“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
What if time isn’t money – but a currency of its own?
Because it is.
What if time is finite and therefore we need to curate every moment as carefully and mindfully as possible to stay aligned with our purpose, not to be diverted.
What if every minute, every second, is an investment spent out of a limited time-life-savings account? What if our holdings are dwindling? What if we waste it, squander it on crap because we never check our balance, because we imagine that our accounts are inexhaustible when they are in fact running out, fast approaching a negative balance?
What if we truly spend time and must pay out our attention?
Because that is the case.
How would you live? What would you spend your time on? What would you allow to occupy or drain you? How much of your account would you expend? What losses would you be willing to write off if you knew the truth: that death is life’s companion, that uncertainty is reality and that the notion that our time-accounts are safe and secure and abundant is an illusion?
What would you let go of? What would you commit to?
What would you allow to preoccupy you? What noise would you get caught up in? What would you do when you recognized all that you have squandered? What would you be willing to gamble on?
What if you reviewed your accounts and saw that you had been negligent, allowing your limited holdings to be stolen from you, in tiny increments, barely noticeable? What action would you take when you are shown for the first time all of the fees deducted, the secret unnamed penalties and surcharges that you never noticed were contractually attached to hundreds of daily, habitual transactions? What would change if you woke up from this indulgent dreaming and saw that every moment is both precious and able to be wasted?
How would others appear to you? How would you relate to all of those caught in the thick dreaming all around you? Everyone operating as if they have been granted an infinite and inexhaustible trust-fund of time to fritter away and squander, who take time for granted so profoundly that they don’t even know it is a limited resource, and that it will run out.
All those who have no idea that they are actually writing the story of their lives by how they spend each and every second.
This is either an initiation into a new reality, or maybe a new dream in and of itself.
Dream time is strange and non-linear, it compresses and expands, slows and speeds up, and circles back upon itself. I listen to dreams for a living – and so I have heard this statement more times than I can count:
“… and then the dream changed and I was somewhere else…”
When I received a strange diagnosis last fall, my dream changed and I am now somewhere else.
Maybe I have ten years of time and relative health left in my account. Or maybe this unique and peculiar central nervous system cancer continues to behave in an anomalous way, and slips through all attempts to treat it. Maybe next week I will find that I have a lesion on my optic nerve. Maybe I will lose the use of my legs in two years time.
Might I get to hold my grandchildren one day?
Will I live until my children graduate high school?
Will I see their thirtieth birthday?
Or, on that day, will I merely exist as a framed photo on their bureau?
A memory of having been loved.
I am living in the reality that life is an inherently insecure proposition.
And all the years I spent as a psychotherapist trying to make people feel safe, when I still believed that that safety was an entitlement and not an illusion.
I should have helped people feel brave instead of safe.
The illusions protect us from the terror, but life is more exquisite and time is more real and precious without the insulation.
There are many who live for a year or two in this dream – I watched my mother, and my chosen sister pass through this space on their way to death. They relished life, and I saw their eyes wide open drinking in every beautiful heartbreaking mundane moment.
Every dirty brown sparrow was a beautiful bird.
Every bite of food was an explosion of gorgeous flavor.
Every second counted.
And there are those who may expect to live long term, for decades in this poignant space, with the illness present, alive, but managed: People with AIDS, those with slow or degenerative conditions. Those who actively live, as Gillian Rose says, “in symbiosis with the disease.”
Will I dwell here for months or years or decades?
No one knows, because there is no knowing.
There never has been any knowing.
I’ve found compatriots in books as I always do, others who have lived connected to Uncertainty and Death as close and familiar traveling companions.
Keep your mind in hell and despair not.
A crisis of illness, bereavement, separation, natural disaster, could be the opportunity to make contact with deeper levels of the terrors of the soul, to loose and to bind, to bind and to loose.
~ Gillian Rose, Love’s Work
I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children ‘Long Live Life!’
~ Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain
And memories of friends long lost:
Mike, who died of AIDS in our early 30’s in our last phone call, a sudden chilling cry: “You don’t know what it is like to live with something in your body that is trying to kill you!”
He’d been living with it already, running from it as fast as he could, for ten years.
Bob, who died of AIDS in our 40’s. His Lazarus-like rise from the dead when protease inhibitors rescued him from a near fatal T-cell count. His insane, mischievous, provocative giggle. His deadly serious, heroic foolishness.
Their dream changed too.
