What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part Two: The Counselor’s Work

In the first post of this series, I attempted to provide a brief introduction to ‘philosophical counseling,’ and closed on a promissory note to provide a description of the task of the philosophical counselor. Here it is.

The philosophical counselor’s job is to be a guide and a partner, helping the counseled explore the issues which brought them to counseling, through philosophical insights, interjections, annotations, that clarify, deepen, resolve or reevaluate the issues ‘presented’ and at play in the counseled person’s life. The philosophical counselor’s ‘job’ is to work sympathetically and empathetically with the counseled, whose questions, insights, and queries dictate the resultant conversations. Through such conversations, counselor and counseled alike can discover what the client’s  beliefs and values are, what the relationship between them is–that is, work on figuring out the ‘philosophy at play’ is , and figure out, how it can best work for the person seeking couneling. The philosophical counselor, to reiterate, is not here to impose a way of thinking on the counseled, a glib ‘philosophical solution’ as it were, but rather to help the counseled inquire into themselves, as a key to a greater self-understanding of their own particular beliefs and values and the constraints and capacities that arise from them.

Is the counselor there to listen, to guide, to advise, to assign reading? The answers are unsurprising: all of the above. The counselor listens, the counselor guides through both questions and suggestive responses, through pointers for inquiry and investigation, the counselor directs by pointing to sources of ‘philosophical wisdom,’ working through which can inform future discussions and aid in a greater self-understanding. What special wisdom or skill does the counselor possess?  The counselor is knowledgeable, of course, but more to the point, the counselor has thought about the relationship philosophy bears to living ‘the good life.’ On a personal front, the counselor has applied philosophy to his or her own life, finding within it the means and methods for bringing understanding and self-knowledge within one’s reach. This is not a task that has been accomplished; indeed, it cannot be. But it remains ongoing, and the counselor seeks to continue it through conversation with others engaged in the same task. This discussion of the task of the philosophical counselor very naturally raises an interesting question: What is the relationship of such a species of counseling to modern therapeutic traditions like psychotherapy (and its many variants) and psychoanalysis? These traditions, theoretically, find their roots in philosophical models of the mind and in claims about the nature of the self, and its relationship, social and psychological, to others. For instance, Freudian psychoanalysis’ roots lie in models of the mind developed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; and existentialist psychotherapy is overtly informed by the insights found in these philosophers and in the existentialist tradition more broadly. Psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic method, too, borrows a great deal from philosophical method in its reliance on conversation and listening and interjection and questioning, on ‘reflecting’ the client, on directing the therapeutic conversation. Viewing this borrowing, we may consider ourselves justified in assessing philosophy as being the original ‘talk therapy.’ A Socratic dialog, let us recall, is a directed, prompted conversation that brings the interlocutor’s beliefs and their justifications to light; we find out whether we know or not. (And yes, Socrates was the original philosophical counselor.) In philosophical counseling, the knowledge (or its lack thereof) brought to light is that which pertains to the greatest mystery of all: ourselves.

What Is Philosophical Counseling? Part One: The Basics

Philosophical counseling is committed to the claim that philosophy can aid us ‘therapeutically.’ This is not a novel claim: philosophy understood as therapy has a long and honorable tradition in the history of philosophy. As a recent supplement of the Royal Institute of Supplement dedicated to ‘Philosophy as Therapiea,’ edited by Claire Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, makes clear, Spinoza, the Buddha, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, all in their own ways, either conceived of philosophical thinking as a species of therapy, or offered philosophical doctrines as forms of therapies. Historically, both Buddhist and Hellenistic schools of philosophy maintained that “philosophical argument could bring about tranquility by changing the beliefs on which emotional turbulence depends”. Some understandings of philosophy as therapy treat some distinctively human problems as illnesses requiring cure; yet others are committed to an understanding, and thus a displacement, of a problem. That is, what appears to be a problem is no longer one because I have modified my beliefs about it and the very identity of my problem has changed as a consequence; and in the process of modifying our beliefs, we have changed who we are by dint of changing our emotional response to the problem at hand. For affect is not impervious to philosophical reflection; as all of us realize, what we believe makes a great deal of difference to what we feel.

