I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
We all know the story of Narcissus, and the dangers of falling too deeply in self-love, mesmerized by our own reflection.
And we all know that fairy tales warn us of the black arts of deceptive mirrors which seduce us into the belief that we are indeed the “fairest of them all”
Psychoanalytic theory has wrestled with the idea of the reflected self – and the hunger we all have to see ourselves accurately and completely. The need to gaze at ourselves is simultaneously labeled as narcissistic disease, and the same mirroring gaze is the cure itself.
Self-involvement, self-regard, self-love, self-awareness, self-negation, self-esteem, selfishness and self-reflection. Our fascination with mirrors speaks to our archetypal hunger to see ourselves in both a flattering and an accurate light, our fear of what we may find, the tricks and dangers that lurk through the looking-glass and the wish to know realities that require the aid of the reflecting glass.
For without such reflections we cannot begin to know ourselves at all.
Relationship as Mirror
I your glass Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
Shakespeare ~ Julius Cesar
The first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is “the gleam in the mother’s eye” – a glimpse of our infant-selves, feeding, reflected in the dark pupil of a care provider. For those lucky enough to first see themselves in an eye-mirror that is smiling, admiring, bonded, and loving our most primordial sense of Self will be surrounded in adoration and security. For those with depressed, absent, distracted or indifferent care takers the first glimpse of ourselves may be anxious, disrupted, hopeless or fragmentary.
And some cannot find themselves there at all.
Mothering and mirroring are archetypal functions entangled and intertwined long before psychoanalysis conflated them:
In Christian art the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. As the medieval writer Jacobus de Voragine wrote:
“As the sun permeates glass without violating it, so Mary became a mother without losing her virginity… She is called a mirror because of her representation of things, for as all things are reflected from a mirror, so in the blessed Virgin, as in the mirror of God, ought all to see their impurities and spots, and purify them and correct them…” ~ The Fitzwilliam Museum
Over time early caretakers wield their parental power with “an increasing selectivity of responses.” As the mother’s face-mirror shifts from admiring to disappointing, approving to disapproving, flattering to shaming it prunes our sense of our own strengths and weaknesses, and helps us to assemble a socialized self – a mask, a false-self, a personae to introduce ourselves to the world.
The first experience of a disapproving mirror casts us from the garden, initiates us into the processes of repression and introduces us to sin and shame.
The most destructive energies within us must first be met with some approval for their self-preserving, evolutionary function in order for us to integrate them into our own self-image, and learn to modulate them and use them effectively.
The consequence of the parental self-objects inability to be the joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness may be a lifetime of abrasiveness, bitterness and sadism that cannot be discharged- and it is only by means of therapeutic reactivation of the original need for the self-objects responses that the actual lessening of rage and a return to healthy assertiveness can be achieved. ~ Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of Self.
In Kohut’s model, the psychotherapist creates an opportunity for a corrective experience by assuming transferred responsibility for these mirroring needs – as a self-object that helps to repair and integrate distorted or unmirrored aspects of the Self. The therapist offers an accepting, admiring gaze, one that allows the client to shed the distorting self-representations left over from being raised surrounded by fun house mirrors.
For Kohut, the need for healthy self-mirroring objects, accurate enough, even through its imperfections, is life long. Psychotherapies that span a life-time are not seen as failed – but as necessary compensations for our ongoing need to see and accept ourselves as we are over time.
No one looks in a mirror just once. We feel the need in to check in on ourselves, to peer and peek, take in and groom our reflections, sometimes several times a day, every day as we grow, mature and decline over for the course of our lives. We wonder if we could know ourselves over time, if we could have a sense of how life passes through us at all without our mirrors.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
Mirrors & Shadows
In myth, scripture, fairy tale and legend, the mirror as archetype serves far more uncanny functions, functions more dangerous, ambivalent, sacred and transcendent than merely regulating our self-esteem.
Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.
Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. ~ CG Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”
Our truest face, our whole Self includes a shadow that is terrifying to us, as almost every scary movie will attest to. What is more frightening than staring in a mirror, alone, in an empty house, at night with nothing to encounter except yourself in the quiet dark? What horror will be revealed? What chilling doppleganger lurks underneath our daytime persona?
We are horrified and titillated by seeing our denied, demonic shadow selves reflected.
There are destructive creatures lurking in our personal unconscious that can only be vanquished, by taking indirect aim through their reflection, as Perseus defeated Medusa. Complexes that are so potent, that if we attempt to face them too squarely, too directly we could be turned to stone.
There are monsters and entities which are only recognized by empty mirrors which reveal their soul-lessness. Our undead selves, the haunting self-apsects not alive but not dead either, vampiric states that drain us when we are unaware, our eyes closed to what has emerged to feed when we were not awake to ourselves.
In Psychology and Alchemy, C.G. Jung details a dream in which a mirror appears as “an indispensable instrument of navigation” referring “to the intellect which is able to think, and is constantly persuading us to identify with its insights (reflections).”
Metabolizing shadow content is one of the functions of psychotherapy too, as well as safely and incrementally, breaking down the repressions, fear, and judgement which caused those self-states to find themselves banished to the mirror-lands to begin with.
Here the focus of psychotherapeutic work is less on the psychotherapist as corrective mirror, but more as a warm and accepting guide, who’s job is to usher us into active relationship with our own Unconscious.
Mirrors can also show us glimpses of worlds far beyond our personal unconscious.
Mirrors, Soul and Spirit
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
~ 1 Corinthians, 13:12 King James Bible
Mirrors are windows into alternate universes, to magic realms, to the upside down places, and can transport us to the dream-lands and spirit worlds. They are the looking-glass we can fall through, and the portal which both dark and benevolent spirits pass through to contact us.
Faust on his journey with Mephistopheles first falls in love with face of Divine love – Heavenly beauty, the Anima, manifest as the face of Helen of Troy when her image emerges in a magic mirror. It is this contact with his own soul and the redeeming spirit which, in the end, will ultimately save him.
And from her living body, lying there
Comes there indeed all heaven my soul to bless?
~ Faust, Goethe
Mirror phenomenon are also representative of the intuitive function: To look in a mirror lit only by candle light reveals the spirits of those who have died. Or practice mirror gazing, catopromancy, as Pythagoras did, and divine your fate as it emerges in the glass. Reflection under the moonlight opens the mind’s eye to the images, intuitions, and guidance of larger psyche: the instincts and perceptions unconsciously repressed or consciously dismissed in the light of day.
Without the silvered glass we may never retrieve unknown, forgotten or lost pieces of our own soul.
It was a maxim both in ancient India and in ancient Greece not to look at one’s reflection in the water and …the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the person’s reflection or soul ‘under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Like photographs, when isolated cultures without mirrors were introduced to them for the first time, it was often assumed that the reflection was their actual soul, having left the body.
We cover mirrors following a death so the soul does not become lost within them and a broken mirror is an image of a shattered soul in pieces, and it will take seven years before its wholeness is restored.
