The Self As Prison

In his review of Charles Simic‘s The Lunatic: Poems and The Life of Images: Selected Prose Phillip Lopate makes note of Simic’s “cultivation of awe,” his “opening himself to chance, that favorite tactic of Surrealists” and makes note of this pronouncement:

Others pray to God; I pray to chance to show me the way out of this prison I call myself.

I have written here about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; one of the possibilities suggested by those difficulties is a terrifying species of realization, of self-discovery, perhaps the most terrifying possibility of all: that we want to change, but find that we cannot, and this knowledge of our inability to do so does not in turn bring about a corresponding diminution of the desire to change. (Hannah Arendt has written of the perennial “wish to escape the human condition;” we may also wish to escape our own personal version of that condition.) We are now locked in a hell of our own making, locked into an eternal ‘repetition compulsion,’ doomed to spend our days like a not-cheerful Sisyphus, one not reconciled to his fate. We wish to change; we find that the combination of this world’s arrangements and workings and our own capacities and inclinations and limitations do not permit such a change; we retreat, defeated time and again in our attempts to transcend ourselves.  We find failure and disgruntlement each time; but rather than accept defeat and ‘go home,’ we, unable to reconcile ourselves to this state of affairs, to the distance now revealed of a bridge too far, persist.

There is nothing noble or heroic about such persistence now; we are not possessed of an amor fati, we do not ‘own it’; we seek to distance ourselves from ourselves, but cannot. We are not reconciled to our being; we are tormented by ourselves, by the bars for this cage we have constructed on our own. Time on the couch does not help; we are urged to construct a narrative of our life that would make sense of the state we find ourselves in, and simultaneously suggest an onward path; we find ourselves unable to write this tale, to take the first step on a new road. And if we do, we find a familiar character populating that myth, we find familiar roadblocks. We are dogged, at every step, by ourselves.

Our ambitions, which almost always outstrip our abilities and capacities, may bring us to this pass; so might the ambition of others. This world’s orderings might suggest routes and journeys that are not for us to undertake. They require us to be not ourselves, and we cannot change.

This a terrifying state of affairs; all too many of us find ourselves in this state of being. Hell is here, on earth. It is not other people; as John Milton’s Satan had noted,

A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
What matter where, if I be still the same

Hell can be, and very often is, just us.

 

Fearing Tenure: The Loss Of Community

In ‘The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement‘, Harlan L. Dalton wrote:

I take it that everyone drawn to CLS is interested in specifying in concrete terms the dichotomy between autonomy and community. If so, talk to us. Talk TO us. Listen to us. We have lots to say, out of the depths of our own experiences. For many of us, our sense of community is a strength, a resource, something we struggle to hang onto, sometimes in the most peculiar ways, especially when the pull of autonomy is strongest. The day that I am awarded tenure, should that happy event occur, any pleasure that I experience will be more than offset by the extreme panic that I’m sure will set in; I will worry that I have been propelled (or more  honestly that I have wittingly, selfishly and self-destructively propelled myself) two steps further away from so much that has nurtured me for so long. Even for those of us who have revelled in the sense of connectedness that, paradoxically, racial oppression has conferred upon us, there is a kicker: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can’t choose to be a part of the community; we can’t choose not to be a part of the community.

When I first read these lines, I was reminded of a conversation that used to recur in some of my therapeutic sessions: Why would you shrink from that which you most–supposedly–desire?

Some insight may be found in Dalton’s confession. Tenure would mean not being part of a ‘community’, membership in which, while a reminder of exclusion from another, was also a belonging in a very particular way. It meant the enjoyment of a very distinctive camaraderie, the dwelling in a state of being that had its own rewards.

I will not attempt to speak for Dalton’s experiences so let me just briefly address my own. Gaining tenure meant the end of a ‘struggle’; it meant the end of a state in which I had a very ‘clear and distinct’ goal, a terminus of achievement, one that had established yardsticks and baselines for me, calibrating my ‘progress’ and reminding me of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. I saw myself as member of a group marked by its presence in the margins, by its distance from the center, by a vaguely heroic air of struggle against economic, intellectual, and even political barriers. We were the untenured, the ‘assistant professors’; we had secured the prize of a tenure-track position, but we were still ‘battlers.’ I had trajectories to follow, and I had fellow-travelers. My lot was sympathized with; many were solicitous of the state of my journey, my distance from its destination. I was assured of celebrations and revelries were I to cross the finish line. I could look ahead and see the goal; I could feel my cohort around me, propping me up.

In the midst of all this, even as I desired that onward and upward movement, I knew what I would leave behind: a time and a place in which I was in possession of that dearest of things, a clear and unstinting purpose.

