Updated: Oct 10, 2021
"The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n."
For the last decade I have been working exclusively in private practice, primarily with relationship issues, and the quote from John Milton, written in 1667, still rings true today. People truly have the ability to, albeit unwittingly, make their lives a heaven or hell. But, probably the saddest bit is when one decides they prefer hell. It is curious to me that folks will choose hell, but consider a few lines down in Milton's poem this amazing observation:
"...Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n."
Granted these lines are referencing Satan getting thrown out of heaven and into hell, but consider the deeper psychological implications. Most of us, despite what is good for us, will choose Hell because we feel free, secure and able to pursue our own ambitions even if it is in "Hell". And in the final line of the above quote, one of the most famous of the whole poem, is not all that shocking because it is true, we humans would rather "reign" in any place of our choosing even if it is hell.
You might be wondering what is so wrong with the pursuit of our own ambitions, freedoms and so forth? On the surface, not much, but the moment you add another person to the mix you must decide wether or not you are going to serve in heaven or reign in hell. In other words, you must forgo your individual ambitions because you now belong to another, and them to you. You must sacrifice selfish desires to gain a life where you are no longer alone. I am sure many will disagree, and of course there is nuance, but a relationship, when focused on one is not a relationship at all.
To make this less abstract and more practical let me describe, in short, what I see almost every day in my office, specifically with couples. One or both of the members typically demanded that they are right or more right then the other, thus creating an immediate divide, devolving from humility, and shutting down listening and openness. Following the demand that one is right I often notice the rebuttal quickly forming in the mind of the other, because of course they know better. So then things escalate to idiocracy, meaning the higher function parts of our brains are turned off, and we become reactionary animals focused solely on protecting our own subjective truths, or ego. Now you see, "the mind is it's own place" where we can create a hell out of heaven, and by heaven I mean our most precious relationships. Who needs the devil when we have our pride? And if we are free to create our own idea of right who can tell us that we are wrong?
So what's to be done about it? Well, being a conceptual person I look to the last chapter of "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis to illustrate the point. I am not going to get into the details of the story as I want to focus your attention on a specific scene with Frank, a Dwarfed "Ghost", holding a chain clasped to the neck of the "Tragedian", or actor, or whatever he was. At this part in the story a Lady was trying to address Frank, and short story shorter, the Tragedian would speak in response, and each time this happened Frank became shorter and shorter, to the point that he disappeared, and eventually so did the Tragedian. The striking part is that Frank was holding the chain and did not speak for himself. Had he let go of the chain holding this actor, or demon, or whatever, he would have found himself free. But why hold on to the chain at all? Well, sometimes our misery is in our control, and we may rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. To me, the Tragedian represented, in some way, the terrible pride (issue/depression/fear or whatever) we hold onto which does not allow us to connect with those we love most.
So we let go of the chain because we want to be known, heard, loved, understood, respected, appreciated, and more. We let go of the chain to make this, already hard life, a little more like heaven, or at least better then what it is. We let go so we are not swallowed by our issues. So what do you really want? To protect your fragile pride so you can act as something more than you are? Or do you let go of the chain, eat humble pie, take responsibility, and own the fact that you know nothing and that the "person you are listening to might know something you don't" (Jordan Peterson). I know full well that letting go of the chain is hard, I fail at it often, but it is clear to me that this is better than reigning in hell. So let go of the chain ( pride, selfish ambitions, need to be right, ego, etc.) and move a little closer to the relationship you want by listening better, asking better questions, taking deep breaths, using kind words, expressing appreciation, and seeking help if you are struggling with this. I know it is complicated, I know it is not simple, but truly, "we're all as as lonely as we wanted be" (Jack Johnson), so if you need help, get it!