Time became something else. Something other than what it was before. Friendship became something else. More essential and transcendent.
Love, pleasure, color, contact, all intensified. Everything heightened.
A life binge.
and Time becomes a sensation, a visceral bodily experience.
You live time like you breathe air.
And when the dream changes you can suddenly hear the heartbeat of the universe beating, underneath everything, the baseline pounding, the clock ticking, under all the noise and silliness and tragedy and suffering.
And the beating rhythm of life says this:
This is life. This is Life. This is Life.
And this is life too. Every single moment.
Spend your time wisely.
This is life. This is time. This is life.
You are alive this minute.
This is the moment.
This is all the time you have got.
I recently came upon this passage as I was re-reading Alice Miller’s Prisoners of Childhood for a larger project.
And the words tore through me:
“In Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin I have found a story that may sound rather bizarre, but nevertheless has much in common with what I have presented here. I shall summarize the story briefly.
Once upon a time there was a child who had a golden brain. His parents only discovered this by chance when he injured his head and gold instead of blood flowed out. They then began to look after him carefully and would not let him play with other children for fear of being robbed. When the boy was grown up and wanted to go out into the world, his mother said:
“We have done so much for you, we ought to be able to share your wealth” Then her son took a large piece of gold out of his brain and gave it to his mother. He lived in great style with a friend, who, however, robbed him one night and ran away. After that the man resolved to guard his secret and go out to work, because his reserves were visibly dwindling. One day he fell in love with a beautiful girl who loved him too, but no more than the beautiful clothes he gave her so lavishly. He married her and was very happy, but after two years she died and he spent the rest of his wealth on her funeral, which had to be splendid. Once, as he was creeping though the streets, weak, poor, and unhappy, he saw a beautiful little pair of boots that would just have done for his wife. He forgot that she was dead – perhaps because his emptied brain no longer worked – and entered the shop to buy the boots. But in that very moment he fell, and the shopkeeper saw a dead man lying on the ground.
Daudet, who was to die from an illness of the spinal cord, wrote below the end of this story:
This story sounds as though it were invented, but it is true from beginning to end. There are people who have to pay for the smallest things in life with their very substance and their spinal cord. That is a constantly suffering recurring pain, and then when they are tired of suffering…”
~ Alice Miller, Prisoners of Childhood
Many are familiar with later editions of Miller’s book: The Drama of the Gifted Child. But its first edition was drawn from her observations serving as a training analyst in a psychoanalytic institute.
So let’s be clear: When Alice Miller wrote this, she was writing about the dilemma of being a psychoanalyst.
Psychotherapists are the prisoners she is referring to. They are the ones who live in constant danger of giving out of their core, excavating treasure out of their very central nervous systems, tearing fistfuls out of their spinal cords to care for others.
It is often said that psychoanalysts suffer from a narcissistic disturbance… This can be confirmed not only inductively based on experience, but also deductively from the type of talent that is needed by an analyst. His sensibility, his empathy, his intense and differentiated emotional responsiveness, and his unusually powerful “antennae” seem to predestine him as a child to be used – if not misused – by people with intense narcissistic needs. ~ Alice Miller, Prisoners Of Childhood
I’ve read this all before. Many times over the past twenty years. I’d read it feeling smug and well-analyzed, so very processed, I had mourned, and finished with such archaic relational patterns – so relieved that I was conscious and had avoided such unconsciously created calamity.
Daudet’s original fable offered other warnings, which I’m sure I would have been just as dismissive of, if I had read it before cancer.
Before I knew had a rare and chronic cancer in my spinal cord and central nervous system, floating throughout my cerebrospinal fluid, swirling around my brain. Before lesions on my lower spine deadened my nerves and distorted my sensory perceptions.
Before I fell.
The full story of The Man with the Golden Brain tells how the man left his mother’s home and squandered his treasure. Spending lavishly on everyone around him.
“You would have thought his brain inexhaustible. And yet it did become exhausted..”
~ Alphonse Daudet, Letters from My Windmill
It tells of his horror upon realizing the enormous hole he had slowly torn out of his core. It tells of an attempt to reform and rehabilitate himself, to create a new and corrective scenario where he would set and hold self-preserving parameters. And of the lure and seduction of his central problem, his compulsion to repeat, to re-enact his core-conflict, to give himself away to death.
Daudet did not have cancer. He had advanced syphilis of the central nervous system.
And I do not have a golden brain.