If the mirror is “‘a thing that has been made the screen for man’s projections” (Elkish) then through the processes of projection we lose some part of our soul.
So, what then are psychotherapists as personified blank-screens and mirroring-objects gathering up client’s projections and transferences – but soul-stealers and head-shrinkers, holding our client’s souls hostage for a weekly ransom? As psychotherapists we must always acknowledge the darker aspects of our powers and the archetypes that are present in the therapeutic transaction. As clients, the mirror as archetype reminds us that we must remain always cognizant of the dangers of becoming trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.
It seems that the fear of loss of self (or soul) together with the attempt at retrieving the lost makes the mirror so fascinating ~ Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of the Mirror
Mirrors, Tricks and Miracles
The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game ~ Alan Watts
Of course stage magicians also rely on mirrors to create pleasurable tricks and amusements. It is a deception that we participate in happily, willingly, suspending our disbelief to delight in the hidden mirrors ability to make things appear or disappear, or to make something or someone dense, burdensome and heavy transform into something as light as a feather. As we watch the volunteer from the audience levitate, mirrors obscuring the mechanisms of suspension, our own burdens feel lighter too.
Mirrored tricks and illusions can have profoundly healing effects: Mirror-boxes are used to effectively treat phantom limb pain following amputation. The intact limb is placed in front of the mirror box, which masks the missing limb. The patient watches the mirror while they stretch, unfurl, scratch, or massage the intact limb, relieving the discomfort of the missing limb. The mind is not fooled into the literal belief that their missing limb has been restored, but the brain is fooled and the illusion soothes and relieves.
And perhaps psychotherapy is at its very best, a similar curative illusion, a healing trick, a soothing substitution – rather than a literally corrective experience for losses incurred in the past. A trick which both participants must remember is both an illusion and a cure.
Or maybe it is something else:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes….
~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror
An image presented itself to me in a hypnogogic state recently – as I drifted in between sleep and waking:
I sat in my office chair, my face hidden from view, my head behind a mirror inside a box much like a medicine cabinet. I sat across from an unknown Other, who I could see only dimly, but who saw their soul reflected when they faced me. They were transfixed, filled with yearning, with deep hunger for more contact, to forge a deep and lasting relationship with the face in front of them. I was not fooled. I knew that I was not what they sought. But it was nearly impossible to impress the truth upon them: What they thought they could only access through “me” was merely a reflection of their Self: “wholeness, totality, the union of opposites, the central generative point where God and man meet… the fountain of our being which is most simply described as God” ~ Edward Edinger – Ego and Archetype
“Mirror”: from the Vulgar Latin, “mirare” to look at,” variant of Latin mirari “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished” – also the historical source of “Miracle” and “Miraculous”
What you seek is already within you. This reality is subjective, not the outer, objective reality. ~ Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror quoted in Parabola vol, 39, issue 1
It is your own lush self
you hunger for
~ Lucille Clifton, Eve’s Version
Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c. ~ ( http://www.etymonline.com)
So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.
Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me. I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.
Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.
People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.
Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.
Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.
Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag it out of them:
“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”
“No. I am not angry….”
“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”
“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”
Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.
Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.
Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.
Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.
Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.
And of course, I get angry too.
I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?
If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.
Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.
And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.
In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.
As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.
I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it. I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.
I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:
“There will be times when I disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’ If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable – and its an essential part of how therapy works.
It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”
It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.
Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.
Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)
Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.
And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.
If I can. I can’t always.
And sometimes even that is not enough.
It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.
Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.
Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.
Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)
If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.
The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.
What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.
It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?
If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?
The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.
But first we must embrace the wrestling match.
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.
Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
~ Hard Times lyrics by Stephen Foster
I didn’t mean to write this, or intend to write anything – it is probably unwise to publish it, but I suppose I will anyway. Frankly I’ve been thinking I should take a break from writing altogether for a bit.
I’m just not so filled with easy inspiration, or reassuring confidence, or heart warming feel-goodisms.
My husband and I are in midlife and are, like many of our peers, sandwiched in between caring for our elders and our children. All of whom, for the time being are in significant and legitimate need of our support through some more and less challenging medical realities. Testing, appointments, evaluations, treatments, follow up, referrals. We are in the thick of it and it looks like we may be for a while.
A summer which felt like it was ripe with openings, fortune, potential and new growth crashed into a shocking and frightening fall which will unavoidably open up to a tiring cold winter.
It happens sometimes. We’ve faced such things before, and will again. I’ve seen and supported clients and friends and neighbors as they’ve passed through similar hard times.
Just as all human beings do.
But psychotherapists are supposed to be invulnerable, no? Fully actualized? Enlightened? Able to absorb anything that comes their way?
And who would want to see (or read) a psychotherapist in the midst of hard times?
Better to source out some therapist who is perky and happy! Who feels in control of life! Who can make you feel better!
Yet, sometimes life gets heavy. Sometimes there is work to be done. Sometimes we are pulled in many directions. Sometimes our choices are narrowed down by circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes a great deal is required of us. Sometimes, despite our plans and intentions, our possibilities restrict themselves to a very few or none at all. Sometimes our external freedoms become constricted. Sometimes the wolf is at the door.
So, for me, this isn’t a silly, playful, easy season filled with boundless, bouncy energy.
I am sometimes weary. I am sometimes overwhelmed. Sometimes I want to run. Sometimes I am incredibly proud of myself and my ability to keep moving, to get done all that I need to, and stay connected to myself and others. Sometimes I want to spend a day in bed with the covers over my head. Sometimes I am swelling with appreciation for the tender comforts around me, the honesty and intimacy and contact that the relationships in my life, personal and professional, offer me whether they know it or not.
Sometimes this season has offered me glimpses of deeper truths, timeless ones, that transcend and soothe through the rough and jumble of the road I am on for the moment.
I am all right. I’m okay just as I am. Where I am feels healthy and appropriate. To be too cheery right now would be denial of reality, a self-deception, and would pull me further away from the phase of life and the external challenges I am passing through for the foreseeable future. But certainly not forever.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
Happiness doesn’t last forever, but nor does sorrow, and neither does trouble. All states have gifts to offer, lessons to teach, blessings to bestow.
Things get heavy sometimes. Its just a fact.
Sorrow has its season.
Even for psychotherapists.
Energy retreats, retracts, and peace can be found in small, still moments, in quiet spaces deeply internal. Fake smiles, chit chat, false reassurances would make me less present, banish me, send me away, exhaust and deplete me more and make me abandon myself, thinning out my resources to connect to others.
“How are you?” Some clients routinely ask – usually I respond, honestly, “Fine! How are you?” Now my response is more subdued, but still honest. “I’m okay. And you?” or “I’m hanging in. What is happening in your world?”
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
To do this work I need to be in contact with myself, and I need to stay in contact with myself, and remain loyal to my own energies, even when it is not comfortable.
