Meaning and Media

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A behavioral psychologist offered free care to a veteran after reading about his life with PTSD.

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Paul Gauguin, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" [mod by @faketv, via Wikimedia Commons]

Last summer I stopped practicing medicine. Now I professionally read and email, and occasionally write. I might go back to clinical work, but for now it's more important that I come into and out of work happy. I didn't at the hospital; I do now. So, good, right? At some point in almost every conversation I've had about career plans, the other person has said (verbatim or some variation on), if you're happy that's all that matters.

Last week we ran a piece by Emily Efsahani Smith titled "There's More to Life Than Being Happy." When she pitched the idea, I thought, no, there's not. A happy life is better than an unhappy one, end of story. But then she wrote it, really well, and you should read it because, it's not the end of the story at all.

She talks about the psychology of pursuing meaning, rather than happiness. She quotes one study in which researchers said, "Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed, or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided." She also quotes Victor Frankl: "Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy."

It seems like finding meaning as a physician would be easier when you're at someone's bedside or doing great research. As a writer,  it's thrilling when people compliment your work, but it is ephemeral. Definitely in the happiness rather than the meaning category. You'd have to be pretty relentlessly narcissistic for it to be a sustainable day-to-day motivation.

That's a long-winded background to tell you about this thing that happened yesterday. So, another piece we ran last week was called "The Urgent Need for Confidential Psychological Care for U.S. Military." It was written by a woman using a pseudonym, Caroline Brown, about her husband's ongoing PTSD. Since returning from Afghanistan, where he served the United States as a Marine on multiple tours, he has been having uncontrollable violent outbursts.

The smallest things, that never bothered him before, would set him off -- he would be laughing with me one minute, punching walls the next. We patched up numerous holes in the drywall, replaced broken furniture, and even needed a new car windshield.

Her husband doesn't feel that he can get psychiatric care from the military-provided practitioners because of stigma when the other Marines find out, and because as a policy the military mental health specialists can't guarantee confidentiality. But he also can't go to a civilian psychiatrist because military health insurance doesn't cover it. Brown argues that theirs isn't a unique set circumstances, calling attention to a widespread need for confidential psychiatric care for U.S. military servicepeople.

Then yesterday The Atlantic got a call from a D.C.-based behavioral therapist, Dr. Mary Lee Esty. She had read Brown's piece and wanted to offer her services to Brown's husband, at no cost. 

In our subsequent email exchange, she also explained:

I am currently treating a retired Major from the midwest. The Wounded Warrior Project is paying for part of his lodging here. (The treatment is free.) I might be able to raise some private funds to complement his expenses but that is not easy to do. I have a 501-C3 and some generous and grateful clients have donated some funds that have made it possible to continue to treat our veterans and I do not want to turn anyone away.

It's awesome when anyone is proactive enough to read about an ill and take action, much less offer to care for a disabled veteran. What Esty and her colleagues are doing should get our sincere respect and appreciation. She's not just sharing the story on her Facebook wall, but actually looking up our number and acting right away to make a thing better. 

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 
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