I am well-aware that a reflection like this, in the context of today’s job market, is an extremely self-indulgent one. I write it only to highlight the ironic and puzzling nature of the situations that Dalton and those in therapy might find themselves in, and of the artfully hidden blessings of even those portions of our lives that we might find oppressive and worth delivering ourselves from.

Of Therapy And Personal And Academic Anxieties

Reading some of the discussion sparked by Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture has prompted me to write this post.

In the fall of 1996, I began studying for my Ph.D qualifier exams. I had worked full-time at a non-academic job for the previous year, saving up some money so that I could take a month or two off and study for my exams. I had notes, I had copies of the previous years’ exams. I was set. I began reading my way through an unofficial reading list.

As I worked, my mood swung between extreme anxiety and over-confidence. There were times I felt I would breeze through my pair of inquisitions; on other occasions, I would fight a rising tide of panic at the thought of sitting in a classroom, an empty blue-book in front of me. Sometimes, I would rise early, drink two cups of coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, look through my notes, and decide I could not read any more, just because the reading was making me anxious. Sometimes, I would check out, smoking pot all day before returning to work again the next day. Sometimes I wondered what the point of a long, endless pursuit of  a degree which would only guarantee unemployment at the end of it all was. I was lonely and isolated in my apartment; my girlfriend returned home late at night from her corporate job.

One day, I worked out in the morning, returned to my apartment, stared long and hard at the papers in front of me and burst into tears, sobbing on and off for about thirty minutes. The next day, I called a friend to ask for help.

Three years previously, shortly after I had begun graduate school, I had met my friend at a student party. Over a beer, she had told me she was in ‘therapy.’ I was surprised to hear her talk about it openly, as something she ‘needed’, which ‘kept her from going nuts.’ Then, in the fall of 1993, it had not been even six months since my mother had passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer, and I knew I was still mourning. I had often felt in the months that had passed, a melancholia that was not easily dispelled by the immersion in school and off-campus work and the long hours of drinking in bars that were my primary modalities for treating it. I had flirted with the idea of seeking help for a mood that was stubbornly resistant to being lightened, sensing that I was not in the grip of a garden variety change in mental disposition.

But therapy seemed like a cop-out. Many of my male friends spoke disparagingly of it, of the culture of whining it seemingly created, the endless childish blaming of parents for adult pathologies. Therapy seemed wimpy, not manly enough; it seemed like a solution for those not strong enough to deal with life’s adversities, who wanted to wallow instead in self-indulgent pity parties on therapists’ couches.

So I had held back, hoping I would just ‘deal with it’ and get better. But I noticed little change; I easily descended into gloom and doom; I struggled with sleep, with drinking too much, with staying in romantic relationships; I found anxiety and panic to be constant companions. I never used the d-word to describe myself, but I often suspected I was depressed.

In the fall of 1996, with my qualifier exams creating many new opportunities for questioning my self-worth, and thus further compromising my fragile sense of being held together, I had finally broken down. I went looking for help.

My friend directed me to the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan where, after intake interviews, I began therapy twice a week. A year later, I considered taking anti-depressant medication, and consulted a psychiatrist for an evaluation. The good doctor told me he could prescribe one of the most popular medications at the time–Prozac or Serzone. I agreed, but then, panicked, and said I didn’t want to start. I continued with my talk therapy. But it was a secret; I told no one, and continued to feel like I had ‘copped out.’ Sometimes this secrecy would require elaborate subterfuge; I would tell friends I had to leave them to ‘run an errand’, sometimes walking in the wrong direction, away from my intended train station.

A year later, I changed therapists. I had felt like I was going in circles. Much had changed; I had passed my qualifiers, passed my oral exam with distinction, and also ended my older relationship and begun a new one. It was time for a new therapist too.

I found a therapist and resumed therapy twice a week. I continued to keep my therapy a secret (from everyone except my girlfriend and my friend.) I finished my dissertation, and for the semester that I was in the US after completion, stayed with the same therapist. My move to Australia meant my therapy would be interrupted. I took this break in stride, telling myself that perhaps I could move on now, a new person in a new land.

But a few months after I had moved to Sydney, I was looking for help again. I found a therapist–a Kleinian interestingly enough–and began visiting him twice a week. I was struggling with the usual anxieties academics suffer from; these seeming ephemera jostled with my struggles with a long-distance relationship, with subterranean feelings of fear and non-belonging, and an anxiety that never vacated the basement. I crossed an important barrier when I told some good friends–including a particularly near and dear male friend–that I was in therapy; that openness felt liberating.

