How to spot the ‘bright stars’ in our lives and find peace after a difficult year

Listen 5:19
Dr. Dan Gottlieb

Dr. Dan Gottlieb says if you want a sense of well-being, you're more likely to experience that feeling by helping others. (Courtesy of WHYY's Fresh Air)

Over seven years ago, WHYY’s Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn produced the radio show “Voices in the Family” with psychologist Dan Gottlieb. Dan hosted great conversations about mental health and well-being. You still can hear him most Mondays on Morning Edition, speaking with Maiken Scott, host of WHYY’s The Pulse.

Jennifer spoke with Dan about gaining some traction in the new year which, for some people, begins by cleaning house: drawers and closets and the spaces in our minds that hold on to loss, difficulties, and trauma.

Leave it to Dan to make a reference to the old show they used to work on together.

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I’m Dan Gottlieb and this is Voices in the Family.

Dan!

Sorry, I got confused for a minute.

It’s like Downhome Day. I love those years helping to produce “Voices in the Family.” People still run into me in the grocery store and they’re like, “I remember the show that Dan did on generosity or self-compassion.” I mean, your words just are living forever.

It’s really touching. I can’t get over how fortunate I am to be able to have those words.

Yeah. I get words from people who listen to the morning. I recently got a note from, I’m just going to go by her first name, Salina. Salina really is helping me set up my new year. Salina said that, certainly there was a lot of sorrow that needs to be acknowledged from this past year, but there are a few bright stars that peer through the clouds of the night sky that help us stay encouraged and hopeful. Do you think of it that way, that there are these bright stars out there that can kind of keep us lifted?

My personal belief is that there are bright stars in there, the bright stars in all of us, our resilience, our ability to find our way through life’s difficulties to pursue life itself.

Yeah, I also see these bright stars as something that gives us a sense of control and peace.

Which is great when we feel that way. The problem is, like everything else, it doesn’t last. And then we have to deal with … when we feel as though everything is not under our control. And how do you deal with that?

How do you deal with that?

Most people who’ve experienced trauma — myself included — after the trauma, we either beat ourselves up, or beat up the people who harmed us, or rail out to God, or tell ourselves we can’t live with this. And then there’s a point where we say to ourselves, “OK, what now?” And that’s when everything changes. That’s when we reclaim control of our lives, when we stop fighting with the truth of our lives, fighting for what we had yesterday or what we think we should have today or what we want tomorrow. When we stop fighting, we get a better sense of control.

There’s control in choosing not to fight.

Right.

Dan, you’ve recently recorded a really wonderful heart-to-heart conversation with another psychologist, Tara Brock. She’s an author and a guiding teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C. She said, when you hit your edge, soften, remember what you love. It will ripple out in a powerful, beautiful way.

That reminds me of a poem I have in my office. It’s been there for many, many years. It’s by [Guillaume] Apollinaire and the poem is, “’Come to the edge,’ he said. ‘No, it’s too high,’ we said. ‘Come to the edge,’ he said. ‘No, we might fall.’ ‘Come to the edge, he said.’ And we came. And he pushed and we flew.”

I love this idea of the flying part. I’ll go back to that listener letter that I spoke about in the very beginning. Some of that letter talked about last year, though it was dark for many people, Salina was able to do many things, even start writing a book, even continue some advocacy work to help others in various communities. That is flying, isn’t it?

Exactly. And that, Jennifer, is if you want a sense of well-being, you’re more likely to experience that feeling by helping others.

Well, thank you, Dan.

It’s been my pleasure. It’s so good talking with you, Jennifer.

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