A dialectic is a conversation between people holding radically different–even opposing–points of view about a topic for the purpose of establishing the truth. It is not a debate. It is an exchange.
I have, nearly always, a dialectic in my head. At its most extreme, the dialectic goes like this:
Thought A: “Life is unbearable. There is no point to all of this suffering. I will fail anyway. I want to die.”
Thought B: “I fought very long and very hard for this life. I very badly want to live.”
Both thoughts are true. It is not a matter of choosing a correct set of thoughts. Life is sometimes unbearably painful. I do want it all to end sometimes. And I also want to continue with this business of living at any cost.
Truth, in my mind, accommodates all of the facts, not just the facts that accord with the point of view I prefer. It doesn’t make sense, on the one hand, to ignore the fact of my intense suffering at some times simply because it makes me think things I don’t really want to think. Nor does it make sense to me to ignore my desire to live simply because it would be a lot easier on me and less painful if I did away with myself.
One consequence, at least for me, of having grown up in a religious cult that told me what to think is that I have a great respect for the truth. And, by truth, I don’t mean the truth according to someone else based on their own biases or preconceived notions, dreams or psychotic delusions. That is the kind of “truth” I grew up with. And it is not any kind of truth. That kind of truth is a lie.
I mean truth as based on the evidence. Truth that accommodates all of the facts. Truth that shifts when we know more or different facts.
Not a truth that is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” as we used to say when I was growing up and as they probably still say. A responsive truth. An evidence-based truth.
I think that’s at the core of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and while this isn’t a plug for it exactly, it is probably the closest to what I actually do with myself.
In cognitive-behavior therapy, the main idea is to change how you think.
In psychoanalytic therapy, the goal is to change the self.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) begins with acceptance, rather than an immediate focus on change. It accepts the dialectic and assumes that sometimes contradictory and opposing views are both true. We do not need to choose between them, although we do need to choose our actions and our choices about our actions will come out of both of these contradictory truths.
Consequently, I can both want to live and want to die. I do not have to deny some part of myself or my experience in order to maintain my sanity. But choices based on all of the facts might involve taking steps to diminish my suffering so that it feels less unbearable when it is at its worst, while continuing to persist in this business of living.
Rather than trying to adopt a new viewpoint, a central idea in DBT is to try to expand one’s viewpoint, and to look for facts that might have been missed. I like that.
I like that because I generally think we make the best choices when we make decisions based on all of the facts, or at least as many as it is possible to know rather than when we make choices based on a rigid belief.
It’s hard to explain exactly why being freed up to make decisions without sacrificing any of my ability to think or feel might be important to me. But I can tell that it’s really the reason I worked so hard to escape from the captivity of my childhood is to have that freedom within my own mind.
There was once a therapist I stopped seeing for a while, because every time I left a session I felt unbearable despair. It wore off after a while, and I would begin to see that life wasn’t as pointless or hopeless as I had initially felt. But I wasn’t in a good place at that point in my life. And I didn’t think more despair was really such a good idea. Despair, after a while, distorts our thinking. Things that really are not a good idea start to make sense.
So I took a break.
What I think now led to that despair was having the impression that I needed to begin to ignore some of the facts in order to think what she believed I should think. And if I did that, what would be the point of ever having lived?
In the process of trying to heal from extensive childhood trauma, I’ve tried to keep a place in my mind for all of the facts as I know them, and to simply look for more facts that I might have missed. So, one of the facts as I know it is that people do cruel and sadistic things to anyone they can. Another is that life is unpredictable. Unexpected things happen–both of the good and bad sort. And we are also fragile. We die. We hurt. We suffer.
The facts that I might miss would be that not everyone is cruel. Life is sometimes predictable. Sometimes we survive.
I’m not trying to learn how to be more trusting of others, nor am I trying to believe I am safe. I am trying to live with my fragility and with the untrustworthiness of others and of the world. I am trying to see everything that is. And live with that.