After I returned to New York to take up my current position, my therapy was interrupted again. Two years later, I called up my old therapist to find out if he would take me back as patient; he was agreeable, but he had moved. I gave up looking for therapists, unwilling to go through the process of finding a compatible one. Over the years, on several occasions, I would go searching for therapists, look through web pages, and even make a few phone calls. But I never went all the way. I stayed hesitant; finding a good therapist had been hard work, and I seemed unwilling to do it all over again. I wondered if a cognitive behavioral therapist might not work better for me, compared to the analytical types I had previously worked with. Some good friends of mine urged me to resume therapy, sensing from some of my pronouncements that I might need it. (My career moved along; I was tenured and became full professor, but I never stopped doubting that I belonged in this profession, never stopped suspecting that I was simply not smart enough, hard-working enough. And I never stopped missing my long-departed parents.)

I haven’t started therapy again. Perhaps I dread its ‘ramping up’ phase too much; perhaps I have convinced myself my ‘workarounds’ are adequate; perhaps I’m ‘cured.’ I’m not sure but whatever the answer, I’m glad my graduate school friend helped me out when she did, that she urged me to overcome my hesitancy and discomfort about seeking professional help, that I was able to speak openly and frankly with my friends that I had done so. I am now a father and my anxieties have not diminished; if anything, they have increased. Perhaps I will seek help again. I won’t be shy about telling my friends I’ve done so.

A Stutterer and His Cure

In the seventh grade, at the age of eleven, I began to stutter. It began without apparent reason; all too suddenly, I found myself tripping over consonants and unable to begin speaking words that began with vowels. When asked to speak up in class, I found I needed a visible act of physical exertion to get the words rolling; often, I would have to step out from behind my desk with a little skip or hop, an act that never failed to provoke giggles in my classmates and sometimes even my teachers, who would look at me with expressions part amused, part quizzical. I had never stuttered before; I was mortified and humiliated and crushed.

My stuttering was plain for all to see; my audience included my parents. My mother was intelligent and sensitive enough to realize this affliction had a psychological provenance though she could not begin to guess at what it was. Perhaps because I had changed schools the previous year; perhaps because I was still struggling to adjust life as a ‘civilian’ after my father’s retirement from the air force. I had never been particularly gregarious or extroverted, but now, some other barrier to social interaction had arisen from deep within me and laid a formidable roadblock in front of me. I showed no signs of being able to negotiate it.

My mother sought help. She was directed to a child psychologist–reputed to be of sympathetic temperament and disposition–whose offices were located conveniently near by to our home, a mere short bus-ride away. When she told me she planned to take me there for a consultation, I was agreeable. I liked the idea of being ‘treated’ and more to the point, I was curious about what a ‘psychologist’ did. How would she ‘cure’ me? What was the ‘treatment’ like?

Our first meeting with the psychologist went pleasantly enough; my mother and I met her together and provided her with some elementary details on our family, my school life, my friends, my daily activities, and of course, my immediate history preceding the outbreak of stuttering.

This intake meeting out of the way, my sessions with my therapist began. Twice a week, after school, my mother and I traveled by bus to her office, and then, while my mother waited for me, I went into the therapist’s office for an hour. This was a talking cure for talking; so we talked.

It is now almost thirty-five years since those sessions, so I can remember little of them. I do remember my therapist’s gentleness, her curiousness. I think her diagnosis, such as it was, of my stuttering, was that a shy boy had become even more so; that my inability to come out of my shell in my new school, to make friends in my neighborhood, my constant retreat into my books, had driven even my spoken expression back into me, repressed and suppressed it.

In the end, the ‘cure’ was effectuated by the simplest of means; she was a stranger, and she was kind, and she spoke to me, and listened to me and humored me. Those conversations, by themselves, drew me out of my shell and encouraged me to speak. She did not discipline me; she was not harsh; she did not rebuke me or mock me; she listened a great deal. I spoke, I complained, I bemoaned the changes in my life, I spoke of what I felt was missing in my life.

After every session, my mother would ask me how it had gone, and I would always have the same answer: It went well. I grew to like my therapist and looked forward to my bi-weekly  conversations with her.

A few months later, my therapist told my mother I was ‘cured.’ Indeed, I was. I had stopped stuttering; or at least, the most noticeable forms of my affliction were now gone. I do not remember if we did any follow-ups, or if I was upset at having ended the treatment. In any case, soon thereafter, I left home for boarding school. Nothing quite convinced me how valuable my sessions with her had been than my time in boarding school; dealing with its feral residents while suffering from a stutter would have been misery.

