Posted by June Atkind, LICSW
My apologies to those who may be asking themselves, “Who is Jack Pearson.” For the rest of us, who are dedicated fans, leaning forward each week on the sofa so as not to miss a single word, tissues in hand, Jack is a beloved and inspirational character on the Emmy-winning show This Is Us. In a recent episode, Jack, accompanied, of course, by his family, is shopping for a new car. I, as a mindfulness-based, ACT therapist, couldn’t help but make a connection between Jack’s unique response in this typically mundane situation, and the approach embodied by ACT to life’s challenges, big and small.
Jack’s ability to always maintain his focus on what is most important to him, his family, is evident from the time he enters the showroom. The fact that the buying of a car becomes a family outing sets the tone. Jack goes on to clearly articulate his focus on the wellbeing of his family and his commitment to meeting their needs to both his wife, Rebecca, and the car salesman. Both Rebecca and the car salesman hear Jack, but proceed to focus on the most compelling problem at hand, namely, the need to be frugal with the family’s resources, rather than focusing on selecting and pursuing the car that checks all the boxes in term of the family’s needs. By the end of the clip, Jack, Rebecca, and the triplets are piling into the perfect car. Clearly, the salesman was no match for Jack’s passion and clear focus on the intention to always do right by his family.
Jack models behavior that is different from the ways in which people often react to challenges. Typically, we focus our attention on the problem – how big, unfair, frustrating, and painful it is – rather than maintaining our focus on the value or values that we hold most precious. An important piece of any ACT therapy is the identification and clarification of values. Values provide an important sense of direction. Behaving in ways that are aligned with our values, that move us “towards” our values, we attain a sense of purpose that, for most, is rewarding even when our efforts are not as successful as we might like. In ACT, we seek out and highlight such behaviors, and label them “committed action.” And, certainly, not engaging in behaviors associated with our values is a prescription for increasing a sense of failure and hopelessness.
Jack is continually praised and idolized by the other This Is Us characters. The other characters don’t seem to recognize that Jack has all the same human vulnerabilities that we all have, like fear, insecurity, uncertainty, anger, regrets, etc. When Rebecca, in a touching conversation with wise Dr. K, says that she cannot succeed as Jack did because “he was never afraid,” Dr. K sets her straight, enlightening her to the fact that Jack frequently revealed his fears and other vulnerabilities in conversations, over the years, and that he was able to persevere nonetheless. ACT accepts the presence of the full range of human experience, and helps to teach strategies and skills to enable individuals to engage in committed action, aligned with values, in the presence of challenging emotions. This is Us viewers know that Jack did not always possess the strength and skill needed to respond to challenges in healthy ways. Addictions exemplify ways in which we try to cope by covering up or just trying to push away unwanted feelings. Unlike committed action, addictions and other unhealthy means of coping rarely lead towards values, and frequently result in greater problems.
By clarifying and increasing our attention to our most important values, and committing to behaviors, big and small, that are aligned with these values, we can feel ourselves moving forward, moving in the direction of a fulfilling and rewarding life. Engaging in mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, can help us to stay on track when challenges – from everyday life, and from our emotions – make us feel stuck or throw us off course. As we embrace This Is Us as viewers and fans, we can embrace our values and enact (enACT) them in our own lives.