Nickel or silver or copper at best. Maybe just some useful, work-a-day cooper wiring, the kind they steal from abandoned homes and sell on the underground construction market – supplies that would not buy me or others indulgent luxuries, but that could be sold for some modest profit.
And which I gave away as if my supplies were inexhaustible.
Until I learned that my supplies were exhausted.
Until I saw the gaping hole.
Until my ability to spend myself recklessly perished.
Until I fell on the ground at the crossroads.
A pile of stones marked the intersection.
There was no turning back.
Everywhere that Hermes appears, even when it as “guardian,” there is an influx and invasion from the underworld. This is not an invasions of death but rather, of “underworldly life” ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
As I sat (and continue to sit) in meditation through this cancer I found my mind sheltering in a new imaginal space: I lay on the ground, on my back, on the floor of a contained and insulated biosphere, surrounded by plants with broad leaves and the smell of rich loamy earth. The arched glass dome above me is silvered with mercury. The quicksilver allows only a healing opaque light into the sphere while it also obscures and protects me. Its outer shell impermeable and reflective.
And for months I lay there in that spirit-bubble. Inert. Unable to move at first, and then over time, having no idea how or where to move.
I had fallen into a new world. A space between life and death.
Life inside my body was changed, confusing, unrecognizable to me in its depletion and limitation.
A life that has no prognosis. Not a bad prognosis.
Just none of any kind.
In real time I listen to others speak confidently of their long term plans, their retirements, their vacations, their children’s future college careers. They speak with a certainty that I have lost. A confidence, that I do not begrudge, but I know is illusory.
An illusion I do not get to participate in anymore. A confidence in the future that I will never have again.
This is difficult, impossible for most people to understand. Or maybe it is just intolerable to contemplate until you have to.
No one wants to imagine that I have been altered, permanently, pressed into living a new and unrecognizable life. They imagined that I would be sick for a time, and die – or be sick for a time and then “get well again” my gold, (or nickel or copper) brain restored.
Back on the ground in my domed solarium I knew that I could not move, that I was not permitted to move until I was shown a way forward.
Until it was certain that I would not go back to the road I was on before, certain I could protect myself, preserve my very spine, my treasure, and leave the childhood prison behind.
He guides souls out of his realm – the world of paths and roads – back into the warm life of the household. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
And this is what I contemplated above all as I lay broken on the ground, basking in the warm light, guarded from predators, sheltered by broad leaves, near the pile of stacked stones:
Whatever labor I undertake must take nothing away from my children, my family. Any energy expended must be returned to me in full, in kind. It must provide me with more time, resources, gold to invest in my home life. I cannot afford to become depleted for their sake. My family is my primary mission on this earth. They were my ground, the rich, yielding earth that held me as I lay on my back. The soil that infused me with life and with purpose.
For months I couldn’t imagine how I could ever return the profession of psychotherapy again. I could not envision how to return to work, or make a living or pull my weight or feed my children. My old way of being, my grandiose belief that I was inexhaustible, my cocky confidence in the future, my faith in my capacity to be abiding, and consistent and to “go on being” – all of that was gone.
Or perhaps I gave it away.
But I was not left in a void.
I was not banished to Hades.
I was deposited in this other-world,
And the mercury sky-light guarded and protected me,
and I listened to the implicit directions and I would not move until led.
I lay there a long time.
(I am still there now)
Hermes reveals a new kind of thieving or larceny, a divine kind. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
A great deal was stolen from me, and subsequently from those who were attached to me.
My children lost a healthy mother, one who could take on big ambitious projects, who planned big adventures, who was physically strong, who could support them logistically, financially, and make them feel safe. I am now a source of worry, a fragile mother, who they must stay away from when they are sick. A mother with a chronic illness that will be terminal one day but who knows when, who gets bone tired even on a trip to the nearby mall and needs to sit down to rest. Who has a doctors appointment, or another test, or who forgot to take her medication. Who needs them to get their chores done, who asks for help cooking dinner, whose limitations now impinge on their adolescence, constricting our finances, limiting our recreations and freedoms.
My husband lost a reliable partner, a fellow bread winner, and was left with a weepy, shaken wife with a damaged body numb from her waist to her feet. Who is courageous for the kids and chatty with the neighbors- but who saves up her fears and frets and floods to share only with him.
