Grief is an essential active internal process of emotional recycling that helps make us available for new living and new ways of living after loss, which is sure to come because it is part of the natural order of things. “Man is born to troubles as the sparks fly up from the fire,” says Job’s wise friend Eliphaz.
Grief is central to how we modify ourselves to meet changed circumstances, often ones that fly in the face of our wishes and that we never imagined. As a man who had lost his wife suddenly in a freak accident put it to me about a year later, “Doc, this sure ain’t the way that I drew it up.” Loss is the dark and difficult side of attachment, which is such a fundamental in human life. We attach because we are built to attach. We attach because evolution has shaped our genius for attachment out of the primary materials of the mother-child mammalian bond.
Striking footage exists of a group of elephants coming on their annual traverse of their territory back to where a female had died the previous year. One of the deceased elephant’s daughters, herself already fully grown, breaks away just a bit from the group and then lingers near the spot where her mother expired. With her trunk she nuzzles at a skull bare of flesh and bleached white, gently turning it over. So she makes contact with the remains of her mother, passes a few moments there with what is left of her mother – inside and out – and then submits to the necessity that life must go on and rejoins her group. Attachment gives birth to loss, whether you are an elephant or a human.
Freud’s model of mourning is that the bereaved invests intensely in memories of the lost one as part of a process of radically reducing investment. This is required just because the loved one is lost, because reality bars the way to continued investment in the accustomed way. Intense investment (hyper-cathexis) is the deeply felt sign of good-byes being said. When Freud discusses mourning, he implicitly assumes that the lost one is invested as an other. If , however, we think that each and every other is partly invested not only as an other but also as part of the self, then we see that mourning has some added complications, because the separation from the other will also involve a separation from part of ourselves. The loss will require not only a change in our representations of others, but in the system of our self-representations. The loss renders not only the world around us unfamiliar to ourselves, but renders us unfamiliar to ourselves.
The mourner often has to go an unimaginable way in the company of someone previously unimagined, that is, himself or herself, hauntingly familiar, but also hauntingly unfamiliar, a work in progress, but also a work that has arrived at impasse. Often, when a patient declares bitterly and bitingly, “I’m just a loser. What’s the point of going on, “ I respond, “We’re all losers, because life brings loss, because attachments pave the way to loss, because to have loved and lost is better than never to have loved, even if the race is close. Loss is not just an end, but also, often in the most complicated circumstances, a new beginning.
It can ask of us that we reach down deep into ourselves to discover resources that we did not know we had. If we are to be able to sustain ourselves, we must be able to use old investment in new ways, to make ourselves to some degree new in the afterimage of our loss. If we have used the lost other as a storage device for parts of ourselves we have had trouble making room for, then, when we lose the other, there is a wave of immigration across our borders. Often, these new immigrants bring great talents, too. We are flooded by both the good and the bad that we have stored outside.
Something like a rheostat governs the balance between investment of a person as an other and investment of the person as a part of the self. Twist the rheostat and the relative balance changes. We invest our partners not only as others but as pieces of ourselves, witness expressions like, “Where’s your better half?” Children and parents invest each other both as others and as partners in the self., witness expressions like. “He’s a chip off the old block.”. A partial answer to how mothers are able to show such extraordinary devotion to their small children is that these small children are not seen only as others, but as part of the mothers, too. That is also why so many mothers have such difficulty with the separation phases in their children’s development.
Where we have made a major investment in someone as part of ourselves, the loss of that person will produce a self disorientation, a staggering confusion because there is a profound wound to the self. The loss of someone highly invested as part of the self may even threaten a disintegration of the self, a true inability to go on. (For completeness sake, I should remark that the self can be invested as an other, too, this alienation having profound consequences in a world not alien to the ones imagined by Kafka. But that is for another day.)
The same man I quoted before about how his life was not going as he had drawn it up complained that he felt like a teen-ager again. He did what he had to do to take care of his children, but, although he was in his forties, he felt unfamiliar to himself, profoundly unsure of himself. His wife had been a part of his life, not to say a part of him, since they were teen-agers, He said that he was unable to make decisions. “When she was alive, I didn’t have any trouble making decisions. She gave me the confidence that, whatever I decided, I could do, so it was easy to decide. Now I’m paralyzed by worry and just get more and more anxious thinking about things.”
