There is no doubt that William Shakespeare had an exceptionally brilliant mind. I listened to a story on NPR once that listed out many of the phrases and expressions that we use daily that come from Shakespeare – it was mind-boggling! Here are just a few:
*All that glitters is not gold.
*I have not slept one wink.
*The be all and end all.
*There’s method in my madness.
*Wear your heart on your sleeve.
* Wild goose chase.
* Woe is me.
* Love is blindness.
That’s pretty amazing, right?
Shakespeare the Psychologist
Shakespeare showed such great insight into human behavior that, in many ways, he could be considered a psychologist. One of my favorite quotes comes from Hamlet: There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. In a sense, the popular and effective therapeutic approach known as cognitive behavior therapy (or CBT) is based upon this very idea.
“Bad” Events and Our Moods
Of course, one can argue that bad things really do happen…death of a loved one, a tornado rips through a neighborhood, war, famine…you get the idea. Methinks the bard was speaking more about day-to-day things that happen to us (e.g., a flat tire, getting caught in the rain, we don’t get that job interview that we’ve been wanting), and how it is our judgment of those events and situations as “bad” or “good” that pull our emotions in the respective direction.
In fact, there is a lot of research that shows that most people (at least in Western countries) become depressed not because of big, negative life events (catastrophes, death of loved ones) but by our negative judgments and responses to daily life events (e.g., stuck in traffic, rip in a new pair of jeans, broken dishwashers). One reason is because these small events happen with much more regularity giving us ample opportunities to react in positive or negative ways to them. Viewing these daily events through a negative lens can really grind us down.
However, as Shakespeare advises, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. If we can refrain from making negative judgments about our daily life events, we can liberate ourselves from a lot of unnecessary suffering.
Example – My Dream of Playing Catch With My Son
Just to be clear and honest about this, I struggle with not judging life’s daily hassles negatively as well. I don’t always get this right, but I do try to practice what I preach, and I have gotten much better at this over time. Here’s an example of a time when I was able to put Shakespeare’s advice into practice.
Before I became a father, I had this dream of throwing the football with my son. What an all-American thing for a dad and his son to do! So, this dream was to become a reality after my first son was born. He must have been about 3 1/2 years old when I went outside to toss the football for “real” (i.e., not those tosses from 2 feet away).
I had my son on one end of the driveway, and I was at the other end with a good, catchable Nerf football in hand ready to go. I gently threw the ball to my son, and he barely caught it. “Now, here it is!” I thought. “My dream is finally coming true – this is SO cool!”
Well, my son looks at me, then looks away from me and into the neighbor’s yard, and then throws the football right into the bushes and starts laughing gleefully. I say, “Hey, fella! Make sure you throw it to me next time, okay? That’s how the game of ‘catch’ is played, understand?” My son laughs some more as a I throw it back to him. He gets the ball, looks at me right in the eye, and then chunks it right back into the bushes!
Well, this goes on for a few more times with me becoming increasingly frustrated. My dream of tossing the football with my son is slipping away! Then Shakespeare advice hits me: there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. I was judging my son’s actions very negatively and that’s what was making me suffer. I mean, what’s wrong with walking over to the bushes, getting the ball, and throwing it to my son? It’s just a different game of catch…fetch, maybe. He was having a blast, after all. Why couldn’t I just have fun with him? As I chose to think about the game in a different way, I changed my experience from a negative one into a positive one. Then we were both smiling and laughing as we continued to toss the football, although in a different way that I had originally envisioned.
What’s the Takeaway from Shakespeare?
In all likelihood, it’s not the big events in life that are going to make us happy or sad in a lasting way. It’s the daily events, situations, and interactions in which we can chose to find joy or suffering. It’s easy to find fault or be the critic, but thinking about things in this way can really grind us down. If we can remember Shakespeare advice and make it a mantra, it can help us reduce a lot of unnecessary, self-induced suffering. I realize that this is easier said that done (and that, of course, there is REAL suffering in life). But, with practice, we can learn to think about our situations in ways that put a lid on our suffering and, sometimes, help us to find joy in unexpected places.