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By whatashrinkthinks in alchemy, Archetype, Bereavement, branches of psychotherapy, Death & Dying, Depth psychology, logotherapy, psychoanalytic theory, Shadow, Trauma Tags: archetypes, C. G. Jung, Pollyanna, psychotherapy, Viktor Frankl
“You don’t seem ter see any trouble being glad about everythin’,” retorted Nancy…
Pollyanna laughed softly.
“Well that is the game you know, anyway.”
“The – game?”
“Yes; the ‘just being glad’ game.”
As I slowly recovered from a period of intensive and debilitating treatment for cancer, as I transitioned back into the world of work, and social commitments, as I returned to the world, altered but alive, anxious yet hopeful about what a newly reorganized life might have in store for me – I suddenly remembered Pollyanna.
Maybe it was comments like these that summoned her from the sub-basement of my memory:
“Great attitude! Keep it up!”
“Such a terrific outlook you have on all of this.”
“Your attitude is really inspiring.”
What was this attitude (terrific or not) that I was able to summon for public consumption, for clients and acquaintances, and for my children and for all those that I felt I needed to care for or protect? And what attitude did I drop when I was in the presence of my husband or friends who could withstand the “dark night of the soul” along with me? What function did my “attitude” have? For me? For others? How authentic or essential was it to me? Was it part of my character? Or a learned behavior? Where did it come from?
Or maybe it was because I had relied heavily on Pollyanna through a tumultuous childhood, marked by high conflict divorces and remarriages, dramatic relocations and changes of circumstance and position. Pollyanna was a book that I discovered as an early reader in first grade, and re-read, and carried with me well into junior high- and then, once its themes were completely internalized, forgotten entirely for nearly a half a century.
Regardless of what had called her forth, I suddenly remembered what must have been an early edition hard bound book, covered in what my family called “Virgin Mary blue” cloth, with yellowing pages, and old fashioned type face – found high up on my grandparent’s bookshelf, her name and her author’s name embossed in light blue letters.
Pollyanna charted my course from one lost family to the next, and to the next after that. She had drawn me a map and guided me through waves of chaos, loss, and disruption.
In my minds eye: Aunt Polly’s house on the hill was identical to my childhood house on the hill. Mr. Pendleton who had a dark dusty mansion with “skeletons in his closets” lived in my paternal grandmother’s home. The streets and woods Pollyanna walked through from scene to scene were the ones I walked along. Jimmy Bean’s orphanage was superimposed over the “old folks home” that was on the other side of our village. Her church? The one that I attended. The young maid Nancy: bore a strong physical resemblance to my favorite babysitter. And the outline of Aunt Polly was filled in with the features of my brittle and severe paternal grandmother.
And this winter, as I found one life stripped out from under me yet again, and as I moved toward a new way of living in the world– a yearning for the consoling company of Pollyanna awoke in my heart.
Pollyanna was already an “old book” in my day – first published in 1913, a book my maternal grandmother, born in “nineteen ought-one” might have read in her early adolescence, and one my mother certainly read herself in the mid-1950’s. A Disney movie in the sixties starring Haley Mills superimposed itself over the novel in the collective mind transforming the tale into something brighter, spunkier, and less heroic than I understood Pollyanna to be. It wasn’t a popular book in the revolutionary era of the late sixties and early seventies, and it was not one that I talked about or shared with friends. At school recess we secretly passed around dog-eared paperbacks of the Exorcist and shocked each other by reading the most blasphemous bits in a whisper when the playground aids weren’t watching.
The old tattered blue book came with me -already dusty – to college, and then moved with me like a relic through a few young adult relocations, slowly disintegrating until it was eventually lost or tossed out in pieces.
I thought it would be nice to read again. I thought it would give my chemo-addled brain a rest. I thought it might be soothing. But strangely, as I re-read this old story for the first time in adulthood, after many losses and my first personal introduction to my eventual death – I found myself underlining passages, jotting down notes in the margins. And I was startled to discover that it not only withstood a fairly close reading, it made my own encounters with suffering, more understandable to me.
The story, for those that do not know it, centers around a young girl of eleven, a minister’s daughter, sent to live with her maternal “spinster” aunt, by the “Ladies Aid Society” after her impoverished, widowed father’s death. She arrives with nothing to her name, no transitional objects from one world to the next, except the one thing she inherited from her father: The Glad Game, which her father taught her in order to summon her resilience and negotiate episodes of painful deprivation and despair. She becomes an inadvertent teacher to her new community, most of whom have experienced significant loss, illness, or traumas of their own, as she demonstrates how she uses her father’s game to help her make sense of the tragedies she has survived. The town’s people adopt Pollyanna’s methods and make them their own – so much so that when she is struck by a new-fangled automobile and paralyzed they are able to share all the gladness and gratitude that her father’s game has given them, and support Pollyanna in finding hope and motivation to push herself toward recovery and rehabilitation.
