A bunch of old, dead philosophers nobody's ever heard of walk into a bar and talk about how shitty life is....
The Buddha is reported to have said something along the lines of, “All life is suffering.” This is one of the Four Noble Truths, but I have to wonder about the translation. All of life is uncomfortable, but I don’t know if all of life suffers. Most days I personally don’t “suffer,” but I am generally uncomfortable. Whenever I randomly look out a window, I usually see birds, or rabbits, or people, or wasps, or butterflies, or whatever, and they’re generally not appearing to suffer when I gaze out upon them. Honestly, most animals don’t even look all that uncomfortable when I look at them. They are usually pretty content.
Regardless, it is my assertion that every counselor needs to be intimately acquainted with the discomfort of existence. This is the one attribute that should be mandatory of all counselors, or of anyone in any of the “helping” professions.
Now, as humans, we are all probably “intimately acquainted” with the discomfort of existence. However, most of us don’t really explore it or try to make sense of it in any way. Most of us do our best to simply ignore or numb ourselves to the discomfort. Many of us actually are in such an absent-minded pursuit of ridding ourselves of this affliction of discomfort that we don’t even realize that that’s what we’re doing. We’re constantly shopping for the right piece of cold, dead matter that will make our life complete. Or we’re using drugs that will allow us to enter a reality that, momentarily at least, isn’t so uncomfortable. Or we chase an adrenaline rush that allows us to momentarily believe that we can get the better of life. Or we search for the one person who will take the discomfort away once and for all.
Most of us have not really sat with the discomfort and tried to learn from it.
This, unfortunately, includes most counselors.
You can tell how much time a person has spent with their discomfort based on how they treat other people. Truly compassionate and empathetic people have spent a lot of time with their discomfort and have learned from it. Some counselors have a tendency to talk down to clients or seem to want clients to believe the counselor is the “expert” and has everything figured out. But anybody who has spent any actual time with their discomfort knows that there are no real answers for how to deal with it. Or, perhaps more accurately, there isn't one or two ways of dealing with it that work for everyone. One must discover what soothes their ailing heart on one's own. And, maybe, one's heart is never really . And when we work with other people who are also not sure how to deal with it, the counseling process becomes one of discovery rather than simply advice-giving or prognostication.
This is true of all things, of course. A truly great artist is one who asks questions rather than answers them. This is how discovery and innovation occurs. And since any human activity—including the living of life itself—can be considered an “art” it is the mind that is open to discovery and innovation that has the greatest impact on their craft. A carpenter, for example, that thinks they have carpentry all figured out, is not capable of discovering anything novel about their craft. The same holds true for a mechanic, or a chef, or a teacher, or a small business owner, or, yes, even a counselor. But if one, instead, acknowledges that we don’t really know, then suddenly anything becomes possible.
Back in ancient Greece and Rome, the original counselors, as far as I can tell, were the philosophers. Because, back then, philosophy was all about living "the good life." And people come to counselors today because they're not living the good life and they want to figure out how. So the old philosophers were the counselors. They would pontificate on the good life, and their students would listen. Read the discourses of Epictetus, for example-- he was basically just leading group therapy sessions, trying to get his students to change the way they thought about life, and the way they viewed the events that happened to them as they tried to go about being happy.
Epictetus, of course, was a Stoic. Stoicism was just one of a whole bunch of philosophical schools in those times. There were, of course, for example, the Epicureans, who the Stoics despised, because the Epicureans believed in taking it easy, hanging out with your friends and trying to make life as enjoyable as possible. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed, much like Buddha, that life was inherently uncomfortable and one needed to learn to embrace the discomfort and become, essentially, comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Now, the Stoics tended to be pessimistic and their philosophy was an incomplete one. The Epicureans weren't mindless hedonists. They too acknowledged the inherent discomfort of existence, but they simply thought that if one lived simply and with little wants, one could minimize the discomfort and be pretty happy. But there's no need to get into the whole debate between the Epicureans and Stoics. What's important here is the Stoic outlook in general. This idea of being comfortable in discomfort.
The old Daoist hippie, Laozi, once wrote something along the lines of, "If something good happens--good. If something bad happens--good."
This is sort a good summation of the Stoic philosophy, and it is, at the end of the day, probably the only outlook that allows for a truly contented life, because, as anyone who has been alive can attest to, bad shit happens, all the time, even--especially--when we don't want it to.
But it's so much easier said than done. And if one hasn't, one's self, at least dabbled with putting this philosophy into action, then one has no business helping someone else do so.
This is the problem with so much of "self-help" or "spiritual" literature these days. Things like "The Secret," when all is said and done, promise the reader that they can prevent the bad shit from happening to them. But it's not only The Secret that does this, of course. The crux of most self-help ideals is that if you want something bad enough, if you attract something bad enough, if you work hard enough, if you work smart enough, if you trust God enough, if you live in the present enough, if you are mindful enough, you can stop all the bad shit from happening. You will not fail. You will not be disappointed. You will become the next Oprah.
All of this is nonsense, of course. The real "secret" of life is that it's uncomfortable, constantly, and you either learn to tread in the discomfort, or you drown in it. And, often, the more we resist or try to avoid the discomfort, the more uncomfortable we make our lives, because we make unreasonable decisions that reduce the discomfort in the short term, while increasing it in the long-term (such as with the aforementioned behaviors of drug use, overeating, oversexing, overshopping, etc.).
That creepy little weasel Nietzsche got one thing right and it was this--that one has to embrace the shitpile that is life and not try to clean it up. Not try to pretend it's something it's not. But to acknowledge the shitpile that is life, and learn to not only be ok with it, but to embrace it to the fullest. Love the shitpile. Make like a dung beetle and dance in the motherfucker if you have to, because, at the end of the day, this shitpile is the only one the Universe has given any of us. And we can waste the limited minutes wishing it wasn't a shitpile and then die mostly tired, wasted and unhappy. Or, we can die knowing that-- if fate is (or spacetime) is a cruel master and we must relive the life we have lived over and over again for all of Eternity--we made the most of it and would not be deflated to learn that we have to live it all over again.
Before we close, let's return briefly to Epictetus, who, I think, presents an idea/ideal that helps us circumscribe the issue of counselors being smug dipshits whose clients secretly detest them (as brought up in previous posts). Epictetus once told his students that he was not a doctor. He did not wander the hospital diagnosing what was wrong with everyone and then prescribing the cure for their ills. No. Epictetus wasn't a dipshit, so he didn't do such a thing. Instead, he said that, instead, he was also a patient in the hospital, lying in the bed next to you, and he was offering you medicine that he had already tried and knew worked.
This should be what a counselor is. A counselor is just a client who has sat long enough with the discomfort to have some sort of idea of how to help one deal with it. This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Between a doctor and a healer.
Perhaps it should be noted that Epictetus himself had been born a slave and a cripple. And through his own successful travails with discomfort, earned his freedom. And through his dedication to empathy and helping others learn to cope with their own discomfort, he's still being referenced and quoted by idiot asshole bloggers 2000 years later.