Should we accept our anger? Or should we cultivate forgiveness instead? The philosopher Martha Nussbaum argumees we should do neither. She presents a compelling alternative, which can guide people who have been hurt by wrongdoing and who may become prone therefore to anger or resentment.
130 years ago Nietzsche claimed we were experiencing massive, unprecedented change regarding meaning and value in our culture: “Whither are we moving? [...] Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?" With such words as these Nietzsche observed that a new age was rising in the Western world: the age of nihilism. With it has come new tendencies in depression.
Generous people often speak of having their generosity abused. They feel taken advantage of, and sometimes hurt, used, or disregarded. A part of the pain, but also something which often enables the abuse, involves a lived confusion between two different types of generosity: reciprocal versus unconditional. I will reflect on this distinction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did." Perhaps F. knew what it is like, when the inner life speeds up while the clock slows down. When the hours become mud, and tremors pass through the body. That bomb in us which only a loved one can manufacture. No distance separates strangers in a room, and yet there is a chasm. No distance separates the heart of true friends, but betrayal creates a chasm. Whether in romance or friendship, how do we live with betrayal?
When he lost them he was reminded cruelly of metaphysics. Ontology. That a particular thing can have an absolute value. A paradox, surely, but one that shows itself in our lives, in our loves, in our griefs. Later he reflected: We love certain people absolutely. And we love numerous people this way. Mathematics would say: when we lose one we still have the others. So too does the advice of friends. So the grief should be partial. The logic of the soul, however, giver of value, says No. By a strict inner law the loss of one absolute renders the whole of life a place of loss. For a time. He would learn this in his body as much as his mind.
If you believe that the world is meaningful in an intellectual way, but you don't love, then you will experience it as meaningless. Conversely if you believe that the world is meaningless, but you love, you will experience it as meaningful. Love changes our experience. It is a way of reading life.
The problem with grief - the pain of loss, of death or separation - is that every time you think of the truth you are in pain. Sometimes the pain is soft, and sometimes it overwhelms, as though your body can barely contain it. A person thinks, Why can't I just see this differently, feel differently?, but they are trapped. There are things that help, and you long for somebody to reach out and do something, but ultimately the problem is one of truth: to know is to suffer.
What does it tell you when it tells you now you grow up?
What does it tell you when it tells you now you be a man?
Tidy your thinking up, finish your drinking up?
Be the Tom, be the Jack, beat the beaten track,
Die the slow death your forefathers died, in fact
Be ever lonely and angry inside of that
Maze of rage and inchoate affection.
Those words from Melbourne band Augie March. The song ends with: “After the fall, after the crack up, Nothing then? Nothing then.” Nothing, it is true. There is no reward for going through shattering and hell. Not that it is nothing to go through it - it can be all-consuming! - but the experience itself is a negation, a destruction. One which exposes a nothingness in us. So what then?
The human psyche is like an iceberg: we only see the top. This is why ships sink on their icebergs. And people too. We might see only the surface of something that goes much deeper, which we misunderstand, and which holds us in being, or which can fracture our life or the lives of those we love. This is why ships need instruments, and we need vision.
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” When our world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within us, when we must answer that question.
For the philosopher Plato it is eros - desire, love - which gives shape to our lives. As the later platonic philosopher Simone Weil put it, “All human beings are absolutely identical in so far as they can be thought of as consisting of a centre, which is an unquenchable desire for good, surrounded by an accretion of psychical and bodily matter.” (It is in the accretions that we differ, but desire lies at our core.) Freud agreed, although he was constrained by the prestige of a certain conception of science, and using scientific language he spoke of the "libidinal drive." Later he too used the language of "eros", which he identified with Plato. It is often said by psychoanalysts that we live our lives in the light of our first loves. And in the shadows cast by them. A certain formation of such shadows can constitute what we call depression.
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this which is above all sacred in every human being.
It is this which is sacred in us.
And it is this which makes us suffer.
It is also this which gives our lives meaning and value.
Most than merely a psychological problem, anxiety reflects the challenge of living. Life is dangerous. Practical philosophers since ancient Greece have responded to this anxiety through getting wiser about it, and putting that wisdom into practice. This lived wisdom enables us to face our anxiety through the cultivation of clarity, courage, and a focus on what really matters.
Last week I created my first video, on this theme of how the ancient Greeks can help us contend with anxiety, and today I am providing you with a podcast version, for those who prefer to listen rather than watch.
We are often told that perfectionism is a bad thing, that we ought to rid ourselves of it. In consequence many people come to therapy expressing such thoughts regarding their own predicament, but I disagree. Yes, perfectionism can be a tyrant that destroys us. But it is also a drive toward what is best in us. So perfectionism is a double-edged sword, but rather than shy from its dangers we need to develop skill in its use.
Klara hates the feeling that she is making “demands” on others, and this causes problems in her personal and professional life. She becomes over-polite when requesting something of another at work, but this is a reaction to her anxiety. The other person perceives that tension and reacts to it as criticism or aggression, becoming tense themselves. "This makes everything worse." Klara tells me she wants to make others feel comfortable and respected, but that her efforts often have the opposite effect. Such instances play on her mind and as she talks about them she is in tears.