Traces of my stutter still survive; when I am angry, stressed out, unhappy, or otherwise not quite psychically comfortable, I notice myself tripping over words, unable again, to begin words with vowels. At those times, the only remedy I can seek is to simply slow down, stop speaking, retreat, and then try again.

I wonder where my therapist is; I never found out her name, never met her again. Here is a belated thank you.

Don’t Tell Me What You Think of Me

Over at the Anxiety blog at The New York Times Tim Kreider gives voice to a common fear, that of finding out what other people really, really think of us:

I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical and anarchic mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to simultaneously make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe; the fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will…. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.

Kreider is on the money here, of course. The thought of finding out how others refer to us in our absence, how even those who have most cause to adore us still do not so unreservedly, is enough to fill any reasonable human’s heart with dread. That terror generally finds its grounding both in an overly optimistic assessment of our worth and in an unrealistic desire to not rest content till we have attained a suitably high position in the ranking of the ‘rest.’ As Bertrand Russell noted in opening his chapter on ‘Fear of Public Opinion’ in The Conquest of Happiness:

Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially with whom they live.

As a personally memorable instance of a variant of this behavior, after I received a teaching evaluation in which twenty-four out of twenty-five students answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Would you recommend this instructor to other students?’ I spent a considerable amount of time during my next lecture tormenting myself wondering about the identity of the exception to the rule. (And like Kreider, I’ve read emails not meant for my eyes in which friends of mine have expressed considerably unflattering opinions of me; some of those people are still my friends.)

I have long tried to insulate myself from the disappointment of the discovery that I’m not universally adored and the crushing horror of universal loathing by ceaseless repetition of the mantra that no one quite likes or dislikes me as much as I might imagine. This reminder of the ‘golden mean‘ of public opinion only has limited effectiveness; like the folks I refer to above, I retreat a little too easily into delusional comforts.

Addendum 6/24/2013: A discussion with David Post on Facebook suggests to me that my use of ‘reasonable’ in ‘..any reasonable human’s heart..” is confusing. I’m going to leave it up there but it really should just read ‘..human’s heart..”.

Boethius’ Philosophy as Therapist

Here is a common way to think about the psychotherapeutic experience: the therapist helps the patient construct an alternative narrative of his or her life. Why is this therapeutic? The patient has offered the therapist a recounting–via a series of archaeological, genealogical forays into his past–of his life’s events, and describes how these have contributed to the crisis currently being experienced. The therapist then offers a reconstruction of these into an account that lends itself to an interpretation different from the one the patient has made central to his assessment of his life’s fortunes. This displacement of the pathology-creating narrative is the therapist’s central function. We live by stories that we tell about ourselves; our therapist–aided by our willing, motivated co-operation–equips us with a new one.

This reconstruction can proceed by pointing out how a patient has, like any author, selectively emphasized and de-emphasized certain events, and more analytically, drawn faulty or mistaken inferences from them. Because such inferences are often based on ignorance, the therapist may also be called on to play the role of educator.

The relevance of the philosopher–and the philosophical attitude–to this task should be apparent.  This is demonstrated quite well in Boethius‘ The Consolation of Philosophy, where Philosophy, in offering her consolations to the miserable prisoner convinced of his misfortunes, offers just such a combination of new narrative, edification and argument analysis.

For instance in Book II of the Consolation, after hearing Boethius’ lament, Philosophy, as part of her description of the true nature of that fickle mistress, Fortune, says in Prose 3, which is subtitled ‘Philosophy reminds the prisoner of his former prosperity and of the precious gifts he still has’:

[You] ought not to consider yourself completely miserable  if you recall your many great joys.

I will not mention that when you lost your father you were adopted by very prominent people and were chosen to become closely associated with the most powerful figures in the city. You soon were more dear to them by love than you had been close before by relationship, and that is the most precious bond….But I want to stress the greatest of your joys.  If any mortal achievement can make a man happy, is it possible that any amount of misfortune can dim the memory of that brilliant occasion when you saw your two sons made Consuls and carried from their house in the company of the Senators and accompanied by the people?….You pledged yourself to Fortune while she pampered you and favored you with her gifts. You got more from her than any private citizen ever received–and now do you think you can bargain with her?

This is the first time she ever frowned on you with her evil eye. If you balance the number and kinds of your joys and misfortunes, you must admit that up to now you have been a happy man.

This is not enough for Boethius, of course, for Prose 4 is subtitled ‘Boethius protests that the worst sorrow is the remembrance of lost joys. Philosophy answers that the only true joy is self-possession in the face of adversity.

And so it goes. The outlines of a therapeutic dialectic are clearly visible here and remain so as we read on.

Note: Bertrand Russell‘s The Conquest of Happiness is another classical member of the Philosophy as Therapy canon.