Clients in authentic states of primal dependency, negotiating psychiatric crises lost their therapist entirely – and were referred on when I was diagnosed to seek out other professional supports. I no longer have the fortitude to tend to them as their needs demand. I am too flooded with my own vulnerability to withstand, contain or carry anyone else’s profound dependencies. I am no longer anyone’s life-ring. No one can cling to me hoping that I will save them. They must find other therapists who have the resources and abundance to follow more self-sacrificing gods.
Other clients, with greater autonomy and stability, those who come to accrue wellness rather than to treat illness, will need to choose whether they want to work with me as I am now: My perspective changed, my needs more explicit: Higher fees. Fewer hours. They lost a comfortable, easily affordable, accommodating and convenient psychotherapy.
It may not be worth it for many.
Hermes is a trickster, and the paradox became clear – that “going back to work” actually meant releasing it all, letting it all disappear if need be, leaving a vacuum that may or may not be filled.
Maybe we were all fooled. Maybe the violence of this theft was necessary for us all.
Hermes is the god who leads you on. ~ Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
And a stranger tweeted this to me:
J.D.@juanviejo: Hermes as ψυχοπομπός, guide of souls, conducts the soul of the dead to whatever lies beyond the wreck of this life.
J.D.@juanviejo: Hermes did not heal. Like him you are and have always been a guide of souls.
And these words were not only kind – they were relieving, enlivening. Only then did I realize I had been sheltered under Hermes/Mercury’s quicksilver sky, and that my work was simply to take up residence at the spot where I had fallen.
To live out the rest of my life at the cross roads.
I remembered how I helped my mother to cross, as she gasped autonomically, like a fish out of water, in her final hours of life. I don’t know how I knew what to do, but I knew: I told her to lay on her back, on the dirt, in the grass at her childhood home and look up into the sky. I told her to watch a hawk, circling, higher, higher into the sky, until it was just a tiny speck, disappearing in the clouds and then returning, disappearing, higher and higher until it was impossible to tell if the speck was still there or there was nothing but sky.
And I told her: Grandma and Grandpa are here to meet you. And you know that Grandpa never ever comes late. And he never comes early. He only comes right on time, and he is here to meet you now. Go straight to them.
My mother took her last breath. And shut her eyes. And went.
Gentle Hermes led them down the dank dark passage ~ The Oddessy
I remembered all the words I have written and shared here and spoken and emailed to friends and family members and clients who have died or who have wrestled with death and lived.
And the bereavements I have guided others through as I negotiated my own grief.
And I also thought about Mercury’s function as escort to the living through moments of fate filled challenge and decision. He does not travel with his charges for long distances or assume responsibility for them forever- but simply escorts them through from one state to another.
And then he is gone.
Hermes escorting men is your greatest joy, you above all gods. ~ The Iliad
Hermes the messenger. The giant-killer who destroys all states of self-inflation and aggrandizement. The guide to the underworld. The escort at the crossroads.
And from my prone position I saw a path began to open near my right side, through the underbrush. An image of a feasible, sustainable, way to work in the world. The only way that was possible or ethical for me.
I cannot carry the dependencies that I used to.
Hermes is a trickster, and the crossroads could begin to spin and send my fate flying in an entirely different direction.
There is no way back.
Only the emerging possibility of a slow road forward.
Whomever does not shy away from the dangers of the most profound depths and the newest pathways, which Hermes is always prepared to open, may follow him.
~Karl Kerényi, Hermes, Guide of Souls
This story sounds as though it were invented, but it is true from beginning to end. ~Alphonse Daudet, Letters from My Windmill
Fear is the first natural enemy a man must overcome on his path to knowledge… A terrible enemy – treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting.
~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 62
I’ve been diagnosed with a cancer that must have been dormant in my system for a very long time. It emerged in manner that has never been seen before. I am the only one with this cancer in this way.
At the same time a cultural disease, the signs of which were long ignored, finally erupted, explicit on the national stage. Like nothing seen before in our history.
And the synchronicities between these realities are sometimes overwhelming:
The first symptoms of both of these diseases (and for me they are inseparably one) emerged in October. Some discomfort, some concern, but nothing that could or should be taken too seriously – all easily resolved, the problem could still just go away – and it would have been silly to be too worried. Maybe over nothing. No need to assume that the sky was falling.
Over the course of the month it became clear that signs were accumulating, that some alternate reality was gaining momentum, that indications were pointing toward dangers more serious than imagined. But, still, nothing was definitive. Yet. Denial had its function. We didn’t know for sure. Nothing was confirmed. Yes, it was disturbing to even have to consider some of the potential outcomes, and to come so close to such a dire forecast – fear began to mount, but still: it could all be just fine, or maybe something that could be dealt with. There was nothing to be done until the final test was over.