Many people feel incompetent in life. They fear the future, that their mistakes will lead to permanent suffering; they fear regret. They wonder how others are so confident. They worry they will be revealed as a fraud. The problem is often pictured as a lack of self-esteem, but this explanation may itself be an expression of the problem.
Human beings seek value. It is the very essence of us. We ask what matters, try to do valuable things, and value others. We also want to be valuable. This desire can give us meaning, but it makes us deeply vulnerable. We need the esteem of people who matter, and when we get it we feel wonderful. When we don’t, we may feel wounded and worthless.
To be human is to be lonely. I am speaking of a loneliness which exists even when we are surrounded by others. It is rooted in the anxiety we feel in the face of our vulnerability. It is rooted in our secret shame – a sense of being bad, flawed or worthless. It follows from a being unseen or misunderstood. It is there when we feel assaulted by the world. Ultimately then our loneliness, whatever its particularities, is rooted in our human condition. Some philosophers have romanticised this problem, painting life as unquestionably bleak and recommending a heroic posture in the face of despair. Hedonistic outlooks seek to sooth the pain with pleasure or with comfort and security. But these answers simply reflect and reinforce the problem. They themselves are bleak. There is another way which is good, which is meaningful, but which is also more demanding. I am reminded of Flaubert’s words: “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life.”
“I feel empty most of the time.” Janet* stretched awkwardly on the couch and eyed me with discomfort. “I don’t know that you can help me.”
“What led you to book in and see me?”
She pulled a paperback from her bag.
"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares."
Nouwen's words inspire today's reflection. They came to mind not long ago while speaking with a woman whose husband had recently suicided. The temptation is always there, when in the presence of suffering, to offer something tangible - knowledge, consolation, a cure. We recoil from pain, including the pain of others, and find subtle ways to defend against it. We try to delude ourselves that we are not helpless, that we can change things. But such ‘helpfulness’ merely serves us and our fears while denying the other what they most need from us. It is hard to stand there, empty-handed, and simply pay attention to the other in their suffering. However attention, defined by Iris Murdoch as “a just and loving gaze”, can be as Nouwen suggests the other’s greatest need and our best gift. Words and deeds can pale by comparison.
It is natural to grieve after a relationship ends. And this grief can take a while. But sometimes it takes too long: a person feels that the time has come to move forward with life and yet they cannot. I want to tell the story of Michael*, who struggled with this problem. His relationship with Anna was short-term, and had been over for a year before he came to see me, but his grief was unending. This problem formed a recurring pattern in his life. Michael's story suggests that when one becomes stuck in romantic grief there may be more involved than the sorrow of lost love.
Finding the right concepts for suffering is important. Without them pain lacks boundaries, it spills over and expands. Without them we are helpless and confused. By finding language for our inchoate suffering we give it a form. This is important, because we can navigate and manage things that have forms. By giving form I do not mean only that we create a conceptual map, I mean that we actually shape the suffering itself. Grief work involves bringing into form a mess of complex suffering. I have worked a lot with people who have lost their partner through death, and this act of finding words and concepts - of finding form - is vital. Today I want to speak about coping with a relationship loss more widely - I am thinking especially of relationship break-downs and divorce. This loose reflection is the first of a few, more specific ones, which I intend to write on this topic.
In his paper Illness…and its Human Values Greg Madison argues that the concept of mental illness, when taken literally, is illogical and unscientific. The concept, suggests Madison, is rather a metaphor we use, a tool for getting a handle on particular problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction. This is how it often is with language, and we make a mistake when we treat the metaphorical as literal. Those problems are real phenomena, but the way that we conceive of them must always be in question. A medical conception of life's problems can be as much as hindrance as it is a help.
The way we think about a problem can itself be a part of the problem. Consider the nature of the concerns people bring to counselling. We are tempted to treat them as technical problems, as dysfunctions for experts to treat. This is to be passive with our own lives. Most of these problems arise, not because people are fundamentally dysfunctional, but rather out of the confusion and pain that comes with being human. Life is hard. We face constant challenges and we create further ones in response. We don’t understand ourselves very well. But as difficult as our problems can be, they can also be occasions for insight and growth. Such challenges tear through our comfortable illusions and invite us to think more deeply. Struggle and suffering does not automatically make us wiser or stronger, but the way we respond to it can lead to greater wisdom and strength. Albert Camus wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Existential therapy according to The British School aims to help us to find the clarity, insight and strength we need to face our troubles. It helps us develop richer, more meaningful lives.
In my therapeutic work I am concerned with the use that can be made of suffering, alongside our attempts to diminish it. Today I discuss the use a person can make of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This approach can help diminish OCD, especially when integrated with psychological work, but my focus is rather on how a person can also use OCD to grow as a person.
This reflection will be made more concise in time.