The therapeutic potential of philosophy then, can be stated succinctly: first, a specific doctrine’s details may offer us a prescription for how to rid ourselves of the particular affliction that ails us (by ‘affliction’ I do not mean ‘mental illness,’ a dubious notion at the best of times); and philosophical method—self-introspection and reflective thinking—may help us understand ourselves and our ‘problem’ better. Many of us are curious about what the purpose of life is, how should we seek meaning in our lives, work, and relationships, how we should make ourselves understood to others and arrive at acceptance of ourselves. We are often confronted with moral and existential dilemmas that call for exploration and inquiry. The seemingly simple decision to change majors in college can very easily be transformed into a question of how to resolve parental authority, to find meaning in one’s chosen career, and most fundamentally, what one’s sense of identity is; divorce very often forces a fundamental personal and existential reckoning; it may cause us to grapple with anger, regret, jealousy, forgiveness, reconciliation, compromise. The questions that these crises raise play a significant role in how we conduct our personal and professional relationships–our lives. When we find ourselves in crises and turn for therapeutic aid, very often, we are looking for a way to revisit and reexamine such queries and our relationship to them.  Both philosophical doctrines and method can aid in such examination and inquiry. 

Philosophy is dedicated to inquiring into the fundamental questions noted above, to applying their enduring lessons to life’s deepest problems. Philosophy can and should, enable thinking and acting to bring wisdom and acceptance to our relationships with ourselves and others. Counseling employing the philosophical method, that is, directed dialogue with a sympathetic partner to gain new perspectives on our lives and forge a new understanding of ourselves—which is what psychoanalysis and psychotherapy do—can aid in bring such a measure of understanding to our lives. Such philosophical counseling applies the tools of philosophy, doctrinal and methodological, as described above, to the enduring questions and perplexities of everyday life that sends people to the therapist’s couch. The ‘problems’ which may bring someone to philosophical counseling may include: crises in interpersonal relationships; seeking meaning and purpose in our chosen careers; managing anger, conflict, and compromise; finding happiness and ‘balance’ in work and life; aspirations, choices, and regret; change, loss, grieving, mortality; balancing personal and professional values and aspirations; crafting a meaningful life. This is quite a grab bag, and that is as it should be, for the diversity of human perplexities is indeed great. Addressing these provides a framework for thinking about what matters most in our lives and how we would like to live in accordance with our values.

Most fundamentally, philosophical counseling enables us to discover ‘my philosophy’: my beliefs, their justifications, and the relationships between those beliefs, which regulate and determine my intellectual and emotional responses to this world’s offerings. By engaging in this act of discovery, I can come to understand myself better, and orient myself toward the rest of my life.  

Self-knowledge has always been philosophy’s most ambitious therapeutic claim as a guide to understanding our place in this world, and thus our conflicted relationship with it, better. Philosophical counseling can aid in this project by the simplest of tools: a directed, sympathetic, curious conversation, consisting of questions, answers, and their joint examination by the interlocutors in this conversation. This mention of ‘interlocutors’ raises the question: What is the philosophical counselor’s work in all of this? I take up that query in the second part of this series of posts on philosophical counseling. More to follow, anon. 

A Problem With Analytic Philosophy: The Case Of ‘Forgiveness’

‘Forgiveness’ is a ‘big topic’ in contemporary philosophy–part of its current preoccupations in moral psychology. A quick search of journal articles, books, book chapters, edited collections, conference proceedings, and invited talks throws up many titles and topics; clearly, philosophers are working on a topic of great interest in the personal and moral domains. Forgiveness, healing, regret, guilt, anger–this cluster of concerns animates many. Present company included: I bear grudges, I carry around the anger of unresolved personal disputes within me, I regret my many moral errors and omissions, I seek to introduce healing into my many conflicted personal relationships–forgiveness plays a crucial role in addressing these personal zones of conflict and contestation. Philosophy is doing salutary work in addressing these in its current ruminations. So far, so good. 

But how does contemporary philosophy really ‘tackle’ forgiveness? Here is one wholly impressionistic take. 

I once attended a talk on forgiveness by a noted contemporary philosopher; s/he began by talking about ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ and after offering definitions of the pair, then went on to argue that in fact, under some kinds of conditions, the ‘two kinds of forgiveness’ collapsed into one, or entailed the other. Or something like that. Pardon my vagueness here, but that is merely a reflection of the fact that my attention had drifted, away and out of the seminar room. I went into the seminar expecting to find something that would resonate with my personal experiences of moral and political domains where forgiveness, or its lack thereof, played a crucial role. I found instead an exploration of the various logical and conceptual relationships that obtained between various definitions of forgiveness. The descriptions of the conditions under which these definitions of forgiveness were to be shown to be identical or logically related was mildly interesting but nowhere in any of this was to be found any of the emotional dimensions of forgiveness or of any of the human encounters that make forgiveness so interesting to a ‘normal’ human being. 

