or survival or redemption is still possible. We understand, at a basic, human level—in the emotional DNA we call the soul—that the main character’s life still has meaning. And so, we sit at the edge of our seats, or in tears, or in fear, in the dark, in that cinema. But we do not leave. And we turn the page of that book, perhaps with dread, but still, amidst the dread, with a modicum of hope. And that is enough. It is always enough.
I have seen parents who buried their children embrace their grandchildren in ways that other grandparents cannot. I have seen people who divorced twice, marry again, quite unexpectedly—occasionally remarrying the same spouse. I have seen people commit the most horrific acts imaginable, yet rediscover their capacity for humanity. I have seen men go bankrupt and either restore their material fortunes when they thought it impossible, or find invaluable treasures of spirit that were buried under material goods. I have seen people lose limbs and find balance. I have seen that a man or woman who sees nothing up ahead is missing the horizon, but that the horizon exists. It does exist.
I tell you this because so many of us will need to know it at some dark moment in our lives. And, perhaps, for a few, they will remember reading these words, which may reassure them of the existence of that which they can no longer see—the arc of their life stories continuing on, toward the good, toward light, toward learning, toward redemption, toward creativity, toward balance, toward possibility, toward courage and potential and love.
All this, which I have seen again and again and again, is around the corner, even when you (or I) might swear otherwise. You would know this with the certainty that I know it, were you to have sat with me in this office for these 20 years.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.