Ms. Porter’s book was so successful – that it was followed by Pollyanna Grows Up, which Porter wrote herself, and spawned an entire series of “glad books” about Pollyanna written by other authors as well as stage plays, board games, and even “glad clubs.”
And without realizing it Ms. Porter had uncovered a national and generational archetype, a freckled sprite that seemed to embody the cultural myth of enduring American optimism.
But as Jung would remind us, an archetype’s power is drawn from its bivalence – every archetype has two faces: The Great Mother is both nurturing and devouring. The Healer is also a Charlatan, And God as an archetype is both loving and wrathful.
Like God, then, the unconscious has two aspects; one good, favorable, beneficent, the other evil, malevolent, disastrous.
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion,
And, as an archetype, Pollyanna has her own destructive aspects, and came to be known only for her cloying denial, her negating and saccharine naive cheer.
If you look up Pollyanna in the Oxford Dictionary here is the definition that you will find:
Noun: An excessively cheerful or optimistic person.
But the dictionary’s sample sentences reveal Pollyanna’s destructive shadow far more clearly:
- ‘what I am saying makes me sound like some ageing Pollyanna who just wants to pretend that all is sweetness and light’
- ‘Does this mean that we all should be brainless Pollyannas, cheerfully accepting whatever comes down the line?’
- ‘But that definition blunts the refreshing insight – that Pollyannas are often ludicrous opportunists – of George DuMaurier’s classic cartoon.’
- ‘Insofar as this is self-delusion rather than outright deceit, he is a Pollyanna.’
- ‘The Pollyannas and ostriches who advocate open borders want Congress to believe three things about their pending Social Security agreement with Mexico-all of which are false.’
- ‘Those whose cup is half full are the world’s optimists, the Pollyannas and the kind of people to be avoided at all costs, particularly at parties.’
- ‘I’m a terrible Pollyanna and have had bad things happen that I always seem able to put a good spin on – it gets almost tedious for some people around me.’
This is Pollyanna in her destructive aspect: A tedious, excessive, brainless, masochistically accepting, deluded, ludicrous opportunistic, ostrich to be avoided at all costs. An archetype which, when it is in possession of an individual personality, is experienced by others as oppressive, reality-denying, aggressively positive, dismissive of pain and complexity, who relentlessly enjoins others to “just be glad” as if happy thoughts were a panacea for the intractable suffering of the world.
And some of that shadow carries through into to present day “positive psychology” which can equate unrealistic optimism with happiness and success.
Members of our species who were realistic or pessimistic about their future and the inevitability of danger, illness and death were not motivated to do things necessary for their survival. Optimistic counterparts, in contrast, were motivate to struggle for survival because they believed things would work out well for them.
~ Alan Carr Positive Psychology; The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths,
In The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory, and Thought, published in 1978, M.W Matlin, and D.J. Stang assert that we are cognitively wired to perceive the world, and to misremember our own lives, through a positive bias. It is actually cognitively more difficult for us to make sense of negative events and realities.
We typically process pleasant items more accurately and efficiently than unpleasant or neutral items, and we tend to make positive judgments about a wide variety of people, events, situations, and objects.
I’m not sure that I would agree that optimistic denial of hard reality is best way to survive or appreciate life, although it may be the easiest, quickest, most reflexive way for many. I (and I suggest that Jung and Frankl along with me) might advocate for a more laborious process that results in a distilled concoction of realism and meaning-making that empowers our survival, and makes real life, with all its sorrows, worth living.
Bias is a process that takes place in the unconscious – and it is interesting, that in the face of everyday miseries, that our psyche may work to compensate by shining a light on the more positive aspects in our memory. Jung might here refer to alchemical processes extracting the gold, the lapis the philospher’s stone from the blackness, the nigredo, burned away in the alchemical fires of the unconscious, our memories washed and baptized, and meaning extracted.
“Most generally it doesn’t take so long” sighed Pollyanna; “and lots of time now I just think of them without thinking, you know.”
The Pollyanna Principle is an established cognitive and unconscious bias that suggests that “the glad game” plays itself (for those who are not clinically depressed) in the back of our brains, outside of our awareness.
Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, founder of existential analysis (which he also calls logotherapy) and holocaust survivor, asserts in his book Will to Meaning that:
Life…remains meaningful, under any conditions. As logotherapy teaches, even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by the attitude which a man adopts toward his predicament.
~ Viktor Frankl Will to Meaning
So perhaps Pollyanna was not only engaged in optimistic denial. Perhaps she is engaged in youthful attempts to extract meaning from tragic experience, fully in acceptance of the devastating and depressing vicissitudes of life and yet still, reaching for the “tension of the opposites” as Jung would call it.