A loss, whether of an other or of a part of ourselves presents an enormous shock to the system, bringing us up against our vulnerability, that is, our ability to be wounded, one of our least favorite abilities. It demonstrates to us how small we are in the vast scale of things. As a woman with cancer put it, “my body’s been hijacked by cells so small that I can’t even see them and there is no way for me to get out of my body.” Loss shows us that we and those we love are, at a deep existential level, alone with our fates. Paradoxically, it is this aloneness, something that we all share, that lets us come together in human community and communion. Grief is at once a supremely social process and a quintessentially private process.
The revelation of weakness is an unwelcome one. Is life, as Macbeth posits just after the death of his wife, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” We come in the course of our lives nearer to this devastating emotional charge than we like to remember when we have been fortunate enough to take a few steps back from the abyss. But the abyss remains. It remains inside us and can exert influences both for better and for worse.
One way of coping with the virtually annihilating sense of insignificance is through guilt. Guilt implies that one could have done or been otherwise, that one has transgressed and that the transgression could be somehow set right, at least in an inner representational space. “I couldn’t live with myself if I ever stopped blaming myself.” Worse than the heavy charge of guilt is being absolved into the intolerable lightness of never having been consulted, of having had no part in shaping events that shape our lives. Hidden in the painful drama of guilt is a secret plot for a coup that would rectify loss, put the world back in a more acceptable shape. Many of the most guilty live in shrouded inner states of utterly barren vainglory. It can be very hard to get at this function of guilt because allied with guilt is searing shame over being just as we are, just this small, just this vulnerable. Shame silences, shame hides, shame underlies so many lies, not just those directed outwardly but those that are told and exercise their influence in the secret places of the self.
As anyone who has mourned a significant loss knows, grieving is hard work, not unlike laboring on a chain gang breaking rock: there is no escape from the work which keeps one prisoner; progress is every bit as difficult as in smashing obdurate stone; the fatigue is both mind numbing and bone crushing. Not only the devil but the agony is in the details, the small things that tear at you like hooks and will not let go. A man lost his only son who was in his twenties and had a touch for other people and a compassionate sense of troubles like his own. The loss bit harder because it came just when things seemed to be looking up for this young man and just when his father had made major changes in his own life to be able to have more time to spend with his son to support him. This man said some days were all right, but many others were not. Nor was there pattern or predictability. He could come on something small, a T shirt, a mug in the freezer, a fingerprint that arrested him and sapped all his energy. It was as if these talismans were calling cards, but no visit could come, at least not in the outside world, for the visitor was dead and gone. He kept his son’s room just as it had been, expressing a secret hope, one he kept private, hiding it most of the time even from himself, because he knew it flew in the face of reality.
One of the deepest features of grief is the bridge we have to cross from looking for the one we have lost in the outside world to looking for the vital remnants of the one we have lost in the inside world. To be able to cross this bridge we have to build it. The engineering is complex and individual, the materials to be used airily insubstantial and yet more enduring than bronze. In the midst of his internal struggle this man could be seen reaching out to others, to young people and to old people, even on some days when he felt awful. Of course, then there were the days when he felt so awful that he couldn’t do anything. These were the days when he grieved most intensely, moving into the neighborhood of Job.
Despite these days, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, just because of them, it is possible to get to the point where the ones we have lost are rather serene inner presences, available for consultation across a wide range of issues that concerned them in life and that now continue to concern us in life. They have no authority and no directly vested interest and so can be quite dispassionate and quite passionate in their advice, all in the same breath that is ours. We never entirely give up our investment in those we have loved and lost, but we change it .
