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.
Many people have a curious habit of dismissing their suffering with respect to both its nature and its depth. I say "curious" because question marks should be placed over the behaviour. Indeed it often seems to me that the person doing this is using it as a defense against pain. To dismiss your pain is to fantasise that it is really that minimal. A consequence of such denial is that the unexamined suffering remains inchoate. Formless. And so the sufferer remains confused and helpless, more readily overwhelmed, and falls more often into crisis.
It sounds simple to say it, but people who are grieving a relationship need to acknowledge what they are doing: that they are grieving. It will help the immensely to grasp the nature of their loss, which is to say, the full spectrum of their experience. For they do not only grieve a person. Contemporary grief theory speaks of “secondary losses.” To lose your partner is to lose a range of things: many aspects of the present life you have created; the future you been creating and which has become a source of fundamental motivation in your daily life; the past, whose meaning is now undermined. Grief is complex in its multiplicity of dimensions. This is why people feel confused and overwhelmed, and why language and form matter.
The upcoming writing that I intend to do about grief after a relationship will show some of its deeper, existential dimensions. But for today I want to keep things simple. The philosopher Wittgenstein suggested that we often fail to see what is right before our eyes. In this reflection I want to avoid getting clever or complex, and note the physical dimension of grief. We are mammals. This directly impacts how we grieve, and what helps in response.
The feeling of aloneness can be deeply physical, for our world is an embodied world, and meaning and attachment is profoundly physical in us. Indeed we emerge from the womb, from loving arms, feeding off the substance of our mother, and we live our lives in the shadow of this fact. And so the physical desire to get back to our partner can be incredibly powerful. It can be like the desire of an addict for their drug. I say that literally, for neuroscience shows us that love has chemical elements on which we become dependent. In a sense romantic love functions like a drug. I think it is mistaken to reduce love to its chemical dimensions (there's a difference between a correlation and a cause), but as I say we should acknowledge the mammal in us and the way this shapes our desire and experience. Losing love involves a chemical withdrawal. No doubt this is one of the reasons why people experience nausea, physical anxiety, pain and depression when they lose their loved one. In rare cases people - especially those who are elderly - can die of a broken heart.
It is no surprise then that people do foolish things in this situation. They are driven by complex factors within themselves, which includes physical and chemical dimensions. Those who do things which, in hindsight, make them ashamed, should keep this in mind. I am not proposing that people abdicate responsibility for themselves or make excuses for shabby behaviour, but that they find compassion for themselves. The simple point I want to make today, before writing in future about grief from a philosophical and existential perspective, is that a person needs to tend to themselves as to a wounded mammal when they are going through this situation. They need to use their intelligence to recognise the form(s) of their own experience, and to respond accordingly. The concept of self-care becomes important at this point. Doing things that provide safety and comfort are necessary, whether they be massages, seeking out social support, giving more time to contemplation or meditation or prayer, and whatever else the individual does that helps them find their centre in the midst of strife. Many of the people who are attracted to my philosophical therapy are the sort who make their way through the world by means of their intelligence. This is a strength. But it means that they often overlook the kinds of care for the self that they need as bodies, as mammals, as social animals. Aristotle suggested that a life of contemplation requires a certain level of material comfort and freedom. We need to attend to the basic things first of all, in order to fully use our minds to find a way forward.
Human resilience diminishes under stress, and we need to take extra care of our selves if we are to cope well. Self-care that is mindful of grief's power and complexity is important at such a time. As I say, concepts and words become important because of the orientation they provide and because of the way that they, in turn, shape experience. However just as people often dismiss their grief, so they often dismiss the need to take extra care of themselves when they are suffering. I think that this, also, is a defense mechanism: people want to believe that they are resilient and clever enough not to need extra self-care. To admit their need for such care is to admit their weakness. But we are all weak, as well as strong, and our weaknesses and strengths are both finite. The failure to see this can cost us in many ways.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Fiona Byrne
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.
Those opening words are Simone Weil’s. I think they are among the truest ever written in philosophy. At the core of every human being is a desire - a hope, longing, expectation, need - for goodness. It is the centre around which our lives are woven. As Weil writes elsewhere: “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.” I want to reflect on this definition of human nature as desire for the good. I want to consider how it is a source of both suffering and joy, of despair and meaning.
To speak of “the good” is to speak of good things, and of goodness. However before we even begin we encounter a problem. Plato expressed it when in essence he asked, do we desire something because it is good, or is it called good because we desire it? No doubt sometimes the first and sometimes the second is true, and usually it is a mixture of both. Today’s reflection emphasises the first possibility in Plato's question, but the question itself reminds us that we can desire something as good and be mistaken. indeed, as we age we become aquainted with the repeated experience of realising how blind we were about the meaning or value of certain things in life.
I write this reflection as a philosopher and therapist, an important part of whose profession is to help people contend with suffering. I began by suggesting that our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. How is that so? Weil answers that when desire is frustrated then we suffer. Thwarted desire is the essence of suffering. Frustration of desire and the suffering it elicits is often banal, such as when I am in a bad mood over a petty problem, or when a child (or childish adult) throws a tantrum, but suffering can also obviously be profound. When Weil points to the depth that desire has in us - that it is the centre of our being, and that much that we take as our essential self is merely an "accretion" surrounding this core, then she points to how it is that suffering can wound us in the very depths of our being. For this reason I suppose the word “frustrated” is inadequate because it possesses a hint of pettiness for many readers. Weil is using it in a technical manner, but poetically it points in the wrong direction.
Another way of putting things is to say that when the good we desire is lost or violated, then we suffer. This phenomenon shows itself in every distress brought to therapy. Consider grief, depression, and anxiety. Grief is pain over loss, and what is lost is a good thing which I desire - which I need or love - for example my child who has died. Depression is a special form of grief, where we grieve and yet cannot see what is lost (a "frustrated" grief indeed, where the griever recognises neither the nature nor the object of their affliction. Freud’s classic essay on depression gives this away in the title: Mourning and Melancholia). Anxiety is often anticipatory suffering over a future loss or violation. In all these cases suffering happens because there is desire for the good but the good is lost or violated, whether that loss is actual, perceived, or anticipated.
Sometimes the loss of the good is experienced as an absence, as when somebody is no longer there. Sometimes it is experienced as a presence, as when I am assaulted or tyrannised. It seems natural to speak of loss in the first case, in contrast with violation in the second, but violation is perhaps reducible to loss: the violation of a good is (in some way) the loss of that good. For example rape as violation is, among other things, for the victim an experience of loss (in the form of violent denial) of the meaning (or certain dimensions of meaning) of their sexuality, and thereby of themselves as individuals (a fact which is missed when rape is reduced to a 'denial of autonomy'). Speaking generally again, it is sometimes more true to call the loss an actual loss, to speak in more objective terms, and sometimes it to speak of an experience of loss, to emphasise the subjective. In the example of rape, the victim experiences a loss of meaning which, in itself, remains despite the rapist's denial of it and the victim's sense of its loss. The meaning gets lost to experience, but it is still there. Both actual loss and the sense of loss serve to create suffering.
Fundamentally what I have said is that to desire the good is to be vulnerable to suffering. Our desire for the good is the means by which we suffer. Happily however, there is more to this picture: our desire for the good is also itself the presence of goodness in our lives. This idea is an old one in philosophy, so to understand it let us go back two and a half thousand years. Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical work written in the form of a dialogue, takes place at a feast in ancient Athens. The guests take turns making speeches in praise of love. When it comes to Socrates he begins by defining love. He says that it is, in essence, desire. He is speaking of the same desire we are speaking of. Socrates then defines desire: it is a form of poverty, for to desire is to lack the object of desire; we do not desire that which we possess, and so we desire the good because we do not possess it. Now I must admit that when I first read the Symposium I thought Socrates wrong on this point, for often people do possess what they desire. I desire my motorcycle, and I possess it. I desire my partner and, in a manner of speaking, I possess her. But on further reflection Socrates was right and I was wrong. Socrates was an ancient Athenian and he attended Athens' yearly festival of tragic theatre. He had, so to speak, read his Greek tragedy. More importantly he had his eyes open to life. Socrates knew that we mortals never fully possess anything. He knew what a difference a day can make, that we can lose anything and in everything, even as we appeared yesterday to possess it. Things are not as fixed as we like to imagine. There is, as Simone Weil put it, “a void” at our core, an emptiness underlying our being. Death is the final reality and proof of this. The human condition is one of want, of ontological, existential poverty. But as Socrates shows, another word for this absence, this void, this want, this desire...is love. Love, with all the depth and resonance which that word has for us.
So the desire at our core is the source of both our suffering and our joy. We love the good, which is to say that we love good things, such as other people, and we love goodness. Love constitutes our ability to make contact with these things, placing us in a relationship with them and enabling us to be nourished by them. So our desire, as love, is itself the presence of goodness in our lives, for it is the presence of such relationships. Furthermore, love in itself is the greatest good we know. It gives meaning and happiness to our own lives and to the lives of those around us, both through the love in us and the love within others for us. Love is itself goodness, and so our desire for the good is, to the degree that the object is genuinely good and the love purified thereby, itself the presence of goodness in us.
Our desire for goodness is the greatest good in our lives. We need to be careful of course not lose ourselves, like those guests at the symposium, to intoxicated paeans to love, which forget its quotidian, difficult nature. It is after all poverty, and poverty is in its reality is not romantic. Love is the source not only of joy but also of suffering. It is the source of depth and meaning, but also of superficiality and despair. Let us not forget Plato’s question at the beginning of this reflection: if we may often consider something good simply because we desire it, and if we can be terribly mistaken about that, then we must take care and learn how to direct our love, if it is not to poison or shipwreck our lives. The question is not how to cultivate love, for love, which is desire, is always in us, imperious as hunger. The question is how to direct love so that our desire for good may be turned toward real goodness, which means also that our love itself becomes good, rather than our love and its object being a source of ill. An example? The mythic hero Narcissus fell in love with his own image and this led to cruelty and death. And so it is with us. Love makes us vulnerable not only because to love deeply is potentially to suffer deeply, but because we can love badly. We can love in bad ways, and we can love bad things - the wrong things. It is a question of the object of love, but this is also of the quality of that love.
Our love may be directed in many ways toward many objects. Love is shaped by its object. When it is directed to a genuine good then it is shaped by that, the love being transformed into a corresponding form of goodness. As poetry, myth, and spiritual traditions have done for years, and as Psychoanalysis now reminds us, we do not always realise what exactly it is that we love when we love something. The work of love is ongoing, it has depth, it has dangers, it requires a critical language which shines a light on how it goes wrong, and it demands a constant effort of attention. In this connection a key form of love as goodness is love when it takes the form of compassion.
Compassion is love expanded by means of analogy: it is the recognition of my own misery in others, that they too are at core a desire for the good. The reality of this urgent need for the good is felt first in myself, but I am able, if I truly look, to recognise it in another. This love that recognises the desire and need for good in another is compassion. This is what we usually mean by love when we assume it is good rather than neutral, as per Plato's question: love as compassion is not good because we desire it, rather we desire it because it is good.
This reflection could go on, exploring different dimensions and avenues of this insight that at our core we are desire for the good, and that this is the source of both suffering and goodness in our lives. I want to finish however with a further remark about compassion, one which is particularly relevant to my therapeutic work. Most people readily accept the importance of compassion and strive to embody it, but there is a problem. Lacan said that the Christian injunction to “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” must be ironic, for people hate themselves. And this is true, even if they also love themselves (narcissism, which is simply an extreme version of th egotism in all of us, is often an inflated self-love as a defense against deep self-hate. Emotions, like much in our lives, exist in contrasting pairs and polarities). Genuine love is a healing power of goodness in our lives not only for others but also for ourselves, but only when it is properly directed toward the self. When it is badly directed it is poisonous, as it was for the mythic hero Narcissus, whose name is the source of our word 'narcissism'. There is a difference between somebody who loves themselves justly and compassionately, who loves themselves with the same love that is considered true compassion when directed outwards, compared to the narcissist who loves themselves as special and different (read superior) to others, and who lacks compassion for others or whose compassion is not really compassion but the appearance of it for a self-serving end such as being well-regarded. Narcissistic love for the self creates a divide between self and other, and so it is a bad love even for the self. Truly good love for the self places oneself into the community of others, all of whom have value, in a community of lives that are all sacred as distinct centres of desire for the good. When our desire for the good is purified by deepened attention to genuine objects and forms of goodness, that love becomes purified by its object, and this is a profoundly nourishing form of love that we can turn on others, as much as on ourselves, as compassion. It is what Simone Weil calls "a just and loving gaze." This is wise love, which takes account of our poverty-stricken human condition with all its weakness, foolishness, and corruption, and as wisdom is able to love rather than hate ourselves and others, sometimes despite, and sometimes because of this condition. It is the source of the power of that simple little question which I so often find it important to ask when people show hints of that hate for self which is universal: if your friend were in your situation, and responding as you are, what would you say of them?
Author: Matthew Bishop
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.
This is why true therapy and philosophy is less about solutions to our problems, so much as a different way of being. It is here that Plato and Freud meet. For Plato - the philosopher - we fail to really see each other, and this blindness enables us to do evil, to cause pain. For Freud - the psychologist - we are blinded by our distorted attempts to survive emotionally. In both cases a failure to see is an obstruction of genuine love. When I talk of love I am speaking as a philosopher: it is more than romantic desire, it is an ethical gaze. The meaning of the other becomes apparent in love, as does the meaning of our actions. We find that we cannot do certain things, and should (or must) do others. We move beyond blindness, beyond fantasy, and become obedient to reality beyond us.
So to genuinely love is to have your eyes open. Plato. When we are in survival mode our eyes are often closed. Freud. Then we may do whatever it takes to make ourselves feel safe or whole again, and in so doing we often pass our pain onto another, while remaining trapped in our own dark cycle.
To love is to look. It is a form of reading, and a part of reading is to decipher meaning. As an example from therapy, consider speaking with somebody who is in deep pain, incomprehensibly hurt, and who struggles to find words. That which cannot be said instead shows itself. Their actions are ways of speaking the pain, or the meaning behind the pain. They need help to interpret. And not necessarily into words, yet. And sometimes words will never come; we may have to live with speechlessness, and find other symbols capable of speaking the meaning. One thing is certain, when a person cannot speak their suffering, nonetheless they must be heard. Listened to. Our survival instinct is to look away, perhaps with self-protective contempt. To blind ourselves. But their suffering is a crying out, a showing what cannot be said, and a hearing has to take place, which means that reality needs to be read.
This does not apply only to suffering.
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line the narrator asks, “This great evil, where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who is doing this? Who is killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known?” We might ask a similar question: This light that is love in our lives, where does it come from? How does it enter the world? How does it take root in the human heart? What is it? Bringing life, creating us, making us what we are and showing us who we can be? We often fail to see what my imaginary narrator is pointing to. Our hands are those of the universe, holding itself. Our eyes are those of this mystery, looking on itself. Our hearts are the possibility of something more than stones. We stare out of our lack, while trying to run from it, and so we fail to read. We miss the meaning. That it might have the form of a question. Might contain deeper possibilities. In our dark hour, a call: What is this mystery asking me? What is the message in the pain? What is it calling on me to become. To whom? What does it want to see with my eyes? The answer is slow, given in time, perhaps remade at points. It is unfolding.
"Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not."
We grieve. We grieve those we have lost. We suffer the lack - we grieve what we never had. At times in life grief is a torment and you are transfixed by pain, grasping at your chest which feels like it will burst. At other times it is a softer quality which may, to use Helen Garner's phrase, permeate like "an unassuageable longing."
Speaking personally, for all my faults I have always felt this deep calling and obligation to stand by people no matter what - even in strife, and especially at certain profound moments in strife, when the curtain in pulled back the other is seen, just like me, speaking out their pain. It is when we are most shattered that something greater shows itself: in my experience a deep love, compassion, and fidelity come to us. We see the mystery and preciousness of the other. Sometimes we have to wrestle hard with the pain if we are to keep our eyes open to this. It is the same of course in grief, but in a different way. It is hard to keep our eyes open. I have always tried to listen to my own grief and to be well with it and to learn from it. Sometimes I have failed miserably. That is the nature of being human - we all become overwhlemed, though we all show it in very different ways. I know that loss simply is loss - whatever is gained does not undo it, but I also see sorrow as a friend. It softens my heart, makes me more generous, able to listen, to see the heart of the other. To be haunted by sadness, as a quiet insight into our finitude and preciousness, might be painful but it is an important teacher.
I wrote this reflection after re-reading David Malouf's beautiful novel The Great World. It opens with the sentence, “People are not always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.” Jenny is an intellectually disabled woman whose life we witness as the story shifts back and forth in time. Time is an important theme in the book. Another is our attempt to hold that which we love; an attempt which always fails because all is subject to time and so to passing. Those we love slip through our fingers and we are left helpless and in pain. In the case of this disabled woman Jenny, Malouf's use of her child-like language invites a loving attention to her inner-life. The way Jenny is revealed as one of us is a wonderful achievement of the novel, given that in daily life the inner depths of such people are often unseen and dismissed. But the cost of Malouf's clear vision is that we are pained to see Jenny lose too, like us, and in profound ways - we feel the depths of her loss. Without Malouf's lens our humane condescension might shield us from her pain.
Malouf's narrative reaches a height toward the end of the novel when Jenny finds a man, whom she has always disliked and distrusted, sprawled on the ground and dying of a stroke. She takes him awkwardly in her arms.
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”
The world steals from us – things we have lost, things we never had - and in both cases we cry out.
Malouf's novel constitutes a study in how the different characters respond to loss. Jenny's mother fantasises a heaven where every material good she has stored up is present, where her adult children are young again and sit around the table happily. That image is in radical contrast to the human beings she has raised. Jenny's mother will not accept nor find a way to love them in their reality, for she cannot stand reality itself and so retreats into a fantasy. She does not understand the magic of life. In the traditional magic trick - the disappearance and return of the coin - what you receive at the end, is never quite what was made to disappear. The magician takes from us an object that is precious to us. Then they make it disappear - we lose the thing we want or need so much, the object of our love. Then they return it to us and we think it is the same but it is something else. It takes time to discern the difference. The magic was never in the object, but in the relationship between us and the wonder that was invoked. We walk away from the original object without even realising the change, without seeing the true magic of the trick
Certain others in the book are hardened by loss, they become cynical, bitter, contemptuous. These are forms of self-protection, an anaesthetical turning-away of attention and consolation through distortion of vision. Yet others refuse to do this and remain lucid. Digger and his friend are an example of this contrast. Mid-way through the novel Jenny's brother Digger returns from the Second World War where he was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway, tasked with burning the corpses of his fellow prisoners. A friend asks Digger what he is doing in King's Cross, “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
“It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”
As Digger admits, this is impossible. Malouf recognises the tragedy of the human condition: the contradiction between the preciousness of others, and the impermanence of all things, eaten away by the flames time, destroyed by the world. Through intimate objects Malouf turns our attention to the painful meaning of this continuous passing away: a razor blade for the husband's morning ritual, making his flesh smooth to the touch, a button from a baby's bootee. This is loving, maternal imagery brings us into a different relationship with life than the contempt displayed by Digger's friend. Digger sees with love, but of course that renders him vulnerable. It means the acceptance of the pain. Digger's friend refuses to accept the pain and attempts to pass it on disguised as hate. Digger accepts pain for the sake of love, and so he must suffer.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a dear friend, who died young. I was a pall bearer. Her coffin was made of wicker cane, and as I carried her I could see and smell her through the gaps. To lift her down the steps of the church a steel handle was unfolded on the trolley. Juxtaposed with her lying there, the chrome machinery seemed cold, hard and mechanical. I was carrying her to a hearse which would drive her to a brick building where she would be burned. I had such an urge to rescue her, to open the coffin and lift her out. I felt broken inside. Of course I know that death is natural, a universal consequence of life, but it felt like an utter injustice – something wrong, something impossible to comprehend.
My friend was a talented philosopher academically, and more importantly in spirit. During the last week I have had imaginary conversations with her about death. These led to various reflections which consoled me and helped me accept her loss. But yesterday the physical reality of her body at her funeral shattered that. I came to view those consoling insights as evasions, protections against the sorrow, against being broken. I had defended myself against the horror and pain of her loss by reasoning and consoling the hurt away. Or so it seemed as I sat there sobbing before her coffin, with brokeness in my body. Today however, my body still aching, I realise that this last weeks' thoughts were also true.
I had to struggle before and during the funeral not to dissociate from the pain, and at times I had to give into that temptation a little - to let a fog overtake me as the only way of pulling myself together when my body felt like it was spasoming with grief. After all I was among others and the attention was due to her. I think however that had I not let the wrenching truth of what had happened enter into me as best I could, then I might have given over to avoidant consolations, clever insights serving as shields against the pain and so the truth. That would be a refusal to pay attention to the truth of my friend's death, to pay attention to her. And yet, as a consequence of facing this truth, I feel that I have reached a more lucid, genuine form of those initial consoling insights: truths about the naturalness of death; about the wonderful gift of living which demands an acceptable price, paid in mourning; and how anticipation of my own death is now forever transformed by a sense of following her to where she is (even if this notion of ‘being somewhere’ is purely poetical). The temptation to evasion by blindness, whether through hardening, or by clever insights, is always there for all of us. Loss and the grief can be teachers, but accepting the pain is a condition for being true to those (or that) which we have lost.
Of course the work of finding true consolation is always flawed, an ideal from which we constantly fall short. And yet it is something toward which we can make progress. It is human to delude oneself, to try to sweeten a bitter drink. Sometimes, for a time, pain is too much to bear. Nietzsche's claim that what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger is too often mere romanticism. Life can break people. More often its cruelty weakens us, at least for a time. But often we can become wiser, gentler, more loving, in the face of it, given time and a willingness to let suffering and love dwell together.
In honour of Georgie Smith, 1968 - 2014.
Image: Maria Kreyn, Alone Together
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 good. And sometimes wonderful. When we don’t, conversely, we may feel wounded and worthless.
We may fear we will be shamed by others, like a fraud who will be unmasked. This is less a sense of guilt and more a fear of being seen as bad or defective or useless or ugly or weak and ultimately worthless. It is about the self as a whole, rather than something we've done. And so we fear the opinion of others and (our sense of) its power to destroy us. Perhaps we recognise the presence of this fear within, though we may just as likely deny it.
In this state we may become envious of others who, we imagine, feel worthy. "They are so confident. How they do it?" We may compare ourselves to them and feel we are lacking. This can leave us feeling depressed. We may in turn attempt instinctively to overcome that depression by feeling angry, for anger is a powerful sensation rather than a deflated one. When we are angry we are no longer ‘below’, but ‘above.’ Instead of feeling deflated when we compare ourselves to others, a person may now have contempt for their "fake superiority." "They think they are so good, but I see what idiots they are." We try to lower others by means of our scorn and criticism, so that we may be raised. Anger is strategic, albeit the strategy is instinctual rather than reflective: it achieves a feeling of righteousness.
If we could recognise our shame then we could, if we try, begin to free ourselves of it. There is a world of difference between those who are sensitive to their shame and those who have vigorously walled it off. (Never fully trust the latter character.) Through such recognition we might become more free to relate to others in a different way, as a much less judgemental person, but rather one who is more wisely compassionate, and therefore one who is much less lonely. We might ask critical questions of our shame, questions that arise from a deeper hope about what life might offer. We might admit our shame to others who are capable of holding us in their esteem regardless, and of helping us to see through our confusion and defensiveness. Acknowledgement of our shame requires our facing it. This is hard, for to be accused is to feel guilty. If something is repeated often enough then it takes on the aura of truth. And we have been repeating this story about ourselves for a very long time.
So we lose ourselves in the defensive fantasy of our superiority (and the superiority of those who esteem us) and the correlating inferiority of others. In order to believe in our superiority we hold ourselves to perfectionist standards. If we think we have achieved these standards then we feel important and elated. If we think we have failed then, rather than see ourselves as simply human, we feel depressed and worthless. We might go to counselling for this, but with the assumption that it will help us improve and eventually perfect ourselves. This can lead to an initial frustration, because a good counsellor wants instead to help us become wiser and to accept our flawed humanity, to become more compassionate toward ourselves and others, and to experience the beauty of our apparently mediocre lives. It is only from there that we can have a solid basis for any excellence in our lives, to achieve highly and be happy at the same time. How hard it can be to gain such wisdom at a felt level. We want the guarantees that, we imagine, would come from being perfect, or at least from being esteemed by and dwelling among the superior people. Without such guarantees we fear we may fall apart.
My first career was as a musician, a jazz drummer. Growing up in a small country town before moving to Melbourne at 17, I was often asked the same question about my musical aspirations: “What’s the use of that?” The question was usually posed in a tone dismissal and even scorn. It was a statement rather than a question: "Your passion has no use, so it has no worth." If I were asked that question now I would respond, “What's the use of your life?” This would not be a clever retort but rather a serious invitation to pay attention to what has value and how. For many of the things we value most, serve no use. Sure, they may have secondary values, secondary uses they serve, but their fundamental value is not functional, it does not primarily serve a purpose beyond itself. Life, beauty, goodness, truth, humanity, at their best these values do not serve a function, they are valued in their own right. As Kant would put it, they are ends in themselves, and other things gain value as means to realising these ends.
The problem with the questions those dismissive people asked me is that they were not questions, they were statements. They were expressions of certitude. Matters were already decided and they were not open to discovering something new. Philosophy is an ancient Greek word meaning 'love of wisdom.' Plato and Aristotle said that this love of wisdom "begins in wonder." Without an open space, a space of wonder and contemplation rather than pre-preemptive decision, we are blind. As Socrates spent his time showing the citizens of Athens, when we approach life with certainty we are not only ignorant, but we are ignorant of our ignorance. Socrates' fellow citizens thanked him for the lesson by putting him to death. They had made a fundamental mistake about their value, and when they perceived themselves to have been unmasked, they became angry, to the point of murder.
Without wonder and contemplation of what lies beyond our certainties we are trapped in our ignorance. People often make this very point while maintaining a closed mind. Some think that the cleverness of their mind equates automatically to such openness, but as Simone Weil wrote, "The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell." Values which are ends in themselves are things to wonder at. Our lives are valuable in this way. This shows itself in that we would sacrifice our self for the life of another whom we love. Or even for strangers, when our eyes are open to this form of value. (Certainly we might do so out of instinct, but to reduce the matter to one of instinct ignores the fact that many of us would also do so after reflection, as a choice in consequence of the value that we perceive in others simply as human beings.) In the realm of close relationships this perception of value shows itself most. We love people unconditionally because we experience them as unconditionally valuable. The logic is circular, because the value is intrinsic. When we encounter this level of value we can dig no deeper for an explanation. Instead we are invited to wonder at what we see and to become ever more attuned to it and shaped by it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Liza Hirst
When he lost her 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. This is the logic of deep grief. He would learn it in his body as much as his mind.
In the aftermath: Sleep
At first he would wake suddenly in the night, heart racing. The knowledge ruptured his sleep, bringing him forcefully back to the empty world. For he carried the truth in his body before consciousness, and woke in emotional pain.
Over time, however, there was a shift. A gap appeared. At some point he began waking to the open space he used to know, where the world was neutral and instinctively good. This lasted a few seconds, before the wave of painful knowledge flooded again. In time, however, even the power of that wave lessened.
This change occurred because in time lost loves recede to take their natural, paradoxical place in life: as absolute values among other absolute values, embodied in finitude. This is what they were before the loss, and it is what they become again in time. Anything embodied in finitude will be lost, regardless of its value. Again, the cruelty of the nature of our being. And yet the site of the problem is also the location of a cure. As we continue to live after loss, we naturally return to an empirical world marked by absolute value, but myriad enough to contain constant newness and possibility, including in the domain of love.
The initial moment
Through the embodiment of grief in the experience of waking, a quick story has been told above about loss and recovery. But I have moved on, so to speak, too quickly. Let us take a step back and consider how, in the initial moment, the knowledge of loss is embodied. The moment that some terrible truth hits us.
It may come out of nowhere, or we may have anticipated it, or it may be a mixture: we knew, but denied that knowledge to ourselves, suffering what we considered “foolish anxieties.” The man of our example had physical tremors in the weeks leading up this moment. Regardless of that intuition, the moment itself of spoken truth, of witnessed truth, is a catapult. He was sent spinning through space. How does a person's body contain this explosion? How does our finite body hold, in that moment, a traumatic experience of the infinite: of an absolute loss, an absolute violation?
In that moment he could make no distinctions. He conflated the absolute with the finite. The paradox I return to repeatedly here. For in our being we are both, held always in tension. Tension is different to conflation, however, and the conflation is an actual impossibility, a confusion. The mistake is one we all make, and in such moments it causes our inner space to crack and fly apart. He heard an animal wail from elsewhere in the room, and then realised it was coming from him. He had broken in two. He needed to do something absolute, but what is an absolute action? There is no such thing, for only values can be absolute. He could not hold this truth in his body at that moment, coming to him as it did with such callous force. It was to his body and mind like a brick thrown through glass. He shattered.
Human beings are finite existents capable of bearing absolute values. Everything material is finite, including our lives, but the value we can have for others, or they can have for us, can be absolute. This means that in deep suffering our bodies can be riven in a way that is distinct to human life. The animals, who suffer too, are free of our particular possibilities for suffering. But we are animal, and these possibilities must be born in an animal body. Hence the images of being rent, torn, broken, smashed, spinning, shattered. To understand our suffering we need to recognise the tension and contradiction in our nature. All suffering is embodied.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Artwork: Margarita Georgiadis
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.
One of the best ways of understanding depression comes to us from Freud and those psychoanalysts who, over more than a century, have carried forward his work. I am impressed by the explanatory power of psychoanalysis but also quite critical of it, especially as it makes easy the abuse of power by individual therapists. However it is the former I am drawing on here. A Freudian understanding of depression means an understanding of love and loss. To understand the place of love in Freud, I quote him from 1921 (my italics for emphasis):
"We are of opinion, then, that language has carried out an entirely justifiable piece of unification in creating the word 'love' with its numerous uses, and that we cannot do better than take it as the basis of our scientific discussions and expositions as well. By coming to this decision, psycho-analysis has let loose a storm of indignation, as though it had been guilty of an act of outrageous innovation. Yet it has done nothing original in taking love in this 'wider' sense. In its origin, function, and relation to sexual love, the 'Eros' of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love-force, the libido of psycho-analysis [...] and when the apostle Paul, in his famous epistle to the Corinthians, praises love above all else, he certainly understands it in the same 'wider' sense. But this only shows that men do not always take their great thinkers seriously, even when they profess most to admire them."
Elsewhere I explore some existential sources of depression, as well as some ways that meaning and value inform depression. There are many factors. According to psychoanalysis depression forms in the shadows cast by our first loves: our relationship with our parents, especially when very young. A frequent point of reference is some deficit in the parental love. An experience of such deficit is a universal; it is written into the human condition, for all parents are human beings and so flawed. Surprisingly, this flaw may be seen as the seed of love. As Plato saw two and a half thousand years ago (see the Symposium), and as Freud and his students have recognised again, love, or desire, is a consequence of loss, of lack. What I am saying can be understood this way: originally for the child, mother and child were one. Soon however, there was this terrible experience of distance, of absence - the experience that the mother is another, different being, separate from the child. The child lost the wholeness they previously possessed when lacking that awareness. For a psychoanalyst, if you do not feel whole, and if you have ever sought to find wholeness through another, then you are responding to this loss and yearning for a return. As Alcibiades put it in Plato's Symposium, we are longing to find our other half and return to our original state of unity, which he physically describes as a state of embrace. Love arises in an infant as an urge, a desire, in response to their painful new experience of separation from the mother. According to some this separation and loss is the primary human trauma. It casts a shadow over our lives, deeply shaping their form and direction. Love and loss are internal to one another.
Such loss is universal. It is nobody's fault, it is not a flaw in the individual parent, rather it is the human predicament, about which we have no choice. Beyond this fact, however, some mothers and/or children respond to the separation well, while others less so, in ways which vary and which create varied effects, one of which is depression. Leaving aside parents whose behaviour is obviously harmful (the remote, the selfish, the manipulative, the abusive, many of whose children will suffer depression) many depressed people have had good, loving parents. To any perfectionistic parent who is reading this, I would point out that the great child psychologist Donald Winnicott used the term "good enough" to describe the kind of parent whose love and affection leads to healthy emotional development in a child. Yet sometimes parents who would otherwise be good enough, do not or cannot give good enough love. It may be there in their heart, but it is not adequately communicated in action, in their way of being. This lack may occur only for a particular time, or regarding a particular dimension of their being. It may be that the parent was disabled from providing adequate love at a critical point through illness, whether mental or physical, or physical absence. Perhaps the child was ill and could not experience the love that was readily on offer, a point which brings out that what we are speaking of is the effect of the experience of loss, regardless of its objective conditions. Again, as I said, perhaps the parent was good enough in most ways but was absent in some important aspect to their emotional life.
As I say, these same parents may in other respects be very loving. They may also have found it easier to give the love required at later stages in the child's life, such that the child remembers them as warm and loving. What I am pointing to is a highly empirically supported view, to the point of being a fact about human development, and not some idle theory or cliche. It is called "attachment theory." This picture does not invite blame, for these insights should be taken with a sense of compassion for our shared human condition with all its afflictions and limitations. It is the mark of maturity to be able to see one's parents as normal, which is to say flawed, human beings, and to recognise that one will be flawed in their own ways as a parent. Human beings are messy, stumbling creatures, and their parenting is no different. I quite like the first two stanzas of Philip Larkin's poem:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
So what happens in a child such that the experience of loss, both as a universal and individual phenomenon, leads to adult depression?
By love we are speaking of such things as attention and affection, the act of meeting the emotional and physical needs of the infant. Love is like food, a need of the soul - or psyche - without which we become sick and starve at the emotional and interpersonal level. When that necessary nourishment is experienced by the child as lacking, as happens through the natural process of separation, then anxiety arises. Anxiety is the first ingredient in depression.
As well as anxiety, frustration arises in the child. Frustration quickly changes shape, for love is other-directed. It turns into hostility, into rage at the parent who is disappointing their need. How the parent responds matters, for many parents have difficulty tolerating that rage. This may be due to those same factors which led to problems in their ability to give love. The parent's difficulty only serves to create more problems, for without reassurance in the face of their rage, the child begins to dread retaliation, such as further withdrawal by the parent or punishment. To make things worse, the child 'knows' (instinctively - they are not yet reflective) that they are completely dependent upon their parent. They cannot bite the hand that feeds them. So they feel that they cannot give expression to their rage for fear of retaliation. They must swallow it.
This anxiety and rage, layered with dread of punishment, creates quite a mess in the child’s emotional life. For they recognise (again, so to speak - none of this is reflective) that the object of their hostility – their parent - is also the object of their love. In therapy this is known as ‘ambivalence’: "I hate you, and I love you." This ambivalence becomes an inner emotional dynamic, a pattern that is played on repeat. It is the reason that so many people have difficulty with commitments, especially romantic ones. It is the root of many of the psychological defenses which enter into a person's personality, such as "undoing" and "reaction formation."
It is at this point that guilt makes an entrance. “Because I have been bad (felt rage) toward the one I love, therefore I have lost their love - it is my fault.” Plus “I have been bad, and will surely be punished by them (for example by their withdrawal and rejection of me).” And again, "Because I have hate (alongside love) for my parent, therefore I have harmed them." In essence the child blames themselves for the experienced absence of their parent’s love. And they blame themselves for their own response to that absence. And they blame themselves for anything bad that happens to their beloved parent. Guilt is self-accusation. They swallow the rage, turning it on themselves. They attack themselves, which is to say they become guilty. As the psychoanalyst Lacan once said, "The Christian injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself must be ironic, for people hate themselves!" To include another feature in this tormenting picture, all of this is exhausting for a child. That is, it leads to a state of exhaustion. The child becomes hopeless.
As a child grows they develop many defenses to cope with these problems, cutting them off from conscious awareness and managing to do well despite them. But sometimes, say due to a traumatic event or an ongoing strain, cracks appear and widen to the point that the defensive wall collapses. The adult may now enter a state of depression, which is simply to say that they can no longer defend themselves adequately from what was inside all along. The loss shows itself. Take note of how much depression looks like grieving. And the anxiety shows itself too; for example the person wakes early every morning and cannot return to sleep. The rage and hostility shows itself, turned inward as guilt, for example in the form of self-recriminations, self-loathing, and poor self-esteem. The exhaustion shows itself in a helpless-hopeless sense of life, a sense that there is no point to anything, as well as in the lethargy that affects their whole being.
So depression is grief at a fundamental loss, a loss of contact with love which is reacted to in certain ways, but the depressed person cannot see this, let alone say what that loss is. For the problem originally occurred at a pre-verbal period of their early life, such that it is now largely unconscious, a pattern. For the child had not yet developed language, had not developed the intellectual capacity to represent to themselves what they were experiencing or how they were reacting to it. In a certain sense, it is all instinctual. As they grow it may not be lifted up into language, and so it remains inchoate. Second it is unconscious because much of this is intolerable to the child, therefore it is pushed out of awareness, or rather forces within them will not let it show itself to consciousness even as their capacity for awareness grows. Even as an adult they do not recognise these aspects of their inner life, for the defensive repression continues, usually with greater strength. The psyche is dynamic like that, seeking to maintain emotional equilibrium by making problems seem not to exist - by deluding the self.
Freud wrote, "When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden...I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." To the casual observer depression arises (shows itself) as though from nowhere, and seems to lack meaning. This is why the medical picture of depression is so popular among both lay people and many professionals. However for those with eyes to see, the inner dynamics that lead to an outward depression show themselves.
Freud’s Law: That which I cannot represent to myself, I am doomed to repeat. When something is unconscious, I neither see nor understand it. And it is unconscious because there are forces within me pushing against it, pushing it out of my awareness as a reaction to the anxiety it arouses. Our mental life is a marvellously restless, dynamic phenomenon, full of drives and desires which span across conscious and unconscious levels. A major work of psychoanalytic therapy is to help a person represent to themselves the unseen workings of their inner life. To see what is really going on. In the case of depression, to see the loss of needed love, the rage, the guilt and attack on the self, the despair and exhaustion. Because so much of the psychological problem formed in the early years of life before the person developed sophisticated language - before they developed self-awareness and self-understanding - therefore they now need to connect this inner ‘stuff’ with language, to bring these conflicts into language. This is why there is such thing as a "talking cure".
This is why we value of insight in therapy. Therapeutic insight is much more than hypothesis or detached description. In philosophical terms, therapeutic insight means bringing an inner state, especially an inner struggle, into the domain of logos – reason, the adult human mind - where we can see with our intelligence, and judge according to our better values, and make choices, and enact those choices by reshaping things. And such things are shaped, moreover, through the very fact of their entry into this sphere of adult awareness. This is one reason why the therapeutic relationship is so important: a great deal of trust and care is required for the person to soften their defenses and step into their inner world, which in a depressive situation is a world of grief and loss, rage, and fear of retaliation. In therapy we make the unconscious conscious, and do that which we were originally unable to: we work through these things.
I am not a psychoanalyst however over the years I have read deeply in psychoanalysis, among other forms of therapy. These days I think that the historical explanation of a depression within the self is often less important than a here-and-now description of its form, including its unnoticed subtle dimensions, and a shift from that to enacting what might shift the depression: the connecting and valuing that disappears in depression.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Bernard Safran
"You want hear about the dreams” began John. “Well, it was a night of horrors." He raised his hand in front of his face, "It was like my unconscious was just there, and ripped open so that I could see and feel everything. I slept maybe half an hour at a time, waking in panic each time from a new dream. Do you want to hear about my dark night of the soul, and what I learned about myself?” I certainly did.
“In the first dream, I was at work, at my computer. My boss walked in and I had Google Images open, with a picture of a house on the screen - I was trying to find a home. She saw that I was not working. At that moment I knew that I had been seen for a bad worker, and would be fired.”
“How did you respond in the dream?”
“Well that’s the interesting thing, I saw that she had an emotional problem, and I tried to fix it for her.”
“You were offering her something in order to keep your job?”
“Yes, I think so. I think I was trying to make myself kind and helpful, so that she would accept me. Otherwise I would be rejected.”
We sat with that for a moment. “What happened next?”
“Well, I awoke, wrote the dream down, and went back to sleep. In the next dream I was with a close friend. We were at my ex-partner’s house. As you know I secretly found the break up very hard – I had planned to propose to her on the first day of the new year.”
“The house seemed strange. My partner treated my friend and I as equals. There was nothing special about me to her."
"How did that feel?"
"When I awoke I felt like I was nobody, nothing. Yet in the dream all I remember is a powerful lost, anxious feeling. And a deep yearning. My friend and I tried to find somewhere to sleep, but I wasn’t allowed in my now ex-partner's room. I felt so shut out. I wanted to go in there but knew she didn’t want it, that she wanted me gone. And I just had to respect that....”
At this point John teared up. I wanted to ask more but he continued.
“So I woke up with my heart racing. I wrote the dream down, sat up for a while feeling really sad, then went back to sleep. In my next dream my friend and I were still trying to find somewhere to sleep. We went into an old church where homeless people were sleeping among the pews. There was a woman there who was really critical of me – dismissive, mocking.”
“What do you mean?”
“She kept saying, You don’t belong here, get out of here. It was this strong feeling that she hated me and just wanted me gone.”
“From the church?”
“Yes, but gone in a deeper way….”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I too was homeless but somehow more displaced – my vulnerability was lower than theirs in her eyes, and her contempt continued. I had to bundle my things up in a panic and get out.”
"My phone, and this rope that I was trying to tie something important up with."
“And that was the beginning of another dream?”
“Yes. That dream finished with me trying to pick everything up in a panic, to hold it all together, but I couldn't, everything kept slipping through my hands. After waking again with my heart pounding more, and eventually falling asleep again - it was a long night - I was now with my friend out on the street. The street was rough. There were gangs and mad people all about us - insane - and they were violent. We were completely exposed. And then I awoke again.”
“You felt very vulnerable?”
“Well, yes, and worse. You see, in the next dream, I was in the police station. I’m somebody who will hurt myself rather than others, so to speak - will try to take care of others even at risk to myself. But I entered this dream having been charged of a crime. I don’t know what, I hadn't committed any, but I was having to sign some document. I was locked in some room alone where I could never speak to other people again. The point was that I was seen as guilty, hated, a criminal who deserves no love, and furthermore, will never again be considered a good man. I was crying about that last point, pleading them to understand, saying I'm not that kind of man!”
“These are some powerful images, John.”
“Yes. There were other dreams during this night.”
“Several, and they had a theme, captured by this one. A man I admire had come to my house, where I had that friend from the other dreams staying, and he left us a gift. I was busy making a place for my friend to stay in my home, so missed the visitor. My friend told me of the gift, and that he would charge me for my portion.”
What do you make of that?
It felt like love was somehow for trade, like other people would make me pay.”
“Pay for getting love?”
“Yes…no…pay for giving it….”
“What do you mean?”
“I don't know. What was powerful was this sense that deepened throughout the night, whenever I awoke, to a point where I profoundly despaired: a feeling that I was absolutely ugly to my core. I don’t mean just physically ugly, I mean ugly as deeply unlovable, to the center of my being. A conviction that I had seen myself, had been seen, thoroughly inside, and nobody could ever love me.”
“Is this how you feel normally?”
“Beforehand I would have said no, but on this terrible night I recognised that this feeling sits at the heart of me always, and usually I just don’t see it. It drives my life. I have tried to be good and clever, so that other people would not see my ugliness, and would love me.”
“How do you want to respond to that insight?”
Tears were flowing down John's cheeks.
“I’m so tired of trying to be good and clever. I'm so tired of feeling like something to be traded for some semblance of love. And so I'm tired of feeling so unlovable."
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Chris Buzelli
While based on a therapy session, all details are highly disguised for anonymity.
I have just finished reading Kate Grenville's novel The Idea of Perfection. It is the story of two people, Harley and Douglas, who find themselves on opposite sides of a political struggle in a small New South Wales town called Karakarook. I had no idea when I started reading that the story would centre on Harley's experience after the suicide of her husband Philip, which happened sometime before. Grenville introduces the fact slowly, indeed it is 130 pages before we are told that Philip died this way. This gives space for Grenville to sketch the emotional life of a woman who has secretly condemned herself.
There are clues throughout the book to suggest that Harley is a person who tends to feel guilty, long before Philip's death. From her youngest years all adults in her world had a template for the sort of life she ought to pursue: she would be an artist in the tradition of her family. Her sister follows this plan but Harley lacks aptitude. She falls short and is a disappointment.
Somehow she was always in trouble at home, for breaking things with her clumsiness, being rude without having meant it, or not being very good at anything. Why can't you be more like your sister? her father had shouted once in exasperation.
Throughout the novel both Harley and her new friend Douglas question their every interaction with others. Grenville conjures such painful self-consciousness in these characters that at times I squirmed. In Douglas this anxious self-awareness has the form of feeling himself to be pathetic. In Harley the driving perception is of herself as dangerous. She believes and worries that she will hurt anybody who gets close to her. She puts on a severe mask, making herself “too abrupt for comfort” so to push people away.
Harley spends 350 pages of the novel not admitting to herself that her closed way of being is a way of protecting others from herself. She experienced Philip's death as a fundamental condemnation of her, revealing her to be both morally bad and emotionally dangerous. And yet she spends all these pages – all this time - pushing such things out of her mind. In consequence she becomes driven by guilt and fear which she cannot understand. It pursues and hounds her even while she tries to run ahead, her eyes shut close, avoiding a sense of terrible truths about herself:
Not remembering was harder than you would think. It took up a great deal of energy, and even then, memories sliced through the not-remembering, as sharp as ever.
The height of the novel comes when Harley is beginning to drown at the Karakarook waterhole. She is alone, and is choosing to give in to the exhaustion and sink, to let go and end her life without admitting that this is what she is doing. Despite her growing feelings for Douglas Harley has cut him off, and only an hour prior she ignored his offer of a lift on the hot, dusty road to the river. He would be the last person to see her. Suddenly Harley thinks of him. “She knew what that meant, to be the one left looking at a space where somebody had recently been.” She knew the burden of turning over and over in your mind what you might have done to prevent this.
If they thought she had taken her own life, Douglas Cheeseman would live the rest of his life the way she had lived hers for so long, with a hole in his life where the dark knowledge lived: that he was guilty. He was already a man of apologies. It would never let him go. He would reproach himself for making all that dust, for meekly accepting that she did not want a lift, for not finding words that would have made her change her mind. He would go over and over the words, would toss and turn at night with the what if of it.
In the end, the reproach would simply boil down to being the person he was, and not some other, better person.
This recognition of what it would do to Douglas motivates Harley to fight for her life. In recognising what she would have done to Douglas, Harley suddenly gains a different perspective on Philip's suicide:
She had only seen the cruelty Philip had done to himself, and taken it as proof of how bad she must be.
She had taken it, the savagery of what he had chosen, as the final proof of her own guilt. No clearer statement could be given to her of what a terrible person she must be. She had judged herself, and put herself away in the cage marked dangerous.
Thinking of Douglas Cheeseman suffering the same guilt, she saw it differently. His crimes did not deserve such a punishment. Perhaps hers had not either.
Previously Harley assumed that either she must condemn Philip or she must condemn herself. She chose the latter. Stepping back from the situation, by putting Douglas in her shoes, as somebody who unlike Phillip has experienced the force of such grief, she is able to move beyond her previous either/or assumption, to find compassion not only for Phillip but for herself too.
What had they been, those crimes of hers? A fear of revealing herself that could look like indifference, a coldness in the face of declarations, a malicious turn of phrase, and all the usual ones: dishonesty, selfishness, envy and greed. None of it was anything special. She was not a monster, so dangerous that she had to hide herself away for fear of the damage she might inflict. She was only that most ordinary of criminals, a human being.
The insight that helps Harley is not merely some false consolation designed to make herself feel better. Nor is she creating some false justification for herself. After suicide people often feel an unfair kind of guilt; guilt over things which were out of their hands. It can take time to work through this. People can also feel remorse which is a different matter. Guilt is often irrational, blind to the facts, whereas remorse is a lucid recognition of the reality of what one has done. What do we do with such remorse? I am not suggesting a proper answer here, but in Harley’s case she realises that the fate of all human beings is to wrong the people we love, to hurt them, sometimes in ignorance and sometimes not. That is the human condition. So in hindsight we experience remorse over the wrong things that we inevitably did, and the good things we failed to do. When a relationship ends, or the person dies - especially by suicide - it is can be very hard to accept those things. It can be hard not to condemn ourselves as Harley did. But by the end of the novel her realisation that we are all flawed, that we all fall short, and sometimes hurt and wrong the people whom we love, invites forgiveness for this is the human condition. For Harley this insight enables forgiveness of others and forgiveness of herself.
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, and that is often be true, however the pursuit of self-esteem can make things worse.
The value we place on self-esteem often implies an ethic of self-assertion, where the key to a meaningful life lies in our achievements and our recognition of them, as well as the respect we receive from others for them. This ancient ethic was given expression by Aristotle and has periodically received new impetus, for example in Nietzsche. But contrast two other philosophers, Socrates and Plato, who voiced a different ethic: a forgetting of the self. According to them what we need is to lose the focus on ourselves, to shift attention to worthwhile things beyond the self.
On the second account, a meaningful life is one where we fall in love with worthwhile things - people, the world, creative passions, meaningful projects, and so on. It is centred more on values and others than the self.
The first, self-assertive ethic, involves a pre-occupation with the self. It is one where we find our worth in things we might lose. This is fine when it is balanced, but if we lose that balance then we come to live our lives poised between anxiety about the potential of losing those things, and depression when we do lose them (or perceive ourselves to have done so). Consider a writer, to take a common example from my therapeutic work:
Most writers find a sense of personal value through their achievements in their art. However the one who puts pen to paper primarily because they love the art of writing, will experience life differently to one who writes mainly because they want others to hold them in high esteem. The second writer typically comes into therapy complaining of procrastination and emotional deflation, and repeatedly it emerges that this has to do with their failing to gain value through writerly achievement. They seek self-esteem primarily through being esteemed for their writing and, for that very reason, do not find it.
The first writer, however, who writes purely out of love for the art, is generally much more motivated, even if they have dry periods. For they gain energy through love of something beyond themselves. Self-esteem is not that same problem for them, because their focus is elsewhere. That which they love expands their view beyond their self. Our interior world is shaped by the things we love, and so the quality of this writer's inner life and their sense of connection and meaning is heightened.
Many things, material and abstract, can be the object of love. Iris Murdoch wrote, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture.” Values and ideas are among the most important objects of our love. Our interior life is transformed by our conception of life, including the values we fall in love with, and so come to live out, and to perceive life through. For example we can fall in love with a conception of human life as intrinsically valuable, or 'sacred' as some would say. This requires the work of sustained attention, of repeated picturing of others in certain, better ways, as we go about our day; it progresses as a gradual, constant re-orientation of the mind and heart, but through it we can find that our experience of others, of life, and of ourselves, is transformed. Our esteem for ourselves and others becomes something that we can neither increase nor which can diminish, for it is not conditional. In the light of such a vision of every person we simply step over the petty wars of self-comparison and its attendant envy and shame. We also diminish our fear of the future with respect to our value, and so diminish the anxiety I spoke of. Instead we find hope, rooted in love of life and the orientation of our mind and emotions to what matters. We are nourished by the love of things of genuine value, and the usual problem of self-esteem loses its power.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Patrick Stromme