One of my favorite authors, Irvin Yalom, MD, is a psychotherapist who has written a book entitled Existential Psychotherapy. I’m sure I have mentioned him before. He has also written a great book (amongst others) on death and death anxiety entitled Staring at the Sun. In his book on existential psychotherapy, he addresses four major human existential concerns: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Within the area of freedom, he addresses responsibility and willing. He explains that a large part of human existence is taking responsibility for one’s own life and what happens to one’s self. Once we do that, we start to see the areas where we can take action. In the concept of “willing,” he explains that we must use our will to take action. We can often see ourselves as victims of circumstance, a poorly dealt hand, or bad genes. But until we take responsibility, we will not realize the “ability” we have to “respond.” When one responds to the existential predicament they are in with a sense of willingness to own it, they are taking action.
At some point, when we want our lives to be different we have to take action.
Yalom writes, “Change is the business of psychotherapy, and therapeutic change must be expressed in action – not knowing, intending, or dreaming.” This is very poignant for me as a therapist, for my clients, or for all of us as human beings. What are my clients doing if not trying to bring about some new way of being? What am I doing as a therapist if not trying to help people take new action in their lives? People come to therapy to try and change. There is nothing wrong with new insights and gaining a better understanding of one’s self. This is a large part of therapy and it helps to free people up to begin taking action. For others, inaction is the real problem. Some people struggle with the first step and feel stuck in what they feel might be the way their life will be forever. To some degree Yalom would say this person is not taking responsibility. We must work together on his/her ability to respond as the author of his/her own life.
One must change in order to change. It may be overly simplistic, but it can be overly difficult in some areas of our lives. What is keeping us from taking that next step? After Jesus healed a lame man he told him to “take up your mat and walk.” Jesus was not only healing this man in the traditional sense, but also helping him to see his ability to respond. Jesus was encouraging this man to own his life and move forward instead of just lying by the pool waiting around to be healed. When we are waiting around to be healed, we will be waiting a long time. When we begin to take action, putting one foot in front of the other, that is when the true healing begins. A profound insight, a religious experience, or feeling motivated by a speaker, all fall short in actualizing change. They can help instigate it, but until we have changed we have not changed.