Let’s look a moment at the opposite of forgiveness as a way to begin taking up the immense topic of forgiveness “I will dismember my dismemberer,” raves Ahab in Chapter 37 of Moby Dick, aptly titled “Sunset,” stating the insane project of vengeance that dooms him and his ship and his crew with the singular exception of Ishmael. Ahab, a navigational genius and exceptional leader of men, has lost his leg in combat with the white whale, Moby Dick. Actually, he’s lost his mind, too, because he can not make himself whole – all that is left of him is a driven obsessive aggression.. He can not see that he is still himself, minus a leg, precious appendage, but no more. He is so fanatically committed to the project of vengeance that he can not stop, driving on past the point of reason, so that the last glimpse we get of him is lashed to the white whale by his own harpoon line, going down with Moby Dick into the deep blue salt sea, the ultimate fusion.
Aristotle, in a striking formulation, defines anger as the desire to return hurt for hurt. It is the impulse to establish a reciprocal relation of at least imagined equality in the face of injury. It is the impulse to restore an inner sense of dignity, of worth, in the face of insult. The impulse for revenge, to even the score, is a natural urge and yet one whose extraordinary treachery is hard to exaggerate. As Gandhi put it with such astute vision, “An eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.” This, sadly, is the dynamic of so many devastating conflicts among nations, among communities, between couples, too. That we have a certain awe, a certain bewildered wonderment in the face of forgiveness, is illustrated by the well known adage, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” It is hard for us to imagine the way past hurt, the way past hurting and wanting to hurt. When we hold a grudge, the grudge holds us. It gives us form and fervor at the same time it robs us of more fruitful possibility
“Forgive and forget” is a counsel that is often given. But this often is only an empty and repressive project, urging the one who hurts to put on a show of forgiveness that masks what goes on at greater depth in the psyche. As we know, the surface appearance of having forgotten can mask the much deeper sway over the psyche of what has supposedly been forgotten. Forgiveness that is real does not happen all at once, but rather issues from sustained struggle that involves countless reassessments and changes in emphasis in the investment of the self and the internal narrative of what has happened, “My father,” said a young patient, “is a genius at making it hard for me to see anything good about him and often I can’t, but sometimes a glimmer comes through and then that puts me in a more forgiving mood. I remember how much I want to be close to him. I think that’s what’s hardest for him, my wanting to be close to him. That’s what’s so sad for both of us. The difference is that I know and he doesn’t. “ The capacity to make peace requires the capacity to be sad, to find and accept limits and to repudiate grandiose war aims that involve injustice to others as well, no doubt, as to oneself. This has topical relevance, not only now, but almost always and everywhere.
Just as Dr, Clarence Schulz and his patient invented the compound term griefury (suggestive as well of griefear) to evoke and include what a huge part rage plays in grief and how interdependent sorrow and anger are, so I think a term like “forgrieveness,” a condensation of grief and forgiveness, would serve to clarify for us that forgiveness, like grief, depends on a process of myriad changes in our internal approach to ourselves as well as in our understanding of and approach to the world around us that occasioned us the hurt that needs forgiving. Forgrieveness calls for a change in how we invest ourselves and others, in how we invent ourselves and others. Like grief, forgiveness is a journey, at whose end the traveler is not precisely the same person who set out. “I didn’t mean to forgive him. In fact, I was surprised when I noticed that I had forgiven him. Somehow it snuck up on me. I’d spent a lot of energy hating him over the years and maybe that was a real help to me. But I guess I don’t need that anymore. I was so hurt by his selfishness. But now it just doesn’t matter to me. I see that that’s the way he is. I see that it’s his problem and not mine. I remember, but it’s just not that important.”
Here the process of forgrieveness has by small changes and as the result of many years of work enabled the injured person to withdraw a great deal of investment, so that the wound did not have the same psychic glow and magnetism. After we “forgrieve,” we can arrive at that deep change that lets us forgive and, if we forget, forget not repressively, but because the injury no longer plays such a central part in our lives. We are free as well to forgive and to remember, but our current life processes are not so deformed by the force of what we remember that the memory threatens to possess us. In a way, forgiveness is like letting go of a transitional object. The grudge, the grievance is not so much explicitly given up as diffused across a whole wide realm of inner and cultural concerns.