And then, the second week in November – the results. The diagnosis confirmed. The disease named and explicit. The vision of future forever altered. The prognosis? Unknown. We could have eight months, or eight years left. Or a cure could come from out of the blue and save us all. It could be terminal. Or we could survive with it – but there would be unavoidable losses, inescapable suffering.
And survive or perish: we are all called to encounter our first natural enemy in one form or another.
I first read Carlos Castaneda’s series about the teachings of Don Juan the summer before 7th grade. I’d spotted them on my defacto step-brother’s bookshelf, and had seen other college kids with them before. Even looking at the book jacket frightened me: images of large crows with knowing eyes, luminous eggs, and shining human forms, filled with light, devoid of faces. I’d heard the books were about “drugs” and I doubted my mother would let me read them if I asked.
We had all just moved in together after relocating to southern California from the midwest– my brothers, mother and myself with my soon to be step-father, who we all feared, and his son, Steven. We moved into a cheap two bedroom apartment in San Marcos while Mom looked for a job and a house for us to live in. The boys shared Steve’s room and Steve’s orders were not to touch anything of his. Nothing, understand? Don’t. Touch. Anything.
I slept on the couch.
But my real “room” was the nearly empty coat closet. I’d arranged stacks of my favorite books, along the back wall. In one corner – I’d squirreled two couch pillows and fashioned them into a reading nook, with an industrial flashlight and a box of Ritz crackers. I’d read all of the Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and the Narnia books in my stacks at least twice, and so, when everyone else was watching 60 Minutes, I snuck into Steve’s room, and slid the Don Juan books off his shelves and deposited them in my make-shift sanctuary.
The books were about drugs, peyote, mushrooms – but they were also about magic and sorcery and seeing – as an anthropology student finds himself falling deeper and deeper into hallucinatory shamanistic practice. It was the strangest fairy tale I had ever read. There were long boring parts. Detailed passages about growing plants and preparing magic concoctions to smoke or eat. Peyote and mushrooms used as port-keys to other worlds instead of a wardrobe or a pair of silver slippers. I had no idea if what I was reading was fiction or non-fiction, dream or fact.
But I knew this: Carlos Castaneda, Don Juan’s apprentice was afraid all the time. And Don Juan trained him to face his fears – by testing and terrorizing him. By frightening him over and over again. By telling him his life was in constant danger from spirits and dark sorcerers. By warning him that if he did not develop a warrior’s heart he would be destroyed.
“And what can he do to overcome fear?”
“The answer is very simple. He must not run away. He must defy his fear and in spite of it take the next step in learning and the next and the next. He must be fully afraid and yet not stop. That is the rule!”
~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 62
I was afraid all of the time. I needed those books. I wrestled with my fears every day and took on a dark sorcerer who seemed, in every way, to have power over our household, to have taken control over my mother and threatened to destroy everything I cherished.
I am afraid now. Cancer challenges every premise, every value, every belief that I have ever rested my sense of identity upon.
When visitors come to our home they ask how I am, but quickly the conversation shifts to our collective fears – the larger cancer that we are all contending with.
Fear is triggered by the sharp sound of a stick snapping in the silence. By shocking news that threatens your survival or your chances of happiness. By events that could consume those you love and cherish. By orders that could harm your child, threaten your health care, deport your neighbor, cause you to question everything you believed about “inalienable” rights.
Fear reminds us that nothing is inalienable.
Fear grips physically, neurobiologically, spiritually – taking us down to the place where we contemplate losing everything, every one, our very lives. The most brutal primal experience of fear is a physical one, a visceral pain that burns like fire when we realize that our deepest attachments, to each other, to our children, to our neighbors, to our values, to our hopes for the future can all be severed by forces greater than we are.
And sometimes fear arrives like a disembodied spirit – in the middle of the night, stealing sleep, rattling dreams. We can be afraid and not know why we are afraid. Fear can fill up the empty hours like inhaling a gas in and out, until it fills every cell, contaminates every thought. Fear is a demon spirit that can possess and destroy us.
And you will learn in spite of yourself, that’s the rule.
~ The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Carols Castaneda, p. 34
But the fear can also be the refiners fire – burning away anything that is unnecessary or excessive. Purifying, clarifying priorities. Boiling down to the essence:
What do we fight for? What do we live for? Who do we mean to be?