Through my professionally arranged face, through my slower, quieter responses, through the circles under my eyes, (which can betray me – no matter how much “concealer” I apply) some still feel the shift in my energies. Some, especially those who come for time limited short term work, to focus on a single issue, or who use therapy as a problem solving space, take it as their cue that it is time to finish up, assuming that if I am offering less, that it is a signal that our work is complete.
Some clients know part of the story, as medical appointments for family members have caused me to cancel, reschedule and rearrange appointments more than I have ever before. Some know the whole story because they dream of it, or read me so closely, and so hard that it frightens them more not to be told what is happening.
Some don’t know anything, or know a little, but need me to protect them from thinking too much about me – as it is hard enough for them to stay loyal to their own experience.
Some become angry with me, without knowing why, because they sense, unconsciously, in their pre-verbal places that part of my psyche is working on my own challenges and conflicts. For those who had depressed or preoccupied early caretakers it is especially threatening, as they are sure that if they sense any dip in my energies that I will become unable, unavailable, to sustain my caring, loving attention.
There are those who are immersed in much harder trials, more consuming, more traumatizing, more violent conflicts, more emergent circumstances and more acute crisis than mine and it snaps my perspective into place, as I move my own experience further down the triage list – and immerse myself in the need that is in front of me with the skills I have accumulated over many years.
Some, who perhaps I have enabled by being more active than was necessary when my tank was full to overflowing, are being given more space to take up the reflective, interpretive work as their own, as I hold back to listen more, perhaps offering less direction or guidance than I might in a more buoyant time.
And there are many moments through my workday which lift and inspire me: A client falling in healthy reciprocated love. Another who feels ready to marry. The birth of babies through hard pregnancies, the courageousness of a client trusting me enough to share the ways that they do not yet trust me. The bravery and integrity of another in the face of danger. A piece of creative work shared, beautiful and transforming. The incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring imagery of dreams. Undeniable growth, accomplishment, achievement, mutual admiration, appreciation. Closeness in all forms, shapes and sizes.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more. ~ Stephen Foster
And then there are actual gifts that come with hard patches.
When the ability to engage in the Extraneous is eliminated, the Essential reveals itself more quickly and incontrovertibly.
Priorities become crystal clear. And when you trust your exhaustion, you know that it will steer you away from the superfluous, unnecessary.
And when you feel alive and engaged you know you are in the presence of something vital and healing for all involved.
I can feel when I am barking up the wrong tree almost instantly. I can tell when it is better to wait something out, rather than bang my head against the wall. I can spot any opportunity for relieving contact with the healing processes of Life as they move continuously between and around us all.
I have more compassion for myself: if I have a harder time organizing, scheduling, getting my bills done, or it takes me a beat or two longer to understand what is playing out in the room, I know that I am doing my best. I accept and take responsibility for my errors without being tempted to punish myself for them. I am doing what I can do. I can model self-compassionate behavior, a way of being that is less concerned, for now, with pushing past limitations than accepting them.
I may now have less energy for heroic maneuvers, for flashy interpretations. I will not be leaping over tall buildings in a single bound or pulling a rabbit out of a hat in the season ahead – I am currently unable to be seduced by inflation or grandiosity, it is just too tiring – and life is simply too humbling at present. I cannot over-extend, bite off more than I can chew, or take on anything that could prove to be too much later.
I am in exquisite and direct contact with my own needs, and the fact that I am finite.
I treasure and value the impact and the necessity of stillness like never before.
And I understand “self-care” less as a discreet activity or a scheduled event and more as an on-going way of being, moment by moment, in the presence of people who need me – as I negotiate the balance between their needs and my own and attempt to honor them both.
We will all pass through such times. And we can receive something from them as well. And if I can do nothing other than try, and fail, and try again to model an experience of being simultaneously intact and overwhelmed, of staying in caring and compassionate relationship to myself, my family and my clients, perhaps, through hard times that is more than enough.
Never to ask for easier circumstances, but for greater strength, and to accept gladly, (when they come) rest and ease along the road. ~ Pierre Ceresole
Jung hung a plaque on his threshold which read:
“Invited or Uninvited: God is Present.”
The sign that I’ve often imagined placing over my office door, not quite as cozy and inviting as Jung’s, would read as follows:
“Surrender Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
Although I suppose that a slogan lifted straight from Dante’s Gates of Hell might be a little daunting for new clients.
For some Hope may float, spring eternal, and be a thing with feathers. But very often my job seems to be to squelch, sink or pluck it.
Hope is an angel, but also a demon.
Nearly everyone who walks into this office does so because, whether they know it or not, one way or another, they are trapped in Hope’s dark clutches.
Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness. Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night. One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope,- in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Human All Too Human, 71. Hope)
Hope, may be the center of the three theological virtues along with Faith and Charity, but it carries dangerous and pathological aspects as well.
Hope, misdirected, misplaced, can cement our attachments to people and places that are destructive to us. Hope can dangle, like bait, with a sharp hook embedded inside to keep us waiting for transformations that will never come. Hope gone haywire lurks at the root of all addictions – and we all know the “definition of insanity” is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.
Hope can block out necessary grief, forestalling or arresting entirely, the sweet release of necessary loss and healthy mourning. Hope can deceive us, obscuring realities that we need to face. Hope can keep us waiting for Godot, who will never come. Hope to “get out of” is the root of all denial.
Pernicious hope lures the gambler to go “all in” on a long shot, and invites cowardice to search for means of magical escape. Hoping for divine intervention, waiting passively to be lifted out of circumstances that require our labor and our conscious intention, Hope can bind and paralyze us.
Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. ~ Aristotle, Rhetoric
Hope can keep us places that we need to leave, and seduce us into leaving places where we should stay.
Hope futurizes, pulling on us to abandon the present moment, and numbing us to it.
Hope insinuates that we can get out of our distress – when our soul’s only salvation may be to go through it.
Where Hope is, fear lurks just below.
We dread the dark lessons, the painful transformations, the inevitable losses that life requires of us. We do not want to give up on the dirty well. Pernicious hope tempts us to return to it over and over in search of clean water.
Hope is grippy, sticky, grasping.
It sneaks up quietly and carries a big hook:
Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. ~ Pema Chodron
Hope is the ally of quacks and con-men, and the sidekick of all duplicity. We cannot be tricked if we do not hope for an easy solution or a free lunch. Hope helps Illusion disguise itself as Reality.
Hope can distract, divert, drain our energies away from dreaded but unavoidable responsibilities, stealing our focus, and our acceptance of the task at hand.
Every defense, every resistance, every form of self-sabotage contains, at the bottom of the box, Hope in some form.
Many describe themselves as hopeless, who are in truth, being tortured by pathological hopes that they cannot let go of.
To surrender hope is an exhausting and terrifying process. Hope is a habit that is hard to extinguish, a fix we can’t stop jonesing for. It reasserts itself, stubborn, persistent, sneaky, a craving, a crutch.
The work of psychotherapy is often to chase down and sort through the flock of slippery and Pernicious Hopes in all their diverse and daemonic aspects. To capture one at a time, examine it, to challenge and question its true mission, to uncover exactly which god this particular Hope obeys.