Just as grief almost always calls for a change in the self, so forgiveness calls for what may amount to a thoroughgoing remodeling of the self, a change in emphases that can be tantamount to a redesign. “Beware how you choose your enemies, because you will come to resemble them,” is a wise caution, one which could be generalized to “Beware whom you hate and whom you blame, because you will come to resemble them.” Blame, of course, is often the sign of the most abject and early dependence. Blame and hatred put an enormous amount of power in the hands of the one hated or blamed. They leave very little room for pity, both for the other and for the self, because we are so small. This is one of life’s great and difficult lessons, one that we start on very early and with which we are never done as long as we are alive. We are so small, so immensely important to ourselves and to each other, but so miniscule in the scale of the universe we inhabit. This is hard for us to forgive ourselves. It is hard for us to forgrieve ourselves.
More than thirty years ago, Floyd McKissick, one of the founders of CORE, the Congress On Racial Equality and one of the titans of the civil rights struggle, turned to me on an airplane and said out of the blue, “Roger, do you want to know what the ultimate humiliation is.” I nodded. “Being human, that’s the ultimate humiliation, “ he said, with weary emphasis. He said no more, so I do not know what he was thinking or feeling before or after, but I believe he knew what he was talking about and this has stayed with me down the decades.
A patient recently helped me revisit one of the books I most loved when I was a very little boy, Dr. Seuss’s “If I Ran The Zoo”, a marvelous fantasy of what the dreamer would do if he ran the zoo, if he were in charge, if he could collect all the wonders of the world according to the dictates of his own will. I recognized both with pleasure and with a certain degree of sorrow that the river of my own fantasy still runs between the old familiar banks. I wish I had more impact than I do. I wish I were more powerful than I am. I want to make and to shape the world around me. Only life has taught me how small I am, without making me bitter against fancy because it is only fancy. I do not run the zoo, but am only one of the exotic creatures in it.
So we come to creativity.. Creativity is about freshening of flow, combinatorial richness, about balance between fluidity and form, about the capacity to change frames, about a sense of self-continuity that permits even radical flexibility. We think and feel, we live in successive flurries of multiple simultaneous adjustments. This is what gives our thinking and feeling their creative verve and also the flavor of instability which reminds us how delicately poised we are near chaos. Curiosity, the imp of our creativity, is a set of loose ends trying to learn to knit. Self-invention, self-detection and self-deception are uncomfortably close kin. Making up our own minds is where fiction and non-fiction meet .
There is, in fact, no such thing as a single formula for creativity. It is like trying. Each and every one has his or her own way and each and every way is always in the process of changing and rearranging. Where we are frozen, whether in ungrieved grief or in the urge for vengeance, there we are not available to ourselves to make anything new or to make ourselves new. As more than one patient has remarked, “I’m not sure I’m quite the same person I was when I first got here.” Nor am I ever sure that I am quite the person I was when they first walked through my door. Sometimes ungrieved grief and vengefulness can be the platforms to release a dangerous creativity, because they produce stable places to stand.
Destruction and creation are always at work in our lives. Or to put it in a more poignant way, we are always both creative and destructive, wittingly and unwittingly. “The bomb that fell on Hiroshima,” pronounced Harry Stack Sullivan, who worked at Sheppard Pratt very near where my office now is, “punctuated history.” Its awesome destructive power followed from the sublime intuition and creativity of Einstein’s mind as well from the technological inventiveness of Oppenheimer and his cohort. We may call our species “homo sapiens” but we are also the dangerous primate, homo odiosus, for lack of a better term. Similar concerns attend our deep probing of molecular biology, where the power to cure and the power to destroy nestle so closely together, I say this because I believe we are obligated to ambivalence if we ever hope to reach modulation and moderation.
One way to think about psychotherapy is as a game, a way of framing existence that can be highly consequential. Psychotherapy – two in a room, literally clothed and metaphorically more or less unclothed all at once, with a set of rules that are always both explicit and implicit, always in the process of being explored – is a changing game that plays through changes.