Experience of the opposites has nothing whatever to do with intellectual insight or with empathy. It is more what we would call fate…Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness…
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Maybe Pollyanna wasn’t merely advocating that everyone “just be glad” for gladness sake – but that they search out and claim the wisdom that woundedness can bring with it, in a world that was defined by ubiquitous illness and compound loss, and early death.
Maybe Pollyanna is a logotherapist.
Or perhaps she is an alchemist.
Or maybe, they are the same thing.
Frankl acknowledges the optimistic bent of his theory and therapeutic practice – that it is inherently “optimistic” to imagine that meaning may be found even in the most horrific events. But he asserts that his is a stance based on realism and acceptance of what he calls the “tragic triad of human existence: pain, death and guilt.”
The world of Pollyanna is saturated with pain, death, guilt, suffering and loss.
Pollyanna’s mother estranged from her two sisters and her parents when she chose to marry her husband. Pollyanna, named after her mother’s two lost sisters, was the only child from the marriage to survive: “the other babies had all died.” Her mother dies “several” years after Pollyanna’s birth. Her father, who has buried all the other babies, as well as his wife, continues to minister to his community, and devises “the game” to help Pollyanna withstand their grief and penury. He then dies when Pollyanna is eleven. Aunt Polly, her guardian “was forty now, and quite alone in the world. Father, mother, and sisters were all dead.”
Every secondary character touched by Pollyanna’s game is in mourning from some traumatic loss or event: Mrs. Snow is both a widow and now a depressive bedridden “invalid.” Mr. Pendleton, the only surviving member of his family lives in near total isolation. Characters continue to present themselves: widows, widowers and bereaved parents, children orphaned and living in neglectful institutional care, families contending with poverty, infant mortality and domestic violence, and those who experience the vicarious traumatization and losses that ministers and doctors are regularly exposed to. Even tertiary characters – miscellaneous Ladies Aid members who we never meet except through reminiscence are widowed and bereaved.
“It would have been a good deal harder to be glad in all black”
“The game” is born from bereavement, illness and the visceral and collective experience of being in the continuous presence of suffering, grief and death. “The game” is an attempt to contend with the attendant existential, spiritual and psychological crises. What Frankl calls:
Noogenic neurosis which result from the frustration of will to meaning, from what I have called existential frustration, or the existential vacuum.” ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
So perhaps Pollyanna’s shadow, the tediousness, the brainlessness actually emerged from the excesses and delusions of readers from a much later era with ready access to antibiotics. Perhaps the insufferable optimism belongs to the generations after Pollyanna’s that had forgotten what it was to be powerless in the face of common infectious disease and death. Maybe the real ostriches were those who imagined that they were forever free from becoming entrapped in the existential vacuum, and scoffed at the psychological mechanisms and processes required to survive traumatic and cumulative loss.
When surrounded by suffering, you do need find reasons to keep living. You do need to indentify reasons to “just be glad” momentarily, to find relief from anxiety and heartbreak and fear. You need to locate what you are grateful for, what gives your life purpose and keeps you here. You need to find reasons to stay attached to life itself. This is what Frankl calls meaning.
And “just be glad” doesn’t in anyway mean “easily or simply” be glad. It means to be glad momentarily, to appreciate a baseline of minimum normality so that you can feel alive again. “To merely be glad again” is an act that only appears simple, that was once taken for granted but can be taken for granted no longer.
“Yes – that father’s gone to heaven to be with mother and the rest of us, you know. He said I must be glad. But it’s been pretty hard to – to do it, even wearing red gingham, because I – I wanted him so; and I couldn’t help feeling I ought to have him, ‘specially as mother and the rest have God and all the angels, while I didn’t have anybody but the Ladies’ Aid. But now I’m sure it will be easier because I’ve got you Aunt Polly!”
Apathy, indifference, passive or active suicidality, despair, boredom, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, fear are expectable responses to existential despair. Struggling with such symptoms and “wrestling with the question of whether there is a meaning to life, is not in itself a pathological phenomenon” according to Frankl. He goes further and states that in such circumstances:
The difference between existential despair and emotional disease disappears. Once cannot distinguish between spiritual distress and mental disease. ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Frankl suggests we live by and for meaning: Creative values allow us to take pleasure in creative acts in any form that feel meaningful to us. Experiential values emerge from relationships that connect us to something larger – love, friendship, relationships to nature, beauty, pleasure and for some, religious experience. “Just being glad” is an example of what Frankl calls an “attitudinal value” which emerges when we have lost access to other values and must facing unavoidable suffering.
…A stand he takes to his predicament in case he must face a fate which he cannot change. This is why life never ceases hold a meaning, for even a person who is deprived of creative and experiential values is still challenge by a meaning to fulfill, that is by the meaning inherent in an upright way of suffering
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
When we can control nothing else, we may choose to “just be glad” or grateful or brave, or to protect others from our despair, or to seek to define our priorities as precisely as possible. Or we may try to draw something from the experience of powerlessness which might make us better, more appreciative, kinder, or wiser within whatever meager time and energies remain available.