And if the fear is allowed to burn through – and this is a repetitive task because fear is never extinguished as long as there is life, as long as there is attachment – we can find ourselves in a place beyond fear:
A place where the outcome is none of our business.
A moment that is lived so thoroughly, so impeccably that what happens next is irrelevant.
An instant that reveals everything that is more important, more essential than fear.
The split-second when our core purpose is located.
A space where we do what we must do – for love’s sake, for integrity’s sake, for the sake of our own fragile soul – because our heart has become, for the moment, a warrior’s heart.
Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.
~ A Separate Reality, Carlos Casteneda, p. 143
I’ve been re-reading a strange and haunting book by a non-dualist Christian theologian Martin Bell, called Distant Fire published in 1986 – and came upon this extraordinary passage – and felt the need to record it and share it somewhere.
So, here – not my words, but his – yet they are words that are clanging in my brain as if they were my own- seemingly written about the path I am negotiating and the global dilemma all of us are facing in this new and dark era.
“And being a teller of the story carries neither reward or recognition. More will be demanded than we had planned to give; we will shrink from death. But the faith community will not stop. The people will tell the story in spite of brutality and dogs and electronic surveillance, in spite of bombing and assassinations and every kind of oppression. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses who have faced the same evil…
At one time or another each of us believes it is possible to keep life contained. That somehow we can emerge unscarred. Surely we can navigate from this shore to the next without expending life’s blood upon the sand. But wholeness (holiness) does not consist in being perfect or untouched by the ravages of the world. And life is not fair. The guilty go free; the innocent suffer. And the ways of God are not fair: the door to salvation is open to all. Mystery abounds. Sooner or later each of us will be torn apart by the world. The only question is: In what cause, on whose behalf, will life’s blood be expended?”
~ Martin Bell, Distant Fire
So maybe this blog has been veering off course – or maybe it’s been knocked violently off its trajectory. An online psychotherapist’s journal filled with random musings about psychotherapy and its processes -helpful and validating for clients and therapists alike– its original mission now completely subverted by encounters with my own illness, disability, and mortality.
This may not be the place to read about psychotherapy for a while.
I may not understand what psychotherapy is any more.
I know for sure and certain that I am not a healer. That I never healed anything or anyone, that every person who was ever healed of anything in my presence healed themselves.
People needed to pretend it was me, my love, my patience, my abidingness – but I know now, for sure and certain, that I never had any of the powers attributed to me. Maybe I was fooled sometimes. And there were many times when insistent and grateful clients actively labored to persuade me that I had a hand in making things better.
We want to believe that others, more powerful, more wise, more knowing and magical than we are can tell us the way, can take away the pain, can kiss our boo boos and make what is senseless make sense.
And I could sometimes fall into this illusion (and this illusion seemed to offer comfort in and of itself). I could seemingly take on other people’s pain, immerse myself in it – let it flood my nervous system – and sift through the grief and feel the vicarious injury, straining it through my flesh and tissues, filtering it through my veins and glands – and find some way through (not always of course sometimes I would become lost in the pain-scape for weeks, months, years). And then I would offer this partially and vicariously metabolized traumata back to the client, like a mother pre-digesting their offspring’s meal.
It was impossible before.
It is still impossible.
My supervisor once interrupted me as I fretted over a new case:
“Wait a minute…” she said “ Do you think it is your job to help people?”
Umm, kinda? No? No.
It is my job to create a space for them to learn that they have the power to save themselves.
But that answer was a learned response, memorized by rote, a consciously determined position that was in no way organic to me. It was what I said to myself when I was exhausted, or resentful, or simply failed to rescue someone from their own shit. “Its not my job, anyway. I can’t work harder at someone’s life than they do! I can’t save anyone!”
And the “wounded healer” archetype, the desire to make our wounds of use, to transcend their damage and transform them into a strength, into prosperity, into a gift.
But now, I feel the costs and the impossibility of that task: a cancer in my spine so rare that I am the only known case in the world, that has left my nerves damaged, my right side numbed and deadend. A chronic condition and immunocompromise that I will live with for the rest of my days (fewer days than I would have had otherwise.) A slow and permanent cancer that will cost my family for as long as I do live – the expense of daily chemotherapy pills for life, an eventually uninsurable pre-existing condition, the accumulated annual medical bills that will keep escalating, hard financial realities that may cost us our home, that will change the trajectories of my husband’s and my children’s lives forever along with my own.