The problem, as I saw it, was quite simple: analytic philosophy is concerned with all the right topics; it delves into the domains of perplexity that are rightly of great and enduring interest to mankind; in this regard it is fulfilling its ‘social function’ and also its ‘cultural responsibility”; but,  it employs a style of argumentation and reasoning and, er, analysis that ensures its efforts fail to engage the concerns that animate those folks–i.e., most of us–who grapple with forgiveness in their lives. 

Forgiveness is a difficult business; perhaps among the most perplexing of all in human relationships. We cannot build structures of family and friendship without dealing with its challenges. But we will find no guidance in this regard from formal analytic philosophy. If I need guidance in my struggling with forgiveness in a crucial relationship, I will not turn there–and neither, I suspect, will anyone else. (Literature, the movies, perhaps a good play–all of those would be more useful.) In this moral domain, as in many others, analytic philosophy simply makes itself irrelevant.  

Mindfulness On The New York City Subway

Shortly after I began attending my first and only meditation training class, my teacher began a session by claiming meditation could be done anywhere; the ‘meditator’ should not worry about finding the best or the correct place to do ‘sits.’ Sit anywhere; find a support for your back so you can sit upright; but if you can’t you can meditate lying down. I found this catholic attitude to the position and location of the meditation sit refreshingly non-stifling. I found the last of my many excuses to not meditate melting away: no longer could I complain about the discomforts of meditation sits. So I began meditating. I would meditate at home in my living-room, sometimes in my daughter’s room when our household was busy, in an academic library, at a friend’s home. All I needed was a chair and a quiet spot.

And it didn’t have to be too quiet either.  All I had to do was sit comfortably, close my eyes, and meditate. If noise was present, then I had to be mindful of that too: acknowledge the noise, notice its presence, but don’t dwell on it; do pay attention to what happens if you find yourself trying to ‘process’ the noise. The key was to acknowledge that meditation was about mindfulness, not about escape from the every-day, or beguilement. Meditation asked me to be present in the present, not absent in the present. In a mindful way.

With all that said, one logical venue for meditation became apparent: the New York City subway. I often read in subway cars; indeed, they were one of my primary reading venues in my daily life in the city. But I never thought of them as a place of tranquility even though, quite clearly, they were for an experienced New York City commuter like me. All I had to do was find a seat, open a book, and very often I would be ‘lost’; a reading reverie had caused me to miss my intended station of disembarkation on more than one occasion. So why not meditate?

An opportunity presented itself soon enough: one day, while working in the library, I missed my afternoon meditation session by the stacks. Now, time was running out; I still had to catch the subway back to Brooklyn to pick up my daughter from after-school care. I would have to meditate on the subway if I wanted to get my session in before nighttime parenting duties began. And so it came to be that I took the Q train downtown, scouted for a seat, found one, plopped myself down, secured my backpack between my legs, pushed myself back, and closed my eyes. 

I sat for twenty minutes, while the subway took me from downtown Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn, through Chinatown, over the Manhattan Bridge. All around me I could hear sounds, feel sensation, smell aromas: the train scraping and screeching on the tracks, station and delay announcements, phone notifications, the occasional murmured conversation, french fries being eaten, my body moved and swayed, my head drooped, bodies around me moved and shifted as fellow passengers arranged themselves in various configurations for standing and sitting. 

I was in a subway car; I was present, not absent; I was mindful. I’m a human being; sight is my overpowering sensory modality. With the eyes closed, a different world pops into view. That day, while supposedly ‘checking out,’ I was more aware and sensitive to a certain dimension of the interior of a subway car than I had ever been with my eyes closed. I hadn’t gone anywhere; but I was still in a different place. On the subway, that was true literally, and figuratively. 

 

Vale Jay Jankelewicz (1989-2020)

On Thursday, I learned that Jay Jankelewicz, our young, dynamic, and effervescent office manager of the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College, had passed away from complications following from COVID-19. Our department is united in grief; we are shocked and appalled beyond measure at the cruel hand fate has dealt to Jay, his parents, and all those he touched during his life.