“You see when you are hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind…”
Actualizing our values, living up to whatever attitudinal goal we may have set for ourselves, offers a small moment of relief and reassurance that whatever else has been stripped from us we can at least achieve that.
It was much later that I really understood the meaning of suffering. It can have meaning if it changes you for the better. ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
But the next question is how? Where does meaning-making occur? Presumably, Pollyanna (and the rest of us) can’t merely summon any trivial “glad” thing that may emerge from a painful loss or trauma. I imagine that a “glad thought” such as: “Now I never have to iron and starch father’s shirt collars ever again!” would do little to make her shattering loss feel meaningful. The “glad thought” must be the right one – the singular, personal thought that transforms a loss into something useful or meaning-filled, or points toward some positive transformation that makes one prouder of themselves or more connected to others, or the world, or to the Divine, in someway. So how do we “discover” the positive opposite, the meaningful good that may sometimes grow from our losses and injuries? From where does this answer appear from when we are bereft? What does the unconscious labor of the Pollyanna Principle look like? What are the rules and methods of the “game” that happens in the back of our brain and helps us to recontexualize our sufferings into something bearable, or maybe, even as Frankl states, “triumphant”?
It is the science that draws its master away from the suffering of this world and leads to the knowledge of future good. ~ C. G. Jung quoting Morienus, Psychology and Alchemy
Jung sees ancient alchemical texts and recipes, as an externalizing projection, a model, a template that can help us understand the stages and processes of meaning-making that take place in the unconscious. For Jung, ultimate meaning is found in “individuation” – which is the continuous pursuit of “wholeness” and the clarifying sense of purpose and place in the universe that attends it.
Ars totum requirit hominem!” exclaims an old alchemist. It is just this homo totus whom we seek. The labours of the doctor as well as the quest of the patient are directed towards that hidden and as yet unmanifest “whole” man, who is at once the greater and the future man.
~ C. G. Jung, Development of Personality
And wholeness is only able to brought into awareness by considering that our unconscious is filled with content which is both the opposite and the compensation for our conscious awareness. Wholeness is brought into being by withstanding and integrating “the tension of the opposites.” Light is only a partial truth. Darkness is another. An integrated chiaroscuro of light and dark is the only way to depict a whole image. Alchemical recipes and the pursuit of the purified “lapis” or “philospher’s stone” are interpreted by Jung as a metaphor for the unconscious processes and the pursuit of wholeness:
Jung describes how the alchemical texts begin with “the horrible darknesses of our mind” – corresponding to the first alchemical ingredient:
The nigredo, or blackness is the initial state, either present from the beginning as a quality of the prima materia, the chaos, or massa confusa…
~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy,
Or the “blackness” may also come out of states of separation, division, obligation, death, decay:
…or else produced by the separation (solutio, separatio, divisio, putrefactio) of the elements. If the separated condition is assumed at the start, as sometimes happens, then a union of opposites is performed.
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
The “union of opposites” – the fusion of paradoxical, contradictory, or split off states, is sometimes referred to as the “alchemical wedding” and takes place in the refining fires of the alchemist’s furnace.
All things are integrated in this element by the imagination of the fire
~ C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
This is the process that Pollyanna’s game initiates: To make contact with joy in the midst of sorrow – to reach for the union of the opposites – to wed opposing states together into some inseparable, relieving wholenesss. But Jung reminds us that this is a long and laborious process – that requires many repetitious cycles of painful , purifying burning in the fiery crucible, followed by washing, cooling, rinsing, and whitening in the mercurial waters of the alchemical bath. These repetitive processes seem to mirror of the cyclic waves of hot searing pain, followed by cooling detachment that cycle through us after loss, or exposure to traumatic events.
If we can think of these waves and tides of human feeling as part of a larger process of purification, cleansing, and then as a kind of “baking” of disparate aspects of the self into a new, and more consolidated state of wholeness, perhaps they are easier to bear.
Perhaps then our suffering may then be experienced as purposeful, meaningful.
This labor is not for the impatient or faint of heart. Simple optimistic repression of painful reality may bring more immediate – if temporary – relief from distress, but a simplistic denial and adoption of a merely “positive” perspective works against the richer, “alchemical” processes of moving toward wholeness. Jung, and his alchemical sources caution that the Philosopher’s Stone will only be discovered “when the search lies heavy on the searcher.”