Winnicott remarks that, if a patient can not play, the therapist’s first job is to help the patient find his way to being able to play, no mean task, one, in fact that can take years. “If I tried to talk like this at work – or with my father – they’d just look at me like I was crazy. They don’t speak this language and it scares them.” For many patients, therapy is about learning a new language for living which is also old. It is about dusting off the old and neglected tendencies to make possible new worth and new verve, a revaluation of lived values. Many people live in closets of one kind or another in one kind of solitary confinement or another.. To step forth, not precipitously but in some sustainable way is a creative act fraught with terror and hope.
“The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic, itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is being found to be reliable, “ says Winnicott.
A patient of mine some years ago wisely took to referring to intimacy as “the I word, the dread I word.” The capacity for intimacy, the capacity to be with another without falling victim to the Scylla and Charybdis terrors of losing and fusing, demands a great deal of “I”, a first person depth and reliability, a capacity to discriminate degrees which makes close access to another possible and bearable. Intimacy, the vital magic of connection, is in terribly short supply in so many lives, One of the hardest pieces of creative work we can be called on to do as therapists is to live and die with someone who is otherwise starved for intimacy. We can not change anything and yet we change everything and remain the same and are transfigured – over and over again.
“ Full fathom five thy father lies; /of his bones are coral made;/Those are pearls that were his eyes;/Nothing of him that doth fade/ But that doth suffer a sea change/Into something rich and strange/ Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.”
This is Ariel from the first act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest singing at Prospero’s command to Ferdinand of his presumed to be drowned father. This is fantastic. It stuns and arrests, for we find ourselves in the presence of a mystery, the power of these words to tell truths that are far beyond the range of simple seeing. These words themselves work a sea-change on us to turn our ordinary consciousness into something rich and strange. In their graceful way, they are about nothing less than how what is past and lost becomes marvelous and enriching, a different presence, royal and active even though time has drowned it.
If we go back to that female elephant whom we glimpsed in the beginning, we realize how many more questions our glimpse raised than it answered. How did that elephant carry her mother inside her mind during the long year’s trek that brought her back to the bleached skull? How did that elephant continue her journey with and without her mother
after the encounter with the skull? Homer knew that dogs remember, for he pictured Odysseus’ old dog recognizing Odysseus, stirring and then dying after Odysseus came home again. Elephants are renowned for their memories, but, so far as we know, memories without words, or, if they have something like words, they are probably not at all like ours.
If we start to think carefully ( that is, with caring) about the elephant, many questions will arise, including, how we ourselves carry others around with us within us, what kind of changes they and we undergo, often stealthily, in this process of this carrying. Do we carry pictures, or sounds, or smells, or kinesthetic sensations of muscular tensions and movement, or words, or, a fabulous orchestration of all the above, with different shadings and emphases in different people? Our carrying of others carries us as much as it can weigh us down. Our holding of others holds us as much as it can burden or restrict us. By my age, so many of those I have loved are dead and yet also alive within my mind, working there the way ancestors do, caring and questioning, reminding me of so much that has transpired, for better and for worse, across the generations. To be intimate with those others and the others I love who are still with me requires of me a deepened capacity for intimacy with myself, not always a simple matter.
The queen of the arts is the art of everyday living, how we make a home for ourselves amid the trivialities, the worries, the dullness of everyday life, when the days start with glistening dew and end with the unfathomable multitudes of ancient stars . This is the art that we are most at grips with in psychotherapy, because so much unhappiness, so much suffering is possible in daily life. If we can grieve, we can gain from our losing, not usually concretely, but symbolically in the extension of our caring and our enjoyment through symbolic byways back towards the real. If we can grieve, if we can bear that we probably do not put on exactly the same suit of self from day to day, but must learn to reorganize and recognize ourselves through disappointment and progressive diminution, then we are in a position to forgive. Forgiveness lets us taste what is better in life and in relationships with other people without being taken over by bitterness and suffering its corrosive efforts on our souls.
To embrace what we see, to embrace what we are, to embrace being and seeing and speaking and listening – this is not so much high art, as intimate art, near art, art without which our lives ring hollow and unhallowed. In some sense we might want to say to the SUV’s and the McMansions and the general surrounding greed and material excess, the self-indulgent cruelty of our way of life, that there is another way, another goal, one which we might describe as seeking to live small and be large,