And the compounded lesson – about what it means to encounter my true brokenness in this time, in this era, at this point in history. To face sickness and mortality as our nation writhes in the throes of its own disease process, the eruption of rot and pathology, dormant for years, that is now making itself known and may lead to the death of a democracy that we assumed would outlive us. The unavoidable message that my life, (and the lives of others like and unlike me, the poor, immigrants and queer folk, people of color, the disabled and Jews and Muslims) is disposable. That none of us are valuable enough to have our civil rights protected, our medical conditions insured, our lives guarded or cherished or preserved. It is unfathomable to fall ill, now – and with the fears of what the future may hold for me alone, for my family and for every one of us -a life threatening disease looming on the micro and macro level – as our national/cultural sickness puts the entire world in a state of precarious alarm.
I am not a healer. I can’t keep anyone safe. I can’t alleviate anything. I am only wounded, mortal like all of humanity.
I have never healed anyone.
And I am not be foolish enough to attempt to ever again.
It has also cost those I sought to “help” who must now suddenly learn that the only savior that ever existed was themselves. They must now untangle themselves from the illusion that they need me specifically, that I had or have some magic, some powers, some special juice.
None. I’ve got no magic beans.
When I do eventually return to my office to sit in that chair – I will sit there in a wholly different way.
I will sit there broken, truthful with myself about the precariousness of life and knowing that nothing except death is ever certain. I will sit there knowing I cannot save anyone. I will sit there knowing that I don’t owe anyone anything, that I have nothing more or extra – that there is no “above and beyond.”
Those that came to me in search of healing, and transcendence- because I erroneously believed those were the processes I was courting – will now have to go elsewhere.
I can only sit in that chair with my own fears, my own unignorable needs, my own humanity and I accept myself and my limitations and the vagaries of this life with radical compassion and a visceral clarity about what is essential and life-giving and what is not.
That is the mandate.
I have been shown my parameters, and I accept them. I will live within that frame and I won’t disrespect the visceral reality of my own limits ever again.
I accept impossibility.
Is there some power there? Will my sitting grounded in that state be of any use to others? Does this hard knowledge have any therapeutic applications?
I don’t know. It’s not my business.
My job is only to live in relationship to my humanity.
Down to the bone.
No more transcendence. No more hubris.
Only acceptance – of myself, of others, and of all hard realities.
Adjusting to the oral chemo I am supposed to be taking for life – the meds that one of the doctors kept comparing to baby aspirin – was harder than I’d expected. After tipping four capsules from the bottle into a cup and gulping them down – the bottle has a big sticker which says “cytotoxic” and a hazard symbol which means “don’t touch it just swallow it” – I’d feel normal for a few hours except that water tasted unpleasantly metallic.
Dizziness crept in usually, which then transitioned into headache that was almost constant – but I could deal with that.
But by afternoon the pain in my gut would start. Sour. Aching. Wrong. Painful. Not quite anything I’d recognize as nausea but it would ruin my mood and my appetite, sapping my energies and making it hard to lose myself in my children’s stories of their school days.
And then a better day, followed by an almost good day. And then the pain comes back the day after. A better day. A pain day. Two pain days.
A random unpredictable pattern of discouragement.
And the same old nerve damage I’ve been living with for months persisting even when the doctors ask hopefully about improvements.
It made me wonder how and when I would find my new normal and if I could accept it if I found it.
I started to try to plan to plan to get back to work. Since on the other side of this recovery I am supposed to be left with a chronic manageable cancer -frequently compared to living with HIV by the care team- that will require I change my work values, my professional identity, my fees, my frame, my availability. Work for me has meant giving away all that I could and trusting I would get back enough to meet my needs.
And that scheme, obviously ain’t gonna fly in this new world, this new and altered life.
I was going to need some time and gather my strength and some distance from this trauma and neurochemical stability before I could even begin to sort that out.
I set up appointments for wellness care with my acupuncturist, my supervisor. I put a call into my therapist. I made an appointment with a nutritionist that specializes in chemo and cancer.
But then, I got really tired. New Years Eve day. Maybe it was bereavement- we’d lost a beloved family friend last year New Years Day. Whatever. I was exhausted and heartbroken simultaneously. I spent the day in bed.
New Year’s Eve I was nauseated and my head was pounding. I took my temperature and it was low 100.1, but high enough to be a little alarmed while on chemo, when you are immunocompromised.