Or in Pollyanna’s words:
And the harder ‘tis the more fun ‘tis to get ‘em out: only – only sometimes it’s almost too hard –
But sometimes, when we have worked hard, and long, and with integrity (“with the true and not the fantastic imagination” as Jung’s alchemical sources point out) we see that we have successfully distilled the purest lapis, and are able to touch, for a moment, clear meaning, brief and relieving contact with our whole self, a larger view which grants us, like the hand of grace, a glimpse of our place and purpose in the world.
Forthwith a flame of fire will come out of the crucible and spread itself over the whole chamber (fear no harm), and will light up the whole chamber more brightly than sun and moon, and over your heads you shall behold the whole firmament as it is in the starry heavens above, and the planets shall hold to their appointed courses as in the sky. Let it cease of itself, in a quarter of an hour everything will be in its own place.
~ C.G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy
PROJECTION and LOGOS
- Theology – The Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ.
- (in Jungian psychology) – the principle of reason and judgment, associated with the animus.
Origin: Greek, ‘word, reason’.
Both Frankl and Jung see experiences of meaning as subjective projections onto a objectively neutral world, originating from an internal, individual and subjective space:
Projection is never made; it happens, it is simply there. In the darkness of anything external to me I find, without recognizing it as such, and interior and psychic life that is my own.
~ C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Thus to all appearances, meaning is just something we are projecting into these things around ourselves, things which in themselves are neutral. And in the light of this neutrality, reality may well seem to be just a screen upon which we are projecting our own wishful thinking…
~Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Although both men remain open to the notion that the discovery of meaning (it must always be found and never given) may be connected to divine sources – both strongly caution against the ego-inflating lure of any certainty or attempt to reign or universalize “meaning” for oneself or others:
One never knows whether or not it is the true meaning to which he is committed. And he will not know it even on his deathbed.
~Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
“Mrs. Snow had lived forty years, and for fifteen of those years she had been too busy wishing things were different to find much time to enjoy things as they were…”
Jump-starting the experience of meaning-making using “paradoxical intervention” in Frankl’s terms, or initiating the client into the “union of opposites” in Jungian terms, is the primary task of the psychotherapist working with clients who have found themselves floundering in the vacuum of meaninglessness.
And Mrs. Snow is an example of a client that doesn’t merely flounder – she commits to it.
A new task then arises to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step closer to a higher level and to increase the number of persons who have at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth
~ C. G. Jung Psychology and Alchemy
“’Now I want you to see what I’ve brought you!’
The woman stirred restlessly.
‘Why, I don’t want anything as I know of…’
‘Guess! If you did want something, what would it be?’
The woman hesitated. She did not realize it herself, but she had so long been accustomed to wanting what she did not have, that to state offhand what she did want seemed impossible…
Paradoxical intervention is one of Frankl’s primary logotherapeutic methods:
What then is going on when paradoxical intention is applied? Encouraging the patient to do, or wish to happen, the very things he fears engenders an inversion of intention. The pathogenic fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish. By the same token, however, the wind is taken out of the sails of anticipatory anxiety ~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
Pollyanna, in her function as logotherapist extraordinaire, demonstrates.
‘Well, of course there is lambs broth.’
‘I’ve got it!’ crowed Pollyanna.
‘But that is what I didn’t want,’ sighed the sick woman, sure now of what her stomach craved. ‘It was chicken that I wanted.’
‘Oh, I’ve got that too,’ chuckled Pollyanna… ‘and calf’s food jelly’ triumphed Pollyanna. ‘I was just bound you should have what you wanted for once.’
Pollyanna creates a paradoxical dialogue where Mrs. Snow’s resistance (her fear of daring to want anything ever again after surviving with a presumably traumatic loss and an unnamed debilitating illness) is no longer able to keep her out of contact with her repressed desires. Her “not wanting anything” is no longer a problematic opposition to “the game” but the pleasurable and playful focus of the game itself – kickstarting the psyche’s search for meaning.
“There was no reply. The sick woman seemed to be trying mentally to find something she had lost.”
Jung attempts to kindle a curative alchemical “union of opposites” by prescribing a more contemplative, internal method. Jung’s prescription is for those who prefer to play “the game” quietly by themselves:
The point of view described above is supported by the alchemist’s remarkable use of the terms meditatio and imaginatio . Ruland’s Lexicon alchemiae defines meditatio as follows: “The word meditatio is used when a man has an inner dialogue with someone unseen. It may be with God, when He is invoked, or with himself, or with his good angel.” … The psychologist is familiar with this “inner dialogue”; it is an essential part of the technique for coming to terms with the unconscious. When the alchemists speak of meditari they do not mean mere cogitation, but explicitly an inner dialogue and hence a living relationship to the answering voice of the “other” in ourselves, i.e., of the unconscious.
~ C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
Both methods call our “other,” unknown, “opposite” aspects into our conscious awareness – resulting in a greater sense of wholeness, and perhaps, eventually, purpose. “To cause things hidden in the shadow to appear and to take away the shadow from them” is the pursuit of alchemy.