To exorcise it.
And the therapist’s hopes can have as much destructive power as the client’s. To hope too much on behalf of a client is a rejection of where they actually are. To hope to cure a client is inflated and grandiose as that prerogative is theirs alone. To hope to rescue someone from their circumstance is avoidant and can instill more fear in the client toward what may lie ahead, implying that it cannot be faced. Therapists may also hope to escape the painful or frightening aspects of a client’s journey and wrestle with the tempting hope, like Jesus did, that the dark cup will taken from them both.
Surrender All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
And much maligned Hopelessness, always given short shrift, can bring sweet relief. Giving up, surrender, admitting defeat, hitting bottom, allows us to lay on the damp earth, face down, grounded, maybe bloodied, but on the earth, and of the earth for good, for ill.
We can breathe again when Hope releases us from its clutches. When there is nothing left to lose, we are no longer afraid. We can rest, heal up, and when we have gathered our energies, face what is real squarely and without letting Hope deceive us. Without Hopelessness we cannot embrace our fate or face our destiny.
The great gift of angelic Hopelessness is Acceptance.
To write without hope is the very best way to write.
Dante passed through the Gates of Hell, and descended through its terrible rings before he was permitted to rise up through Purgatory to glimpse Paradise.
True, angelic Hope lives on the other side of Hopelessness. It does not protect us from hopelessness or help us avoid it. It is the gift we are sometimes given when we have withstood hopelessness past the point of what we thought we could endure. It is often hidden, buried, or dwelling just past the horizon line of our limited perceptions. Sometimes it is just the sound of water, the smallest trickle, in the far distance. It is hard to hear, impossible to see, and rarely obvious.
Angelic Hope descends as an unexpected visitor, as a moment of grace as something we can never expect, demand, and will turn destructive if we cling to it too tightly.
It comes on its own. And not when it is called.
And we must too often abandon it, surrender it, kill it, in order to receive it again, anew.
And to extinguish hope is no guarantee of its arrival.
It will come in its own time anyway.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
~ T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.
They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.
And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.
Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.
I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.
Is healing always even the goal? Sometimes the goal is just surviving.
Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of life’s suffering.
Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises, mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.
But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.
But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy. But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me. Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so. Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest when all I did was water it once or twice a week.
But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!
I will try to talk briefly (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.
I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to be near a boy – who I thought was a man, a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”
I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over 20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese. He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.
So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me, so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.
And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine. And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.
And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.
I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I unable to tell what I looked like. I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.
I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall and reorder for myself what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.
This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.
It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.
At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.
Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story? How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?
The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.
And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself? How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.
This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.
My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.
I mourned for all of those I had to let go.
I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation. And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.
And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.
So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?
I guess the answer is yes.
I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.
“Hi! Nice to meet you – you are a therapist too?! That’s great – I do CBT, Motivational Interviewing and Behavioral Activation – what do you do?”
“I have an office…” I’ll vague out and drift off.
When faced with the alphabet soup of “evidenced based psychotherapies” I find myself lost and speechless.
I don’t begrudge or devalue any of those interventions for the therapists and the clients that find them useful and meaningful.
But that isn’t what I do.
None of the methodology, measures, the cognitive distortions or neuropsychological reprogrammings would have pulled me from the quagmire I inherited – there were only a few simple things that had any chance of aligning me with my soul’s mandate and the pursuit of meaning in my life: Image, Words, Metaphor, Relationship.
I can’t eliminate behavior, and wouldn’t even dare arbitrate which behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. I can’t fix a damned thing. And I don’t practice therapy that fixes anything, because, frankly, I never wanted to participate in a therapy or enter into a relationship with a therapist who wanted to fix me.
I can’t make anyone’s problems go away, including my own. And as I get older, and watch myself revisit the same conflicts and complexes in subtler forms I wonder if “change” in the sense that most people imagine it when they speak of psychotherapy, is possible at all, and if it is even desirable.
Healing is a word that means more to me than “behavioral change” but only if “healing” primarily means living with ever deepening compassion for our own, and other’s wounds and vulnerabilites. I am not a “healer” who knows how to make wounds disappear entirely, if at all. Scars, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, residues, susceptibilities, remain, even if the bleeding stops.
And often enough life gets better and worse and better and worse on its own – with or without psychotherapy.
So what do I do?
Its not just other therapists that want to know – clients also want to know “what kind of therapy” I practice – and they are especially entitled to an answer, and one that is not cloaked in mystification.
And here even the language of depth therapies fail me: I do not “do” psychoanaylsis or analytical psychology, existential or Buddhist psychotherapy – although these models and many others feel useful and meaningful to me at times in making sense of my own experience.
So I have an office. I sit in it. People come to see me, or sometimes we go walking together.
I care when the people who come to see me are angry, murderous, numb, disappointed, in agonizing pain, terrified, lost, stuck, bored, nauseated, lonely – even when it is very hard, very painful, or when they feel these things because of something I have done, or something I have not done or cannot do.
Sometimes when things turn brutal for someone I care about I’ll just hang on for dear life. I don’t give up. I don’t turn away. I am not pushed over.
I stick around. I listen and I don’t retreat, and I am not easily scared or chased off.
I try to picture in my mind’s eye the people, places, things, and images that I am hearing about or sensing. Sometimes images, feelings and pictures seem to float up in my own mind, drawn from my own life experience, themes from stories I have read, myths I have heard – and I put these into words to see if they are connected to the pictures and feelings that are bubbling up in the person near to me. I remain curious and committed to understanding the words and pictures and sensations that are being communicated to me as precisely as possible. I surf through the waves of my own watery unconscious and the unconscious of my therapeutic partner. I keep my filter down and my aperture open wide. I try to stay connected in the bumpy, rocky, scary, severe, extreme places where most social relationships will not venture. Where even familial relationships can’t, won’t or don’t go.
I lend my self out. Not my “healthy ego” – my Self, my heart, my dreams, the pictures in my head.
There are many of us who work in this way, and who could work in no other way.
I do this because it was done for me, and this meant the world to me.
Once, many many years ago, when I worked on a unit that served severely mentally ill adults, a psychiatrist pulled me aside to offer me some encouragement. “Do you know why your clients are doing so well?” she asked. “Do you know why they are getting better? Its not because you make sure they are compliant with their medication. Its not because you set clear behavioral objectives and treatment goals. Its because you love them like you belong to them. It’s because you take them into your heart like they are your own. You give of yourself, and they feel that and it makes them stronger. I don’t know why everyone just doesn’t do that.”
At the time I didn’t know what to make of what she said. But I didn’t then and don’t know now how to work any other way.
A few years later, at that same job, I would come to understand the need people had to work from objective and objectifying stances rather than out of their subjectivity.
On the unit we all had small safety windows in our offices – so therapists and mentally ill clients could feel both safe together talking with the doors shut. As I sat at my desk to take my lunch break, and get some paperwork done, I felt several pairs of eyes peering at the back of my neck. I looked out the window to see four or five of my clients lined up to peek in on me, one after another, while I ate.