In the many tributes and testimonials that poured into the department and college following the announcement of Jay’s passing away, there was a unifying theme: Jay’s affectionate and caring personality, his helpfulness, his sincere interest in, and passion for, the college community, which included faculty, students, and staff. No one who came into contact with Jay came away untouched; nor did I. Reading these testimonials, which have brought me to tears as I read them has brought that home to me all over again.

Jay, without exaggeration, made our office a home away from home; it bore his stamp in every fashion. The chair of the department could not do his job without him; we, ours. In the bad old days, before Jay took over the office, there was little administrative assistance available to faculty members; more often than not, we just did the administrative and logistical work of academic work ourselves. All of that changed once Jay–a graduate of Brooklyn College himself–took over; he expertly supervised a skeleton staff of students, assisted the chair in his many functions, and reorganized and revitalized the department’s administrative profile and function from beginning to end, from top to bottom: student assistance in all shape and form, advising materials, interactions with facilities management, content on the department web page, college forms, interactions with other college units including facilities maintenance, departmental events like social hours, movie nights, holiday parties, birthday cakes for his co-workers, the list goes on and on. (Those students who worked with Jay in the office found him a generous and supportive supervisor, one keenly attuned to their challenges navigating their way through college.) On more than one occasion, I commented to my wife on how well our office functioned; no request for assistance went unheeded; every task I assigned was fulfilled promptly and courteously. In the best possible sense, Jay made it possible for me to concentrate on matters that really needed my attention. I could not have asked for a better co-worker.

Underwriting his prolific work, his seemingly unbounded work ethic, was his spirit, his humor, his sheer good will and warmth. I took my daughter to work on several occasions; without fail, Jay would greet her, treat her to samples of candy from the office’s collection–maintained and stocked by Jay, of course–engage with her with curiosity, all the while beaming with pleasure at the opportunity to connect with his fellow workers in a personal dimension. He was warm and generous with time and assistance for faculty, students, and staff; he infused our workplace with a warmth all his own. (His brand of humor had something to do with it; all of us traded corny lines with him on every entry to the office; almost all of us, I’m sure, had running gags going with him. In my case, it was his ‘thanking me’ every time I warmed up my lunch in the office! His presentations at the faculty department meetings were a hoot; we would be awed by, and grateful for, his work ethic and organization, even as we groaned at his jokes.) The department’s holiday party was really where it all came together; the way Jay beamed on those days, you could tell he thought this place was his own, in the best possible way, and he loved every second of it.

RIP Jay: you were one of the best, a rare gem, and you’ll be missed by all of us. Thanks for everything you did. We love you very much.

The ‘Irrelevance’ Of The Human World

I remember, quite clearly, the day my mother showed me her cancer. There it was, a curious, nondescript region within the scan, a zone of irregularity to be sure, visibly distinct from the cells surrounding it, its shape and shading setting it apart. And yet, it looked of a piece too with its ‘environment’; in one sense, it looked like it belonged, ‘fitting in’ and making room for itself. That was it, the thing that was killing my mother, slowly, but surely. It seemed remote and distant but most of all it seemed impervious: it just didn’t care. It didn’t care for my grief and sorrow, the horror I felt at the impending catastrophe; it didn’t care for my mother’s pain, both psychic and physical. It merely did its thing, working toward its cellular and molecular teleology, doing what it had to do to stay alive and flourish. At its level, in its world, my mother and I did not intrude. We were irrelevant to the cancer’s considerations; we did not enter into its various calculi for survival and expansion and reproduction. But it couldn’t care about us; it did not know we existed. If only I could have reached into its membranes and given it a good shake, or perhaps written it a strongly worded letter. Maybe it would have listened, persuaded by my eloquence and my visible pain, my need for my mother to survive, my terror at the thought of a life thrown off course by this trauma; perhaps, it would have taken pity on me. But it wouldn’t because it couldn’t.

The virus that stalks us now, across closed and open borders, from sea to shining sea, that hunts down the old, the poor, the infirm, the weakened, with particular intention and direction, seems particularly malevolent. But it isn’t. It’s merely indifferent. It knows nothing of us, of our dreams and hopes and plans and loves. It does what it does according to its telos. At its level, matters are considerably simpler: here is the cell to be reproduced, there is that molecular cluster to be colonized next. The economy of intention is stark: simplicity reigns at the level of execution. We don’t factor into this calculus; we have not been discarded; we were never in the picture.