Do you see?
Pollyanna is an alchemist.
I know what you mean, something plagues you. My father used to feel like that… but most always he said too that he wouldn’t stay a minister a minute if t’wasn’t for the rejoicing texts… Its all those that begin “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” or “Shout for joy,” and all that you know – such a lot of them. Once when father felt especially bad he counted ‘em. There were eight hundred of ‘em… He said if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it – some…
And it became clear to me that this book had not only offered comfort to me through a chaotic childhood, but that it had laid some trail of pebbles in my psyche. That it offered me a template to begin to negotiate this “tension of opposites” that not only became the basis of how I would cope with the great and small sufferings – existential voids – in my own life –but how I would come to think of my profession.
I do seek out the gifts that grow out of suffering. And I wonder about the vulnerabilities that lurk inside my strengths. When I am filled with self-righteous anger I contemplate how it is likely connected to a shame I hold within myself. And surfacing the opposites that reside in my unconscious serves to ground me, soothe me, and connect me more deeply to the human family.
You will regard yourself a member of an invisible community, the community of suffering humans, suffering from that abysmal experience of a basic meaninglessness of human existence, and at the same time struggling for a solution to the age-old problems of mankind. The same suffering and the same struggling unites you, in fact, with the best exemplars of humanity.
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
And the paradox that I experienced was this: At the very moment that I began to apprehend my own death I simultaneously found myself on the receiving end of an extraordinary outpouring of love, of support, of well wishes, of frozen lasagnas, of financial assistance, of commiseration, of camaraderie, of gratitude, and appreciation, the greatest influx of collective kindness and generosity that I could ever imagine. Piles of notes and cards, gifts, poems, lucky charms, books, hospital-visits, letters, encouragements, care packages, fuzzy socks, prayers, and the extraordinary loving-kindness of my children.
The unfathomable terror was accompanied every moment by its opposite – extraordinary gratitude.
There is in our chemistry a certain noble substance, in the beginning whereof is wretchedness with vinegar, but in its ending joy with gladness. Therefore I have supposed that the same will happen to me, namely that I shall suffer difficulty, grief, and weariness at first, and in the end shall come to glimpse pleasanter and easier things.
~ C. G. Jung quoting Michael Maier, Psychology and Alchemy
It wasn’t an attitude.
It was an unconscious process.
It was alchemy.
It was the momentary and transformative discovery of life’s true meaning.
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines: the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
May this be the lesson to learn from my book
~ Viktor Frankl, Will to Meaning
I posted this at Subtext Consultations which I think of as my “writing only” blog because as I wrote it I didn’t think it was pertinent to the practice of psychotherapy – but the more I sit with it, the more I realize it is:
Each year I plant seedlings
I receive them in bright shiny envelopes printed with colorful images of abundant harvests, airbrushed and unreal.
The perfect tomato. A bushel of turnips with dark leafy greens. The shiniest cucumbers. The most luscious strawberries.
The tallest sunflowers…
Read more here:
I wanted to let you all know about a new intention, a feature I am offering here at the blog, the What a Shrink Thinks Seminar:
The What a Shrink Thinks Seminar is a twice monthly online subscription seminar focusing on the psychotherapeutic process and the varied theoretical, ethical, socio-political, and spiritual concerns that impact psychotherapeutic work.
The seminar consists of two didactic essays each month written in response to queries and prompts submitted by subscribers. This is content that is distinct from the public blog posts at What a Shrink Thinks.
Some subjects that I can imagine we might cover:
Specialization versus generalist practice
Archetype and myth in clinical practice
Long term versus short term treatments
Use of self in psychotherapy
Working with countertransferences
The strengths and limitations of psychoanalytic theory
Gifts and transitional objects
Psychotherapy, empathy and social justice
Bereavement, grief, and palliative psychotherapy
If you are interested in finding out more: please click on the Seminar links on the menu above.
(And thank you in advance for your patience with any technical difficulties. Old dog here, learning new tricks!)
And let’s see where this experiment takes us!
My grandmother’s teaching watch hung upside down from a long chain around her neck so that as she monitored how her lesson plans were unfolding, and scooped the watch from her bosom its face would be right side up.
It belongs to me for now. It still keeps perfect time.
My grandfather had a small chiming clock that he kept on the shelf behind his reclining chair. It chimed “Westminster Bells” every quarter hour, ringing in the hour with its rhythmic gong. The chimes reached every corner of the old farmhouse. Especially helpful if I had promised Grandma that I would be ready in time to ride into town at three o’clock, or when I woke, startled, from a dream in the big squeaky four-poster bed in “Mom’s old room” which was mine when I visited.
Ding-dong ding-dong, ding-dong ding-dong….