I opened the door:
“What’s up ? Can I help you guys? I’m on a break right now okay?”
“Come on” one of the older guys said to the crew “we better go so that we don’t use her all up!”
I was getting used up, although it was never because of them. The agency and mental health system I worked in wasn’t designed to support those who worked like me. It was designed to socially control the greatest number of people for the least amount of money. Commitment, abidingness, endurance, resolve, availability, intuition and meaning were far less important than outcomes and measures, and the elimination of unwanted behavior.
Although it is true, then and now, that I must always be vigilant not to give too much, not to give more than is required, or needed. I remain careful not to ever give in a way that will make others feel indebted to me or that leaves me drained or resentful. But that is my job, my responsibility to regulate. And if, and when, I give more than I can afford, or more than others need of me, it is my job to correct and compensate for, and never ever because others have used me up.
On my long morning run just after an introduction to a perfectly nice evidence based psychotherapist who had recited his alphabet soup of what he “did”, I heard these words rising up from my beating heart:
“Its the relationship that heals it is the relationship that heals the relationship that heals. This is my fervent belief and this is where I put my professional faith”
When I got home, I googled a bit trying to locate the rhythm and the cadence of these familiar words and realized that this mantra had resurfaced, slightly paraphrased, from a book I had read only once over twenty years ago:
It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals – my professional rosary. ~ Yalom, I. (1989), Love’s Executioner, London: Penguin Books, p.91
My acupuncturist once said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. How you work the way you do.”
I don’t always manage as well as I would like.
When my own life becomes a challenge or crisis erupts for me, or when I foolishly attempt an “objective” survey of the scope of what I have undertaken I can overwhelm myself: Caring for my elders, for my children, for clients. When I attempt to itemize the breadth and depth and range of all the different forms of care-taking I am immersed in, when I look at my days and weeks and attempt to catalogue all the pain, fear, vulnerability and dependency that is attached to me I sometimes fear that I can be used up and that I could drown in a flood of other people’s needs.
But, when I breathe, and move through my day moment by moment – I see that I am more buoyant than I realize and that I am tethered not only to my teachers, mentors, guides, and therapists, who stayed afloat with and for me, but that I stay afloat with, for, alongside and because of the deep and real relationships I have forged with those who pass through my office.
Image, words, metaphor and relationship cannot use me up. They fill my heart and keep me afloat.
It’s the relationship that heals the relationship that heals the relationship that heals.
Both members of the therapeutic couple.
All of us. Always.
“We are lost, afflicted only this one way;
That having no hope we live in longing” I heard
These words with heartfelt grief that seized on me
Knowing how many worthy souls endured
Suspension in that Limbo
~ The Inferno of Dante, Robert Pinky translator
The position of the (hanged) man: upside down, head below, hanging by one foot…. plunges us into the heart of the problem of the relationship between man and gravitation, and the conflicts the relationship entails. ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, by Anonymous
I’m not sure what, if anything, will come of this.
Its all up in the air, and it could leave you hanging too.
I sit with my clients and listen as they move through their daily lives. Building careers, raising families, moving among and around weekly rhythms – work, commute, dinner, home, therapy appointment, weekend. The world is comfortably, or perhaps even oppressively predictable. The ground underfoot becomes a well-trodden path. The disruptive power of the Unknown, of the Unpredictable, seems reduced to a piffle. Lives are ordered. Choices are made. Cause and effect rule the day – if x , then y.
Our sense of agency and ability to structure ourselves can appear inviolate. We imagine that we have the tiger by the tail, and that tragic, upsetting, disruptive things happen only to other people, to a colleague you don’t know too well at work, or a friend of a friend, or to the person whose photo is splashed across the cover of of the NY Post being held by the stranger sitting across from you on the subway.
When suddenly, in a split second, the rules of every day are suspended. And we can find ourselves in a whole new world. A instantaneous slip into an alternate universe, one we did not choose and would never have picked if the choice was offered.
But it wasn’t.
The table turns in a flash – and any expectations that the next day will be better, or even vaguely resemble this one are disrupted. Crisis erupts or we fall into it, it flips us upside down – a job loss, a change of fortune, an unexpected diagnosis, a natural disaster.
Entrapping uncertainty can also creep up slowly: we can find ourselves bound, against our will, in long, excruciating waiting periods, slow builds, protracted searches for something or someone that may never be found, precarious processes with unclear prognoses. States where any and all predictions might be reasonable – and our need to know what might come next is thwarted. Incrementally or violently pressed into Life’s Waiting Room we thrash and writhe, or go limp and sleepy – we do all we can to escape this In Between Place where Life is neither feast nor famine, neither fish nor foul, neither here nor there.
This is the sorrowful state of souls unsure….
Who, neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him,
Chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.
~ The Inferno of Dante
There are times when we find ourselves suspended.
And I find myself strung up as often as anyone.
Dante locates Limbo as the first stop on the “deep and savage road.” a place just inside the Hell-gates of hopelessness. But we commonly think of it as a space between Heaven and Hell, where even the noblest souls may suffer.
Will circumstances stabilize? Or deteriorate? Is hope useful or foolish? Should we prepare for the worst? Is this the end of the world as we know it? Or the birth of a better one? Is it the gateway to a perpetually unfolding tragedy, the horror and losses of our greatest fears? Or will we be granted our heart’s deepest desire?
Whether to invest in our dreams coming true, or resign ourselves to despair there is no way to know. Souls in Limbo are abandoned by the very ability to anticipate or prognosticate.
Those who are activated by anxiety find it a place of tortuous buzzing agitation, as their inherent optimism leads them to believe that proactivity could positively affect the outcome.
Hapless ones never alive, their bare skin galled
By wasps and flies…
~ The Inferno of Dante
The anxious-avoidant can find passive comfort in the intermission – some even draw it out – experiencing the enforced break in the action as reprieve from pessimism and fear: at least the worst hasn’t happened… yet.
This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last. ~ Oscar Wilde
Limbo is an inconsolable, tension-filled deprivation. A lack of. A halting, a freeze, a holding of the breath, a nothingness sandwich with hope on one side and despair on the other.
The soul seems to me to be in this state when no comfort comes to it from heaven and it is not there itself, and when it desires none from the earth and is not there either…
~ The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, quoted in Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
Few recall Cicero’s morality tale about King Dionysius and his courtier Damocles who wished aloud that he might be king himself, and was cruelly threatened into gratitude for his lowly station. Yet, everyone remembers the heavy archetypal sword, the shiny point dangling just over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single horse hair.
We hope, like Damocles, for the opportunity to be returned to the moment before the threat loomed over us, to go on as we have been going on, to be spared further suffering or any darker transformation of our fate.
