Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2013 - Volume 13, No. 11
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Life is Difficult, but it is Good

I know this isn’t always true for everyone. But in my work as in my life, when I have no-place else to go in terms of belief and faith, and the realities I see before me - it’s where I go to anchor myself. It could be simply an antidote to burning out. But I’m certain it’s more than that - it’s the “place” I hold for those whom I counsel, as well as the guiding philosophy of my own life. And though it’s come close, it has never betrayed me.

The semantics

Let me comment on the semantics (the study of word meanings and relationships) of the statement itself. It’s a two part sentence, with the parts joined by the word “but.” Reverse the parts with the “but” still intact, and you’ll find quite a different meaning.  

The semantic rule here is that whenever a two-part statement is made, the first part followed by a “but,” the “but” erases all that has just been said, and the second part effectively stands alone. When counseling couples, this becomes an important guideline. “Yes, that dress looks stunning on you dear, but it is a bit tight in the hips.” Reverse the order of the parts and you have a much better chance of surviving the evening.


“Life is difficult” is undeniably true for many - which is why why they seek out my services. And it’s important that I can accept them in their reality. What’s most important in mental health work is what do you you say after you accept your client’s suffering? In many cases it’s not easy to accept what they bring you. 

An analog could be what do you say to a person who has just been diagnosed with a debilitating disease?

It’s usual that we have a number of choices. I can say they’re delusional, that their reality is “wrong.” - and undoubtedly be the 100th person to have told them that.  I can tell them they’re at  fault - which they already ‘know’ deep within their being. Someone can come up with a chemical answer - better living through pharmacy. Medication can be a godsend, or simply a way for the patient and the therapist to each avoid the deep pain involved. If avoiding pain is the highest good in a particular case, or a particular time, it is good medicine. But (that word again) I find many are seeking a therapist who will help them accept the pain and find “the goodness of life” in the midst of or in spite of it. The insurance companies don’t have many codes for that. 

Sometimes being a therapist means having lots of answers, or at least a handful that will work for each particular person. I've been at this now for 36 years, and I've got quite a few tricks up my sleeve. 

Many times it just means staying with them, guiding them as they seek their own answers and direction from that place which is richest within them, their own authentic self.

When I don’t have answers, I don’t have to pretend that I do. But I will stay with them, and struggle with them, and encourage them, and honor their spirit. And I will let them go when they are ready to move on from their work with me.    

Up to zero

In the medical way of looking at things, mental health problems are seen as illnesses. Depression, anxiety, phobias, and many other ‘psychiatric’ problems are categorized and coded as illnesses, the purpose of therapy thereby being to eliminate as much as possible the malady - bringing the patient (in my terms) up to zero.  That’s the meaning of the first half of my sentence - “life is difficult” and the purpose of therapy is to eliminate the difficulty.  Period.  And, in many cases, insurance will pay for that, especially if it’s accomplished quickly (no frills), and in a manner that fits their established protocols.  


I began to realize a while ago that many of my clients don’t just want an alleviation of their suffering, they want a life. And for many the latter becomes more important than the former. I’ll sometimes call it “waking up.”

In many cases I’ll consider that problems such as depression and anxiety (and many other diagnoses) are more like a GPS unit that says you’re off track, off the track of a real or authentic life - and the ‘disease’ can be a signal that triggers the need and work of “recalculating.” Mine has an English female voice - which is frequently turned off. 

I’m amazed how many clients come to see me around the ages of 40 (39-41) and 50 (49-51). These are themselves primary “recalculating” times in life. Most lives come to a point of “recalculating” - whether one chooses to pay attention or not. It seems to be an integral part of adult development. And I trust it to lead to that which supersedes the former. That trust is central to my work.

The struggle for a Life.

For many, the awakened desire to have a life, what is often called a ‘real’ or an ‘authentic’ life - can make life even more difficult. (When my leg ‘falls asleep,’ the pain of its ‘awaking’ can be agonizing - though mercifully brief.) If a marriage has ‘died,’ there are choices. One is to leave the marriage, which itself involves a great many difficulties. Another is to rededicate oneself (this usually takes two) to rebuilding the marriage. That also involves a lot of struggle and difficulty. When a building has collapsed, to clean up the debris and rebuild from the rubble involves a lot of work - often more work than the initial construction.   


The goodness of life often does emerge from within difficulty or suffering. Not always, but in the case of my work, very often. So again, the semantic logic of my beginning sentence. Difficulty is very real, suffering is very real. “But” the hope or experience of life as “good” supersedes the struggle.  

May it be so for them. May it be so for me. And may it be so for each of you, my readers.

Pay attention    

Comments (2)

  • Bill,
    I find this to be right on for me and I am sure for many. Thank you for the words as when people ask me why and how, I never have an answer for them. I only know what works for me. You have it. The answer I think they are looking for.
    Thank you,

    — Carol, 11/1/2013
  • I try to eliminate the “but” as often as I’m aware of saying (usually texting)it. “However” seems to be a nice replacement word, although I like your concept of reversing the order of the two thoughts better. Hugs ~

    — Di Williams, 11/4/2013

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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