I had learned to play the tune on the piano, from my mother’s old exercise book found tucked inside the piano bench, yellowed and crackly at the corners, with its own lyrics:
Ding dong, dong ding
Hear the chimes ring!
We hear them now,
chiming the hour!
I never heard the time again without those lyrics: “Ding dong dong ding” were the words for quarter after. “Hear the bells ring” meant half-past. The quarter-to bells left you hanging mid-sentence: “We hear them now….” The sentence fragment let me know I had only ten minutes left to wash my face and find my shoes out in the yard before Grandma would cluck and scold me for always leaving things to the last minute.
It rings in my house now, and tells me exactly where I am in the throes of a night of foot cramps and hot-flashes, night-sweats and anxiety dreams. How many hours left of insomnia? Is it late enough that I should just say fuck it and commit to being awake for the next hour and a half before taking the kids to school? Or the clock braces me for a long night of tossing and turning when the bells tell me that I am wide awake after only an hour or two of sleep.
When I was very little my mother had a tiny diamond shaped Timex watch with a stretchy metallic band that she would hold up to my ear when I had a bad cold or a possible ear infection: “DO YOU HEAR IT TICKING?” she would holler, terrified out of her mind that I had burst an ear drum.
I never heard it, which made her more frantic. Sometimes, I’d sneak into her dressing room, find the watch on her vanity and hold it up to my own ear. I never heard a thing, which made me wonder if my mother had ever tried to listen to the damn thing herself or if she had just gone completely around the bend.
I have an indelible image in my mind’s eye of the red glowing numbers of the digital clock that sat next to my bed through high school. For years, I woke regularly to see its numbers flashing “4:00am.” My step-father told me, unhelpfully, that four in the morning was called the Hour of the Wolf.
“The hour of death and poetry” he elaborated, which didn’t make it any better.
In college, at a Bergman film festival, I learned more about the Hour of the Wolf than I ever wanted to know from the movie of the same name:
According to the ancient Romans the Hour of the Wolf means the time between night and dawn, just before light comes, and people believed it to be the time when demons had heightened powers and vitality, the hour when most people died, and most children are born and when nightmares come… ~ Hour of the Wolf
During daylight I am nearly well enough to press it out of my mind for large chunks of time – until the reality of cancer asserts itself through fatigue, neuropathy, or my daily medication reminders. But it is at this ominous hour that I begin to wonder how much time I have left, how old my children might be when I die, until I catch and collect myself, forbiding my brain to indulge in such useless, torturous thoughts.
This is the hour that I release my mind to drift over my past, now that the future has become taboo. I review and reinterpret old dreams in light of my current circumstance. Or lose myself in snippets of the deep past.
My first watch: Donald Duck in his sailor suit his puffy gloves pointing out the minutes (not Mickey, everyone had Mickey). Mounted on a wide lemon-yellow patent leather wristband that closed with a row of adjustable silver snaps and left me with a wide patch of untanned skin in the summer. My prized possession in first grade, until I lost it. And then found it a few years later and then eventually lost it again forever. I kept searching in all my secret spots until we moved away. A gift from my paternal grandfather – or rather my paternal grandfather’s second wife. Gramps would never have thought to bring his many grandchildren souvenirs from a quick trip to Los Angeles, nor would he have any idea what to select (he barely knew our names).
I visited him a few weeks before he died.
“I guess I didn’t spend too much time getting to know you.” he said.
“I guess not.” I replied.
“And now its too late…” he said.
It is the only conversation I recall ever having with him.
I wear my deceased mother-in-law’s watch for the infrequent special occasions I am asked to attend: fundraising galas and weddings. It is the smallest ladies watch ever manufactured by Phillipe Patek, with a face as small as the tip of my pinky. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but I think it was for her wedding, and who ever bestowed it upon her must have loved her very much. A mechanism so tiny that when it was given to me by my father-in-law who informed me that it was in need of a good cleaning, I had to trudge all over New York City from specialty jeweler to watchmaker before I could find anyone brave enough to open it up.
“I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.”
“No way, too small.”
“I wouldn’t do it, but there is one guy I know who might do it – he’s nuts but he is hands down the best…”
He directed me to a dingy second-hand jewelry store near Washington Square Park. The shop was dark, lit only by the sunlight from the display case filled windows. An older man behind a high counter screwed a jeweler’s loupe into his right eye, and took off the back of the watch with a special tool.
“Just look at this…” he said, his voice an awe-filled whisper. “You don’t see these running much, they were novelties really. No replacement parts and the cogs are so tiny that once one snaps or skips you never get them running again. This one is a little dirty, does it run slow?”
“But basically its perfect. Look.” He placed a magnifier between me and the little opened watch that he had positioned on a piece of green felt. He showed me all of its delicate pulsating magical springs and wheels.
“You can pick it up next week. Fifty bucks. No guarantee. But I can do it. I’m the only guy in the world who can.”