In suspense, we find ourselves exquisitely alone, the tension exacerbated by isolation:
The soul is suspended between heaven and earth; it experiences complete solitude. For here it is no longer a matter of ordinary solitude where one is alone in the world, but rather of complete solitude where one is alone because one is outside of the world – the celestial as well as the terrestrial world ~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
The therapist needs to be acutely aware of their own and their client’s coping style, for when they are sitting with clients who are dangling between the worlds, one’s strategy may be intolerable to the other. “Let’s-get-this-over-with” mixes with “I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow” as effectively as oil and water. And any misattunement merely exacerbates the sense of banishment from the realm of the everyday.
My own experience twisting in the wind reminds me it is all too easy to fall into empathic error with those who are hanging in the Unpredictable In-Between. We cherish our rhythm of life and when we encounter others whose patterns have been disrupted we can too often rush past their powerless pause: “Oh I’m sure it will all be ok!” minimizes potential and looming threats. “Oh my god that is terrible!” smothers hope. Real empathy requires tolerating the dialectic, joining the tension of the opposites: “It must be so uncomfortable to not know what to expect, and to have to wait for any answer – I’ll hope along with you that all will be well, but know I will also be here for you if it doesn’t – I know that both possibilities feel very real right now.”
And although we may not be able to guess which way this cat is going to jump, the archetypes of myth indicate that there are gains to be had, lessons to be learned, from uncomfortable, even fatal suspension.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
(~ Stanza 138 & 139 of the Hávamál)
The tarot’s Hanged Man is a rendering of Odin, who has strung himself upside down in order to acquire wisdom. He will die from the suspension and be reborn hanging from the world tree, a mighty ash known as Yggdrasil.
Perhaps the wisdom that Odin gains from his ordeal, and that suspension imbues is merely this:
We are always in Limbo, whether we recognize it or not. Life itself is a feral and untamed beast. Anything can happen, and many things beyond our control will happen. Even the most ordered and controlled life unfolds in a wilderness of unpredictability. We succumb to inflation when we forget this.
The Hanged Man is the eternal Job, tried and tested from century to century…~ Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism
And maybe the only cure for such puffery and complacency is to intermittently find ourselves upside down, hanging, in a state of suspense until we are humbled and reminded that living is a wild unfolding, an eternally unpredictable event.
I am wrestling with a slippery new post – but in the meantime I thought it might be interesting to some to know about a new (yet related) venture we are undertaking.
And he (Jung) asked himself by what mythology he was living and he found he didn’t know. And so he said “I made it the task of my life to find by what mythology I was living” How did he do it? He want back to think about what it was that most engaged him in fascinated play when he was a little boy. So that the hours would pass and pass. Now if you can find that point, you can find an initial point for your own reconstruction.
~ Joseph Campbell
I might have liked to be an astronomer, as a child I spent hours on the deck behind our house looking up at the Great Nebulae in Orion and feeling a part of the entire universe. But, unfortunately I can’t do math.
In young adulthood, being a priestess of some sort seemed my best shot at a satisfying career and I supposed the sacred rituals around the theater came close. But, as you may know, there aren’t really too many priestesses in show biz.
A ritual is an action that puts the individual not only in touch with, but in the place of, being the agent of a power that does not come out of his own intention at all. He has to submit to a power that’s greater than his own individual life form. ~ Joseph Campbell
For several years thought it might be nice to be a Unitarian or a Quaker minister: I could picture myself in my 60’s plump and happy, with spikey short white hair, extremely sensible shoes, curled up in a worn leather chair in a well stocked church library surrounded by books written by theologians, ecumenicists, philosophers, anthropologists, depth psychologists, mythologists, my days filled with study, sermon-writing, teaching, and pastoral counseling. I still occasionally fantasize about getting an M.Div one day so that my psycho-spiritual practice might one day extricate itself from the professional restrictions and expectations of the medical model.
Although I imagine all that theism might get a bit wearing.
God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought…. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they call them lies. Those are the atheists. ~ Joseph Campbell
When I am fatigued or overwhelmed I think it might be nice to be a cobbler. The smell of leather, the pleasure of making something tangible, real, practical, useful, that did not require that I take my work home with me, or feel too much. Maybe I could even get some elves to make the shoes while I sleep.
There is much much harder work in the world than mine, but every once in a while, after the 100,000th “I just don’t know how you can sit and listen to people’s problems all day. I couldn’t do it!” I begin to wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.
Every individual has his own very special problem in this late mid-life crisis about what he has been doing. How deeply has it really involved him? Has he had other outside marginal interests of any kind whatsoever? What were they? All these are very special problems. ~ Joseph Campbell
No paid vacation, no sick days, and the out of pocket cost of crappy medical insurance for a self-employed family of four are daunting enough. When my kids or a family member are ill, there is more lost income. Income which fluctuates with the economy, with the season, with the twists and turns of fate, history, chance and my own bandwidth depending of the circumstances of my own life and ability to pay deep attention. Clients just don’t come, or don’t stick when you don’t have the psychological space to take them in.
Economics is what controls us. Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today and that’s why everything is screwy. You have to get back in accord with nature; and that’s what myths are all about. ~ Joseph Campbell
Late nights and weird hours mean missing several nights a week with my kids, who can also never call to check in or to chat while I am working. As well as being out of synch with those who live and socialize on the 9 to 5 time grid. “Time off” means running errands, answering email, doing paperwork and billing, none of which can be done during client hours.
There are therapists who have partners with large corporate incomes, or some inherited wealth, who are heavily invested in real estate, or who have discovered passive income streams of some kind. They have small part time caseloads and the luxury of pursing their work, not out of logistical necessity, but merely because it is meaningful to them. There are others who charge extraordinary sums and cultivate boutique practices geared at serving clients in the upper classes.
I am none of those. I am a working, work-a-day therapist. I have made my living as a private practitioner and nothing else along side my husband, who does the same thing. We have learned to ride the roller coaster together, and support each other economically and emotionally through painful binds and financial drought. We have learned to rest when we are “light” and not allow our financial anxiety to eat up all of our chance to renew ourselves. There will be another wave of overwork to come, an influx of new cases, a sudden mass return of old clients when the weather turns cold, or it is time for New Years resolutions.
So, if the goal is merely amassing wealth, early retirement and cultivating ease, this is not the profession, at least not the way I practice. My scale slides and my fee drops as I try to make sure that no client is abandoned when they fall into financial difficulties, or excluded because of their ability to pay. I’ve made choices not to accept insurance, which too often attempted to conscript and lure me into becoming my clients “care manager” -labeling them with diagnoses, counting out their allotted sessions, and referring to a psychiatrist if they don’t “get better” before their capitation kicks in.
And when you’ve got an invisible cure for an invisible disease, you’ve got something you can sell. ~ Joseph Campbell
And often, the work hurts too. It can burn and sting and instill fear sometimes, as clients often need to explore and test out the capacity to keep them safe in your most vulnerable, weakest places and moments. Narratives of trauma, cruelty and abuse can break your heart, and eat you up, and shatter illusions about yourself, about the goodness of humanity, about the realities of life. Even the best days, the ones filled with vicarious excitement and accomplishment are about other people’s accomplishments and successes, and can leave you totally tuckered out.
