As I matured as a therapist, I started integrating elements of Buddhism into the psychodynamic approach in which I had been trained. (I believe Marsha Linehan did something similar in creating DBT, and I enjoyed Jack Kornfield’s book, A Path With Heart.) In particular, I have always been stirred by the simple wisdom in AA’s Serenity Prayer. As we stop banging our heads against the walls of things we cannot change, we have more energy to affect things we can change. I have tried to help patients find comfort and their own paths forward by accepting the many forces before which we stand helpless. I have shared that wisdom with my own children. And like Alice in Wonderland, sometimes I even try to follow my own advice.
Recently I posted a blog on my flight before the fury of Hurricane Irene on the Atlantic Coast. I didn’t know it when I wrote the blog, but soon after, the worst devastation from the storm hit not along the coast, but inland—particularly with flooding in Vermont. This week Tropical Storm Lee pounded my community in Central Pennsylvania with record floods.
When I first heard about global warming, I assumed the slow process of year-by-year temperature elevations would take many decades to affect real life. But climate scientists say the short-term effect is to increase weather volatility. When I moved from the desert southwest to Wisconsin in 2007, I expected a personal climate change—but not the record-breaking snowfall that began the day I arrived in Madison. Record-breaking snow followed me to Hershey, Pennsylvania, the week I moved here after Christmas in 2009. And this week my hospital was briefly isolated, I had to wade home through serious flooding, roads and buildings collapsed, our municipal sewage system has gone down, and I worry about weekend coverage for inpatients at our psychiatric hospital.
I can make small, personal efforts to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gases. But I am helpless against nature’s fury when it appears. I can try to take reasonable steps to be prepared, and when disasters strike, I can work with colleagues and my community to help those in need. But truly we are small, and natural forces are immense. As doctors, we seldom cure, but usually we can attenuate symptoms and relieve suffering. I try to acknowledge what I can’t change and focus on what I can.
The pounding I saw from two back-to-back tropical storms taught me one other thing: the necessity of the social compact we call government. My state and community have good infrastructure, and today President Obama declared this a disaster area, allowing federal assistance. While some congressional representatives and presidential candidates rail against all government as evil and unnecessary, I realize that a well-functioning government is people helping people. It’s who we are, and it gives us more options and help in the face of powerful forces.
-Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Editor, Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Shively/Tan Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry