Monday, November 24, 2014

The recursive clanking of memory

A few weeks ago, Daphne Merkin had an essay in the Sunday Times called "Making My Therapist Laugh." It's about finally letting go of the desire to entertain and amuse her therapist, but in reflecting on what therapy should provide the analysand, she hits on a longstanding interest of this blog:

therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts. In ordinary, above-the-surface life, we're endlessly exhorted to move forward and not hang back, when the truth is that the psyche is not such an efficient piece of machinery and is marked by recursive clankings as much as anything else.

As my readers know, I don't believe in being "over" things. I don't believe in "moving on"--if by that we mean declaring ourselves to have been left unscarred, unmarked, or, in some facile way, "better off" now that a catastrophe has receded into the past. Nothing that has ever mattered to me is gone, and no crisis or shattering change is ever fully in the past (although my relationship to those people and events is often quite different after years of reflection, reframing, and reconsideration). Healing is not the same thing as never having been wounded.

Last week a close friend suffered a terrible loss. It's not my story to tell, so I won't tell it, but I was struck by how shell-shocked the rest of us seemed by the news, how continually on the verge of tears and in need of companionship and conversation. Yes, we all love our friend and were trying to figure out ways to help, but I think her loss also ripped a hole in our own sense of security, our narratives of healing and progress, reminding us of our own losses and the way that sorrow stops time and exists outside of it.

That's the central conflict: time is linear and craves resolution while our inner lives are brooding and recalcitrant, slow to heal and slow to change. Last week I was also teaching The Winter's Tale, which may be my favorite Shakespeare play. Like all the romances, it's an improbable fairy tale that somehow also manages to render loss and recovery with real emotional truth: the central character loses everything, believes he can reacquire it quickly--and then spends the next fifteen years in grief and self-recrimination. Eventually, he gets some of what he hoped for, but not on the terms he expected.

That's the kind of happy ending we actually get in life: not what we wanted, but even more dear when it comes. Recognizing it, though, requires remaining in touch with all we've lost and hoped for in the past.


Jeff said...

Lovely, touching, and true. Happy Thanksgiving, Flavia!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Very nice post, but I found this surprising in the quote:

"therapy allows for. . . the repetitive nature of a person's inner life, the constant regurgitation of ancient grievances and conflicts."

I spent years in successful psychotherapy in my twenties, and little of it involved regurgitating ancient grievances and conflicts. Rather, it was almost all about accessing and accepting my own perceptions of reality and emotional reactions to those perceptions. At least for me, that kind of regurgitation was an externalizing defense mechanism protecting me from the real hard internal work I needed to do, and my therapist was very skilled at keeping me from such a distraction.

Flavia said...

Thanks, Jeff!


I don't presume to speak for Merkin, but my understanding of what she says is not that she sees therapy as a place merely to regurgitate the past--in the same repetitive and unending way--but as a place where it's okay to keep turning the conversation back to events and issues from the past in an effort to get a new handle on them in the way you describe. Certainly that's my own experience of the past: it doesn't go away and it doesn't change, but allowing ourselves to brood over it is part of what's needed to understand it and ourselves.

sophylou said...

This was lovely. Thank you.