Its one thing to be equitable and give everything away. Its another thing to be equitable and give away yourself. Then you can’t really help anybody can you? ~ Joseph Campbell
And the people you work with often experience you as more powerful and fully self-actualized than you are or could ever be, and often feel abandoned, or annoyed, or intruded upon when you stumble and trip or they experience your limitations.
When I was young in this field, I once asked my therapist if he ever hated his job: “Just every time I see a copy of Travel and Leisure magazine” he said. And immediately looked worried, and began to back pedal a bit – as though his honesty might make me feel rejected.
Who wants to be remembered by the notes of his students? ~ Joseph Campbell
It didn’t make me feel rejected. It was a relief. There is a shadow that attaches itself to every job, every choice, every path. And in this field, which practitioners take up primarily driven by their own wounds, whether they know it or not, the shadow can be a particularly dark and thick one.
Who wouldn’t want to escape sometimes?
The saying that a friend of mine has given me for letting me know when you are in middle age is: You’ve got to the top of ladder and found its against the wrong wall
~ Joseph Campbell
Freud had clients lay down on the couch for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to be looked at, scrutinized all day. And I sometimes wish that I could escape the watchful, fearful gaze of clients who read the smallest crease in my forehead as a sign of my impatience, or intolerance, or judgement, when it may just be that my glasses are pinching the sides of my head. Consciously arranging my face all day to reflect exactly what the client needs to see reminds me often of what intensely physical work the process of “mirroring” can be.
My days, in and out of the office, are completely and continuously centered around people. Other people. No matter how much “self-care” I invest in myself, a life of meeting clients, living in a co-op, walking crowded city streets, caring for children, for older family members, is intensely peopled.
I’ve just come out of New York, and a place like this on the Big Sur coast just wakes another whole consciousness. Its further down. And the body feels, Yes, this is my world; Ive been missing this And it seems to me its out of the body and its relationship to experiences of this kind that the mythic imagination comes. This other experience of the city is far more rational, ethical… the I-Thou relationship in the city is to people The environment in the city is geometrical and rectangular, and there are no curves; its contrived by man, the whole environment is manmade. And here you find that there is a primal being experience of which man and nature are themselves manifestations; whereas in the city you just don’t get it. ~ Joseph Campbell
Everything we do, every choice, every gesture requires the sacrifice of some alternative, potential reality. At midlife, the sacrifices we made to establish an adult identity in our culture, to create security, to live out our values, to do what we should, to start a family, to build a life and pursue a career or a vocation – return to us, as fantasy. It returns as day and night dreams, yearnings or sometimes as symptoms. Whatever is repressed always returns to us in some other form
Jung speaks of the impact of the parents unlived life upon their children, and we should also wonder about how the unlived life of the psychotherapist impacts clients and the therapy itself. How does it constrict and constrain us in the room and why? Are these choices made consciously, with an awareness of their shadow and their costs, or unconsciously, reflexively, fearfully? How do our clients teach us about what we have given up? How do we respond to the experience of envy or yearning in the countertransference? Do we heed it as a call to reach for our own unfinished business? Or do we feel diminished? How do therapists, subtly or not so subtly encourage clients to make choices that either validate their own sacrifice, or diverge from our choices so that we can watch them live out our unlived lives?
The mid-life crisis is that of unshelling a system of life and immediately moving into a new system of life. Because if this life is unshelled and you don’t have a new intention there is total disorientation. ~ Joseph Campbell
These days my escape fantasy involves a farm house at the foot of small mountain. There are green trees and fields all around. There is a small food garden growing behind the house with big wide windows, with more sky, stars, trees, crickets, birdsong and empty space, both inside and outside, than will ever be available or affordable to me in NYC.
I read stacks and stacks of books filled with pencil marks and marginalia, and write a significant part of every day. Perhaps I teach a class or two at a nearby junior college, just for the pleasure of compiling the reading lists.
I remember Alan Watts asked me one day, “Joe what kind of mediation do you do?” I said, “I underline sentences.” ~ Joseph Campbell
I see as many clients a week as I now see in a day, some in a cozy home office, some for walking eco-therapies, others long distance by video conference or e-session. All arrange to talk to me only when and as they want to. They pay whatever they can afford, whatever they think the process is worth. I don’t concern myself with accounts or collections, or how big the children’s orthodontia bill is getting.
Or maybe, in this fantasy I stop seeing clients entirely. After a lifetime of operating as a Helper, a Caretaker perhaps I have sacrificed enough to that archetype to enable that myth to release me, as I take on a new role, a new task, a new myth.
This is the big problem of retirement … the life with you have involved yourself has suddenly been moved. And so what? I’m told that the life expectancy of a blue collar worker after retirement is about five years. That means his body says, “You’ve got nothing for me to do so lets just say goodbye” ~ Joseph Campbell
There is a trail out back behind the house that leads up the mountain and I take a long, contemplative hikes several times a week. I watch for hawks and eagles, woodpeckers, and other wild-life in an entirely deer-tick free woods. Up on the hillside I have constructed a small shelter where I sit for long stretches of each day silently asking that all sentient beings be relieved of their suffering, until my thermos of green tea is cold and empty.
I work in the garden, I cook meals for my family. I wash the laundry and hang it on the line to dry near the lilac bushes, so that in the spring, the sheets smell sweet.
But when the individual is acting only for himself or his family then you have nothing but chaos. ~ Joseph Campbell
This idyllic farm is somehow near to a racially and socioeconomically diverse small city which gives me a chance to engage in community processes and cultural and charitable activities. We travel whenever we want to. Take sabbatical years to live in other countries, in other cultures. My children never bicker. They climb trees, tame wild animals, swim in a clear water creek.
Fatigue is rare, and sweet, following labors that are restorative, generative for myself and others. Each night before bed, we climb the creaky narrow wooden stairs to the widows walk and aim our telescope toward the bright and visible Milky Way searching out our proper place in the universe.
Now there is a wonderful saying in the Buddhist world: “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” All life is sorrowful. You are not going to change that. Its all right for everyone else to be sorrowful, but what about you being sorrowful? Well, participate!” ~ Joseph Campbell
And as I dwell deeper in my soul’s fantasy, my unlived life, the life not (yet) pursued, new sorrows emerge of the clients and of the work left behind in this life. Those who would never tolerate a Skype or phone session, who would feel abandoned, who I might harm by leaving, or a least cause significant discomfort. The stories I would never see unfold.
And the people I would miss.
Fantasies of Eden, of Shangrila and the Land of Oz live in all of us, in different ways, and serve many functions. They compensate and correct our course, remind us of who we are, what we have forgotten and who we are supposed to be. Sometimes it is necessary to chase these images literally, although they will rarely be entirely captured. The processes of midlife can involve dramatic overthrow of pre-existing orders. We do out grow old shells and need to find new ones. But sacrifices can be mourned and managed consciously as well, responded to as metaphor, channeled into creative processes, or integrated into present structures through ritual and symbol.
