Of Internal Convictions

    More often than I care to count, my patients are plagued by the notion that they are misunderstood and others don’t think “well enough” of them.

    Yesterday a young lady came in tears as her professor believed she didn’t make enough progress on her thesis as he expected. “I worked really hard and here he thought I was lazy.”

    I told her of the moment in Bridge of Spies, when the young Powers, sitting on the plane after the exchange, desperately tried to tell people that he didn’t betray his country when the CIA “point man” refused to listen. Mr. Donovan turned to him and said, “It doesn’t matter what people think. You know what you did.”

    The film has many layers that goes far beyond the scope of this blog so I will focus only on one related point – a “healthy” man is a man who follows only his internal compass and is able and willing to “ignore” all the “noises” that come from the external world.

    In Mr. Donovan’s case, he defended Abel the way he believed he ought to and refused to break client confidentiality to the CIA, even when his family was threatened and the public treated him as the “enemy”. Later on he conducted the exchange the way he thought it had to be done instead of simply following “orders”. He was what Abel endearing described as “standing man” and what I’d call a man who is capable of swimming against the current whenever necessary, no matter the external cost.

    In terms of Abel, he refused to take the “easy way out” proposed by the US government as in becoming a double agent for money and willingly accepted the consequences of the possibility of execution or life in prison. The telling moment came when he told Mr. Donovan that his future in the Soviet Union was uncertain as he was about to be exchanged, “I acted honorably and I think they know that. But sometimes people think wrong. People are people.” What was extremely interesting was that at two particular turning points – when Abel was possibly facing the death penalty and might be shot by his own people “back home” – Mr. Donovan asked if he was worried, his reply was always a stoic “would it help?” Abel’s “signature” reply defined his “mental health” to me: He acted according to his internal guidance and refused to worry about events he could not control even though his life may be at stake.

    My patient understood the point of “standing man” and that she was best to only be concerned about what she believes herself to be instead of worrying if her professor might think “ill” of her. Of course, intellectually comprehending the concept is merely the first step. Being able to be at peace with such points takes much emotional work.

    “I know what I did”, she said, “I’ll work on that”.

    Indeed, I’d encourage everyone to ponder on this matter if one’s aim is to arrive on the plane of a healthy “interior”.


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