There is something terrifying about this, and yet something deeply reassuring and beautiful too. Something we’ve always known whenever we’ve seen death come visiting and noticed the world carry on regardless: there are many worlds about us and in us, many besides the visible human one, the one that is the repository of our dreams and fears. This one might end but the others persist; we’ve always lived among and alongside them. As the virus moves on, setting up home, laying claim, conquering and colonizing, laying waste, it builds a new world all its own. One in which we may co-exist or not. Previously negotiated terms of co-existence are of no use; negotiations must begin anew. 

We have been reminded, all over again, of our transience, our embedding in the world around us, our connection to everything else; time to stop everything and listen. 

On Not Being Anxious About Anxiety

There are two ways in which philosophy can help us with anxiety: a specific doctrine may offer us a prescription for how to rid ourselves of anxiety; and philosophical method—self-introspection and reflective thinking—may help us understand our anxiety better. While fear and worry (and their resultant stresses) are grounded in specific objects and circumstances, ‘anxiety’ is inchoate, that formless dread left over after these causes—perhaps, strange new viruses—have been identified. Why do we feel it, and must we suffer it? Philosophy’s doctrinal and introspective answer is that anxiety is a constitutive aspect of the human condition; we must live with it. We, as humans, will always be anxious in some measure, but we do not have to be anxious about being anxious. This answer is empowering rather than debilitating, an insight found in both ancient and modern philosophy.  

First, consider that Buddhism’s First Noble Truth notes the undeniable existence of suffering, an acute human dissatisfaction with existence, an indelible component of which is our anxiety. The Buddha then noted that our first step toward ‘relief,’ as expressed by his Second Noble Truth, is a true, unblinking understanding of the nature of the world and of human existence’s place in it: if we misunderstand the nature of the world we will be anxious, and suffer, in ways far worse than need be. A clue to a crucial characteristic of this transient, dynamic, world, one in which our wants can never be satisfied, is supplied by the American pragmatist William James, who described his struggles with anxiety as “a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach … a sense of the insecurity of life.” This profound “insecurity” James speaks of is generated by two foundational facts about the human condition James was acutely aware of and sensitive to: we—even the wisest and most knowledgeable—are uncertain of what the future will bring; and this uncertainty is facilitated by the choices we make, by the freedom we ‘enjoy.’   

Soren Kierkegaard, a patron saint of philosophy’s existentialist tradition, claimed our freedom of will and choice makes us responsible for our self-creation; he imagined us artists, bringing a work of art, our evolving self, into being with our actions. Our choices are destructive of an older self and life; what awaits is an unknown entity, our new self, our new life. This freedom to ‘construct’ ourselves promises us relief from a future written out for us, our parts in it predetermined and known; without such existential freedom, our existence would be little more than a cruel windup play. But such freedom comes with a price: to be free is to experience anxiety because we must reckon with the uncertainty of outcome and consequence associated with our actions and choices. For Kierkegaard, anxiety informs us of the possibilities of our lives, of the uncertain and not yet decided future to be determined by us. This is a gift we cannot decline, because to refuse to choose is also a choice. We are, as existentialists noted, ‘condemned to be free.’  

Kierkegaard’s take on anxiety insists that to be human is to not know, and to not know is to be anxious. A crucial component of the classical theist definition of God was omniscience, from which followed God’s beatific calm: how could a being assured of all-encompassing knowledge be anxious about any eventuality? If we were not ignorant and uncertain, we would be as gods; because we are not, we are humans, anxious ones. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of anxiety animating our curiosity as we sought to push back the darkness that enveloped us: “Anxiety for the future time, disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things.” We romanticize this inquiry by calling it ‘the love of wisdom’; philosophy itself then, is an expression of our anxiety: ‘I’m anxious, therefore I inquire.” Our theories of the world, our illuminations of the unknown, are our antidotes to our anxieties. Our search for knowledge pushes back the unknown that encroaches, making the world more predictable, making us less anxious. And as we continue to live with anxiety at the edge of the unknown, its nature informs us of the directions we may seek relief in, the trajectories of lives we may live. Anxiety is not mere pathology; it is an active part of our selves.  

There is a reason then, a preternatural calm overtakes those confronted by catastrophe; the human mind can reconcile itself to anything when known; that ghostly, unnamable disaster that underwrote our anxiety is now upon us, and we can call upon our lifetime’s acquired resources to face it.  The perennial injunction ‘to stay in the moment’ works as an antidote to anxiety because it bids us be unconcerned with the unknown and unknowable. Accepting our constitutional uncertainty and its crucial role in driving our onward inquiries and actions is the key to understanding that we cannot not be anxious—so long as we are human.   