The work can be heavy, and costly in ways that are rarely fully tallied or reckoned with.
But it is mine, for now.
The gate guardian is a symbol of your own fear and holding to your ego which is what is keeping you out of the garden. Buddha sits under the tree and his right hand says “Don’t be afraid of those guys. Come through.”~ Joseph Campbell
But sometimes, through a long day, as I nod, and listen, my brow furrowed, my ears and heart open to the pain that the person across the room is sharing with me, I imagine, that my office window, just past my peripheral vision, offers a different view.
I imagine that – instead of the floodlight and fluorescence of windows upon windows, instead of the sounds of a harsh and noisy city, instead of helicopters and barges, firetrucks and ferries – there are instead green branches, and the smell of fresh cool mountain air.
I imagine that together we could, if we choose to, pause to watch Orion, with his belt, and his sword, rising through the night, reminding us of our proper place in the universe.
All quotations from The Hero’s Journey, Joesph Campbell on his LIfe and Work, Phil Cousineau editor.
I’ve searched for the hard copy everywhere. A twenty paged paper typed double space, almost exactly twenty years ago, before personal computers were a household or academic necessity. It must be in the storage bin somewhere, yellowing, with old journals, spiral notebooks and my collected graduate school syllabi.
I remember the grade written on top, I remember the professor, now deceased, who I wrote if for. I remember the main source cited: a small black leather bound book from the NYU library titled: Thanatology, the author forgotten. And I remember the boy, a client who was going to die, as we all will. And who somehow knew, although his mother could not bear to think of it or discuss it with him. A charming young boy who may have grown into a handsome young man, who, with luck and treatment advances, may still be with us, or who may be dead by now, but who is certainly still with me.
It was my first introduction to Death as an entity in the consultation room, although I have learned to recognize that specter as it lives and lurks in every treatment. There are those who specialize in bereavement, but the Psyche of every psychotherapist, every client, every human, has its own language to speak to the experience of death, dying, and grief.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
~ Emily Dickinson
He was six or seven, and small for his age, the size of a five year old – likely due to the the ultimately fatal illness that will one day kill him, if it hasn’t already. His mother was stiff, strained, overwhelmed, impatient and brittle. I suppose I would be too. In his short life he had multiple hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and surgeries. As soon as his mother left the room he raised his shirt up over his head to show me the large surgical scars on his little round tummy just north of his outie belly button. He was funny, smart and wild. Acting out in school, not sitting in his seat, joking, distracting other children, disrespectful of any parameters. I spent a great deal of our play therapy together using Virginia Axline’s recommended limit setting intervention:
“I know you want to do X…. but you can’t.” And laughing.
I was a second year social work intern, placed for the year in a child and family clinic. His mother doubted I could be of help to her. She found him unmanageable and increasingly resistant to the nightly medical interventions that he needed to surrender to in order to keep on living. She didn’t talk to him about his illness, or explain the painful, boring rituals she needed to perform on him at home. And she certainly never told him that she needed his help keeping death at bay, and that one day, they would be unsuccessful.
She didn’t play with him either. He performed and clowned and mugged and joked like the corniest Catskills comedian trying to make her smile. She pretended that she wasn’t interested, that it wasn’t funny, that she needed him to listen to her, not to crack wise. But I could tell she was terrified that if she laughed, and played, and got on the floor and enjoyed him – Grief when it arrived, would destroy her. Instead, she brought him to play with me, and strove to keep soft sounds out of her voice when she spoke. She needed to stay cross with him, her brows furrowed, her mouth pinched whenever possible.
And so the silly boy and I played together twice a week. He chased me around the room, holding a big green stuffed monster-man doll. If the doll caught me I was to be buried. The throw rug pulled over my face like a death-shroud. He found a toy bulldozer on the shelf and dug “graves” in small piles of playdough and had the molding clay “swallow up” the playskool “guys” one after another. And then he would have me dig them up, and we would bury them again. The doctor’s kit was in heavy rotation, and I would be instructed to lay on the floor, while he would “cut me open” from my heart to my belly, and take my insides out, and sew me shut again, sweetly covering my shirt with bandaids afterward. In between games, he would giggle and tickle, wise-crack and tease, and bounce and burp, and laugh and laugh.
At my parental guidance meetings with his mother, who refused her own psychotherapy, I would encourage her consider opening up conversation with him about his diagnosis. She did eventually tell him the name of his illness, and explain what was happening in his body that required so many trips to the doctor, so many operations, so many painful practices to keep him healthy.
His prognosis remained unthinkable, and unspeakable. Once, at a consultation I explained that much of his play seemed to be about mastering an innate awareness of their mutual fears. And wondered if she thought it might be hard for him to sit on top of these terrifying questions alone. She decided that I was threatening to tell him, if she didn’t, that he would eventually die and threatened to remove him from therapy entirely. And although it had never crossed my mind to be the one to inform him, and I promised that would never happen, I could suddenly imagine him asking me directly: “Am I going to die?” I began to rehearse a response: “That is a very important question. What do you think?” as I simultaneously prayed that my inner dialogue would never manifest.
In our final weeks together, before my internship ended, we planned our goodbyes together. Specific treats were requested for our final two weeks and a scheduled review of our favorite games. The green monster-man chase, the “burying and unburying” playdough game, and the operation game. And for the final session: something else. He wanted his mother to join us, and for me to teach her how to play all of our games.
At first she refused. I was good at playing she said, she was terrible. I explained that I was always a stand in, the person he really wanted to work this through with was her. She was the only one he really wanted to play with. She asked about the games, and I made no mention of the internal interpretations that I assigned to our play: He like to chased me with a stuffed animal, and then cover me up with a blanket. He liked to use a bulldozer to dig some little guys out of a mound of clay, and, just like the doctor who they saw so often, and who seemed to be a role model, he liked to pretend to perform surgery with a doctors kit, and listen to my breath with a toy stethoscope, and put bandaids on the ow-ie. She agreed. Uncomfortably, but she agreed.
When she came into the session, he was thrilled. And decided to help her out: “So that no one has to be embarrassed, we will play in the dark!” he announced, flipping the light switches, plunging my windowless office into utter blackness. He agreed, after adult protests to open the door a crack to let a sliver of yellow light in from the hall. “I’ve got the green monster-man!” he squealed as he chased her around the room. They resurrected the buried doll-guys, and I heard his mother giggling in the dark as he tickled her while performing a joyful, and unorthodox surgery.
They left together laughing, his hand in hers. And I shut the door. Breathing in deeply through my mouth, trying not to sob, when there was a sudden knock on the door.
The boy stood there: “Hey!” he said, “HIGH-FIVE! Awww, too slow!” and turned to walk back toward the clinic entrance, with his thumbs tucked under his back pack straps. After a few steps, he tossed the back pack aside, turned and ran at me full speed, and flew into my arms.
Twenty years later, I still remember the smell of his hair.
The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass