Getting Used to Stuff: A Conversation with Daniel Gottlieb

Getting Used to Stuff: A Conversation with Daniel Gottlieb

“Thank God for GPS,” sighs psychologist, family therapist, radio host, and author Daniel Gottlieb, rolling into the Jewish Community Center in Bridgewater, New Jersey. If it were possible to shuffle quickly in a motorized wheelchair, Gottlieb would be doing so. Since a catastrophic car accident in 1979, he has been quadriplegic with limited use of his arms and hands, and he’s just negotiated a labyrinthine journey to discuss his new book, Learning from the Heart: Lessons on Living, Loving, and Listening (Sterling Publishing), with the Ohr Tikvah Jewish Healing Center community (

I’ve loved Gottlieb since reading his last book, Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life, and I’m nervous. He smiles big, extending a limp but amazingly warm hand, and when I hold it I don’t want to let go. I ask permission to touch him to pin on the microphone. “One of the benefits of being a quad is people touching you,” he says. And I find myself grinning. Gottlieb listens patiently as I suggest a discussion topic, and then launches into a discourse on humanity, faith, and resilience:

DANIEL GOTTLIEB: I was reading Tuesdays with Morrie, and Morrie says early on in his disease, “Oh my God, someday somebody’s gonna have to wipe my ass,” and I’m thinking, oh, you’ll get used to it. We get used to stuff. That’s my experience of humans. And underpinning that is faith — not in some external, divine power, but just faith in my own spirit — that I can bear fear, sadness, despair. I know I can because I have. Everybody has, but we don’t notice that we get through it. We know in our heads, but we don’t generate faith in our resilience.

BETSY ROBINSON: How can we generate faith?

dg: I guess the same way we get to Carnegie Hall. [Laughter]

br: But really?

dg: Just wake up; wake up to your life. Just know, notice what you’re experiencing. And then notice it more. And then notice it with compassion. And then maybe even with love. Maybe.

br: What do you do if you’re in relationship with someone who isn’t trying to wake up or someone who hurts you or the world?
dg: I’m going to bastardize a quote from Les Misérables: Victor Hugo said something to the effect of, “In darkness, the pupil dilates as though searching for light. And in adversity, the heart dilates as though searching for God.” Think about the concept of the dilated heart which opens. What happens in a dilated heart? Well, that’s where peace is, and that’s where we find love. When the heart’s dilated, you’re just present. Present with ourselves, with others, fully present with the larger world. What closes your heart is anxiety and ruminations and thoughts and preoccupation and all those ego-based activities. You think, I have to get here in time — like when I was driving — I’m worried about tonight’s presentation, as though it’s about me. It’s not about me. It’s about them. So I ask everybody simply to notice when your heart’s open and closed. Just notice. When your heart’s open, you’re capable of love and compassion for the world, for yourself. And when your heart’s closed, at a certain level, you’re suffering. If your heart’s open and you see me saying or doing things that are harmful, you will know that my heart’s closed and I’m suffering. Simple but impossible. It takes a lifetime.

br: What about when you find yourself in a reaction and your heart’s closed, and your friend’s in a reaction too?

dg: Let me ask you something: If I’m your most trusted friend, and you’re suffering, what do you want from me? What do you need from me? What would you like?

br: Understanding. Compassion. Space.

dg: So if I get on your nerves and your heart’s closed and you’re reactive and you’re suffering, you need understanding and compassion — from you. If your heart’s closed, feel your heart. I sometimes cross my arms across my chest, or I touch my face where I have sensation. Or I just feel my fingers; I feel my face with my fingers. And sometimes I shoot my mouth off, make a fool of myself, or get into a fight — all the stuff humans do.

br: Does it ever get easier?

dg: You know, I’ve said to people that I have a magic medication that’ll take away all their anguish forever. Nobody takes it.

br: What would the magic pill be?
dg: A lobotomy, death. Nobody takes me up on that because the pain is life. It’s a way of staying close to the people we’ve loved. That’s how I concluded Letters to Sam — nobody wants to exorcise any of their emotions. They just want more control over them. Good luck with that.

br: In Letters to Sam you told of your catheter breaking when you were with a patient — such an exposure and, therefore, dissipation of shame. Is that your message — there’s nothing to be ashamed of?

dg: I spoke to a man today, a client, in conflict with his brother. He said his brother has the outward appearance of competence and cool. And this man looks at himself and he says, “Inside I’m a weaker person.” I said, “What’s weakness to you?” “Weakness is my vulnerability and my insecurity, and those kinds of things,” he says. He’s easily hurt.
I said, “Well, I’m like that too. I’m vulnerable and I’m insecure and I’m easily hurt.” And I said, “You love easily too, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Me, too.” And I said, “And in addition to all that, I’m crippled and dependent, and I pee in my pants. I’m broken. My body’s broken. My mind is neurotic. Am I weak?”
So he said, “No.” And I said, “Strength is in finding comfort with your weakness. That’s strength.”

br: Ah, finding mental health.

dg: My friend said yesterday, “How much do I have to pay for mental health? How much does it cost in terms of study, therapy, knowledge and wisdom acquisition?” So I said, “Mental health isn’t a result of what you get. How much you’re willing to give up correlates with mental heath. If you’re willing to give up most things that are connected to your ego, you’ll find peace.”

My experience is that peace doesn’t come when you win battles. Peace comes when you stop fighting. Not comfortable.

In the new book, Learning from the Heart, I tell the story of when I was in third grade. To give us incentive, if we got our lessons right, my teacher, Mrs. McNesbit, would have us move up a chair. And if we got them wrong, we’d move back. Over the course of the year, I was all over the classroom — in the front seat of the front row for about 20 minutes and the last seat in the last row. But at the end of the year, I was in the last seat in the second row, about the sixtieth percentile. I remembered that, and I told myself if I get good grades, or if I’m stronger or better at sports or more competent, or, when I got out of school

. . . if, if, if. And I found myself in my early thirties. I had two girls, I was getting a great deal of respect at work, I had a good income, and I still didn’t feel good enough. I was home alone one night, and I thought back to Mrs. McNesbit, and I thought, maybe I belong in the last seat in the second row. And I sat down and I wept with relief. The kids back there are my kind of kids. Here I am, 50-something years later, and I still belong in the last seat in the second row. I’m happy. There are some things I do that maybe put me in the front row. There are some things that put me in the last row.

br: And that has to be good enough?

dg: I hope so. If not, I’m screwed.

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