Our age, like others before it, must confront the optimism of material progress with the sinking feeling that none of it matters very much; the powerful, rich, and famous, are struck down in mid-flight; you can buy your children the best education, but you cannot protect them against all misfortune. The realization that our growing technical mastery of nature leaves our fundamental predicament untouched is cause for terror; there is no way out. ‘Common unhappiness’ is the realization that this anxiety will not, cannot, go away; ‘hysterical misery’—to use Sigmund Freud’s pungent phrasing for these states of being—occurs when we refuse to accept our anxiety; neurosis is the failure to accept constitutive conditions of our being.  

The Buddha was most concerned with our inability to accept crucial aspects of our limited human condition. He famously spoke of the ‘second arrow,’ a pointless inquiry that did not address the original angst of suffering—the ‘first arrow.’ Anxiety about anxiety is the second arrow; it is what we do not need to suffer.  

Note: An edited, shorter, version of this essay appeared in Forge on March 26th. 

The Soldier And The Policeman’s Trained Attention And Its Pathologies

In the chapter ‘Focus’ in his book of essays,The Examined Life, Robert Nozick writes:

The ability and opportunity to focus our attention, to choose what we will pay attention to, is an important component of our autonomy. [p.122]

In a footnote appended to this sentence, Nozick continues:

What we presently focus upon is affected by what we are like, yet over the long run a person is molded by where his or her attention continually dwells. Hence the great importance of what your occupation requires you to be sensitive to and what it ignores de jure or de facto, for its pattern of sensitivities and insensitivities–unless a continuing effort is made to counterbalance this–will eventually become your own.

Consider then, the soldier and the policeman, and the pathologies that are said to famously exist within these professions (each of which has been reckoned a pinnacle of masculinity in some dimension or the other): trauma, anomie, depression, rage, anxiety.

The soldier and the policeman are required to constantly detect danger, manifest in person and place and situation and object; they are taught to respond with hostility, with armed and dangerous bodies. (Some soldiers, if they are unlucky enough, work as policemen in occupied territories; counterinsurgency work and such patrolling and policing must surely count among the ‘dirtiest’ occupations of all.) They are finely tuned to turn their attention persistently and consistently in these directions; they return from tours of duty of urban spaces and warzones with their danger-and-hostility detectors turned on. They are on edge, irritable and tense and taut, filled with rage and fear, all easily manifest in domestic violence and suicide. They bring older selves to their professions and return with newer ones created in the crucible of their new work, where their focus and attention has been systematically diverted and focused, as it had been taught to, in the academy, in advanced training. There, they had been taught, repeatedly, to ignore many human qualities–for instance, the humanity of those they kill on the battlefield or those they capture, interrogate, handcuff, or imprison. It is, indeed, one of their ‘core competencies,’ the hallmark of their profession, and one they must perfect through practice over the course of their careers. They must be competent, at finding targets and perps, who are now not humans any more, but ‘enemies’ and ‘criminals.’ (On a related note, consider the anecdotal reports that oncologists are notoriously unsympathetic doctors. They might well be; after all, they are exposed to death all too often; all too many of their patients simply do not survive. This could result in greater sensitivity to death, but their work would be too onerously affected were they to let it affect them in deeper, more emotional ways.)

It should not surprise us that soldiers and policemen are ‘damaged’ thus by their work. Their ‘patterns of sensitivities and insensitivities’ have been altered, with little effort to ‘counterbalance’ them. Sometimes their enemies and opponents suffer the brunt of this; unfortunately, on many other occasions, it is their family, their neighbors, and friends and loved ones that do. We, as their parent society, bear some measure of responsibility for those we have so created and trained. A different society might eschew the need for such professions; till then, we remain with the pathologies we have set in motion.