And he did.
That was twenty five years ago and it still keeps fine time when I take it out of its box once a year and carefully wind up its miniature mechanics.
I never met my mother-in-law. She died of cancer before I met her son, before we fell in love, before he asked me to promise never to die of cancer, before marriage and careers and children. And long before I would ever have to consider breaking my promise to him when I was diagnosed myself.
When my parents married my dad’s mother presented my mother with an electric “grandmother” clock, (which I suppose just means a standing clock, smaller, shorter and less imposing than a grandfather clock) as her wedding present. It stopped running, practically predictably, shortly after my parents’ divorce, but my mother kept it anyway. She may have hated her ex-mother-in-law with an abiding passion but she liked the clock enough to keep it, although not enough to repair it.
The electric cords had been cut, the motor jammed for decades when I closed up my mother’s apartment and moved her into residential hospice care. I brought the clock to my new home and ordered a cheap set of battery operated replacement hands to put on its old face. I took a photo and showed my mother on my cellphone how perfectly it fit in the small nook between the stairs and the hall closet on the first floor. My mother was supposed to move into the house with us but she never did set foot in it.
“Perfect.” she said, looking at the photo, a week or so before she died. “Just perfect.”
A small but strange thing occurred after I started writing this, the same day that I wore my grandmother’s teaching watch around my neck. During a session with a client, I decided to check the time on my grandmother’s watch, instead of on the serviceable, everyday wristwatch on my left-wrist.
It had stopped.
I decided that must not have wound it enough (I am always scared to over wind both my grandmother’s and my mother-in-law’s watch). I set it to the correct time according to my wristwatch, silently noting that we had fifteen minutes left, and wound it some more as my client and I continued talking.
Therapists must watch the clock, surreptitiously, not merely to be vigilant about ending-times, but throughout to shape and pace the session, to be aware of how much time is devoted to each topic or resistance. And to prevent, if possible, a client from opening up a raw vulnerability too late in the session to resolve before leaving, or to avoid cutting clients off too abruptly. Errors of pacing, timing, closure, and time-telling, are often (not always) indicative of the countertransferential responses we are having toward our clients.
We have complicated relationships to our clocks.
Ten minutes later when I checked my wristwatch I saw that it had stopped at the very moment I reset my grandmother’s watch. And that my grandmother’s teaching watch on the chain around my neck was the one, now, that was keeping correct time.
“Excuse me,” I said to the client as I described the confusing coincidence, “I just want to confirm the time on my cellphone so I can be sure that we haven’t fallen into some Twilight Zone episode or that I haven’t suddenly become a ghost.”
My phone confirmed that my grandmother’s watch was the only one with the correct time to the minute, which meant that my wristwatch had indeed stopped at the very moment I had last glanced at it.
Perhaps something of us continues to tick, to spin and to ring long after our time has stopped. We are all carried by an unfolding cycle that was set in motion long before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone.
Maybe each and every one of us is a time-piece.
I have one more clock story to tell.
When we moved to the new house and my mother moved to hospice, our friend Pam came to stay with us, to help unpack, to care for the kids, to help with my mother, to keep me sane.
The week that my mother died, while I was in the middle of one of many bereavement-naps, Pam unpacked the chiming clock that rang in my grandparent’s home. My mother had inherited the clock, but had told me that it was broken, that she looked into it, and that it was not worth repairing. She had kept it, for sentiment’s sake, wrapped in a dusty blanket in her storage bin. Pam unwrapped it, knowing none of this, and activated it and forgot it as she moved on to the next box.
When I woke, I was suddenly surrounded by the sound of my childhood and my mother’s childhood. The quarter-hour bells were ringing.
I had not heard that sound in over thirty years, although the clock was present in a dream that I’d had many years earlier, just before my mother became disabled. I was in my grandparent’s kitchen, the clock chimed the dangling quarter-to “We hear them now…” And my grandparents entered the room and asked me to take care of my mother for them.
And when my mother died, I knew that it was time for me to transfer that responsibility back to them, so I summoned them for her, and told her to go directly into their care.
And she did.
So the sudden, spontaneous, self-repair of the chiming clock felt like a thank you gift, a reward for a hard task well done.
And every fifteen minutes I hear a sound as familiar to me as my hearbeat, that consoles and connects me to one hundred years of family behind and beyond me. And its chimes fill our home and keep us all oriented, the sound of my mother’s childhood, and my own, and now my children’s childhood too.
And an astronomer said, “Master, what of Time?”
And he answered:
You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.
Who among you does not feel that his power to love is boundless?
And yet who does not feel that very love, though boundless, encompassed within the centre of his being, and moving not form love thought to love thought, nor from love deeds to other love deeds?
And is not time even as love is, undivided and paceless?
But if in you thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
~ Time XXI, Khalil Gibran