But then New Years Day the sun rose and I saw that I was covered from my neck to my fingers and toes with a splotchy rash. And I hollered to my husband that we needed to get to the ER. So I didn’t have time to check in with my kids about how they felt about their young auntie’s death anniversary or time to make Korean rice cake soup in honor of her or the New Year or even check if anyone could bring themselves to eat it – because maybe this achey rashy fatigue meant I was allergic to the “game changing” oral chemo which was supposedly going to give me back my life.
Or maybe it was something else.
The ER docs said it looked viral, but a doctor from my oncology team came by and said she thought it looked allergic and “we’d just have to find some other meds – oh wait, your cancer is too rare so you won’t actually qualify for those trials… ”
Trials I thought. For fucks sake: am I suddenly in the realm of being excluded from trials?
“Oh, we’ll figure something out,” she continued, “in the meantime see your primary oncologist on Tuesday, stop the oral chemo for now and we’ll send you on home.”
With Tylenol and benedryl.
But I was still covered with an itchy rash and when I got home I ended up in bed with the shivers and a temp of 101.5.
But weirder: my hands and feet and knees and elbows and neck and shoulders but especially my hands became unbearably painful. My hands were actually excruciatingly swollen and so inflamed so I couldn’t do anything – not open a pill bottle or a drawer or turn a doorknob and just looking at my phone or text messages made me want to throw up.
And the kids were scared and acting out by bickering and sassing by the time I was able to flinch and wince down the stairs one at a time. And then I ask a kid for help getting an ice cube because I can’t open the freezer door and I’m met with a perfectly developmentally normal sarcastic sass-back and I yell and then begin crying and leave the room limping dramatically because it took all my energy to walk downstairs to sit with them through a dinner which I couldn’t eat any way.
And I miss them. Terribly. But they are tweens and so I try to respect their need to keep their distance and self regulate but when they do circle round and I’m not well enough to really be present this is the saddest reality of all. Because it undermines the single prime directive I have to hang onto, the ultimate bargaining chip I go all in with when I lapse into trying to negotiate with my disease or the Universe or God: The chip called “Take Anything Away At All I Just Want to be a Mother to My Children.” because actually I want more than that. I want to be a fucking superlative angelic ideal goddamn mother who is able to put my children before everything, always. And when I see myself being a mother in a limited way, a limited mother who can’t protect them from tiptoeing around on eggshells or when I am simply reduced to an horrible entity called “Your Mother’s Illness” I could stomp my foot and disappear into a giant hole of frustration and self-contempt like the one that swallowed up Rumplestilskin.
And I woke up at 4 am in pain from trying to roll over and canceled the healthy appointments I’d set up for Thursday because if I couldn’t walk down the stairs to dinner I sure as hell won’t be successfully commuting into the city.
And then i hyperventilated and sobbed on my groggy husband’s shoulder until it was time for him to get the kids off to school by himself because he actually has to do everything around here and at the office. And he let me sleep another hour before we had to leave for the follow up appointment.
And I shuffled into the head oncologist’s office and recounted my tale of sudden and extreme disability. I showed her my swollen hands and my fingers that wouldn’t type or text or hold a phone. I reminded her that I’ve lost 14 lbs and my rings were loose before that and showed her that they had become so tight on my inflamed hands that I could not twist or remove them.
I showed her the rash which she wasn’t all that impressed by. She told us she thinks the fever indicates that it’s probably a viral infection like 5th disease that I must have been exposed to somehow which isn’t a big deal unless you are immunocompromised. But joint pain and rash can be allergy too- so we’ll start you on steroids and see you back here Friday because we can’t go too long without my being on oral chemo or CLL antibodies, or at worst, more inpatient methotrexate but actually we would not stop the oral chemo long term for “something minor like this ” And even if it was allergic we’d have to manage it.
And a chill passed through me as I thought:
That ‘new normal’ I’ve been searching for. I suppose this could be it.
It could get better.
Or it could all keep unfolding
a random unpredictable pattern
What if new normal is here – and has been all along –
And all we can do is manage it.
The next day I ended up in the ER with swelling tongue. They are now assessing if I have genetic angioedema- a kind of intense allergic/autoimmune attack which can be triggered by the different cancer therapies, or even by the lymphoma itself, complicating my treatment plan. Cancer treatment is paused for now until we can move forward in conjunction with an allergist/immunologist.