The Hidden Pain Of Others

A few years ago, as I walked down the street that I live on in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, toward my home and my waiting family, past a row of restaurants and coffee shops with their happy and contented consumers, I spied a pair of friends and neighbors of ours. They were sitting outside a local eatery, waiting for their wood-fired oven pizza to be brought out to them. The husband sipped on his wine while his wife chatted on the phone, smiling and laughing as her conversation ensued. I stopped and stared for a second, wondering whether I should stop by and throw out a quick hello and make some small talk. I moved on; they looked busy and preoccupied, enjoying their meal, each other’s company, and the fine late summer weather. They looked, for all anyone could tell, happy and prosperous and content. Elegant glasses of white wine; outdoor seating at a not-cheap restaurant; they looked exactly like the people who were supposed to be living in my neighborhood: Brooklyn thirty-somethings, successful and intelligent, well-educated, with adequate privilege and comfort underwriting their lives.

But I was in the possession of some knowledge about my friends that complicated the sunny picture above. For a few months prior to this spotting, they had lost their only child, their daughter, a toddler scarcely two years old, killed by a piece of falling masonry from the eighth floor of a building in Manhattan. It was the worst parental nightmare of all: the loss of a young child to a freak accident, one that you could have done nothing about. It had devastated them with grief and regret and anger in ways that I could scarcely comprehend, and yet, here they were, seemingly oblivious to this fact of their own lives. They would so easily have been the targets of envy at the moment I espied them: good-looking, happy, content, well-fed, prosperous enough for leisure and good cuisine and wine, connected with friends and family, savoring life’s gustatory pleasures. Someone might have congratulated them on their good fortune: “You guys have got it all!” But they didn’t. They were like all of us, who don’t have it all.

It was time, obviously, to relearn some old lessons. We imagine all too easily, that others are happier than they are (the chief cause of our unhappiness, as Montesquieu famously said.) We wear masks all the time; we are brave, more resilient than we imagine; the surfaces that are presented to us, and that we present to others, in our daily lives and social interactions, offer the barest hint of what lurks beneath; we should never presume too much about the happiness that we find exposed to us–for it sits alongside a great deal else–anxiety, fear, grief, self-hatred–in those interiors that we have no access to. Every life when viewed from the inside, as George Orwell said, is but a series of small failures; viewed from the outside, we are prone to imagining that life as enjoying the fortunes that passed us by. The truth lies elsewhere.

Parenting As Refuge From Writing

Writers who are parents love to complain about how parenting takes up writing time; so many great books, essays, plays, short stories, screenplays and the like remain unwritten because caring for a child is time-consuming and emotionally draining. Other members of the writer’s tribe–or sometimes the same folks–will readily admit that parenting provides great material for writing. So many reflections on the art and skill and science of parenting; so many confessions of humility; so many observations of grace and candor and existential discovery in the presence of unsullied human innocence (within which occasionally lurks a id-driven monster of desire and ill-formed reason), the child.

The original complaint about the pressures of parenting on writing time contains within it a disguised acknowledgement of one of the greatest reliefs it provides the writer: distraction from the task of writing. For if there is one thing the writer needs more than anything else, it is the excuse for not writing. Your avowed vocation and calling and passion and obsession is writing; why then, do you not write? Why, instead, do you do everything but write? Every writer has faced this question; and parenting provides a wonderful apologia for not writing.

For parenting is the most perfect form of procrastination devised for the writer: its tasks are innumerable, and always make their presence felt; it is work that carries positive moral weight; a parenting task well accomplished is guaranteed to provide a certain varietal of deeply satisfying validation. And so the writer who is confronted with a blank page, a disordered passage of text, a jumbled and incoherent argument, finds suddenly, relief at hand. Put down the pencil or push away the mouse and keyboard and head for the childcare section, there to immerse yourself, if lucky, in the adoration of a child, and in the pleasures of someone else’s achievements vicariously enjoyed. And there is no guilt here to be found or reported. Why did you stop writing for the day? I had to take care of my kid. There just is no arguing with that.

The clever writer-parent has found the right sort of relationship with parenting: plunder its experiences for story ideas and material; complain about its demands as an explanation for diminished ‘productivity’ and failure to complete all those half-written drafts tucked away in folders marked ‘Drafts’; but most importantly, use its availability as psychological comfort from the anxieties and terrors of the unfinished writing task. Your child awaits, perhaps the gratitude of your partner in parenting; there really is no downside to giving up writing in favor of parenting. There is, of course, the risk of regret–“I coulda written so much if I hadn’t been so busy attending to domestic minutiae”–but that is quite easily dispelled with the honest acknowledgement to oneself that writing is pretty unpleasant work at the best of times, and that if we had any choice in the matter, we’d take up something far more rewarding and enjoyable. Like parenting, occasionally.

 

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