Saturday, April 1, 2017

Return to the Folly of Love - April Fool’s 2017

Hello and welcome to my 12th annual April Fool’s Day observance. For those of you new to this tradition, the idea is that I try to pick a topic close to my heart, then tell you how foolish it is to invest in this topic, then tell you to do it anyways. I try to pick a new topic every year, except in years when I don’t, and also if you think too hard about it all of my topics are really the same. But some of you keep coming back and listening, so maybe I’m not the biggest fool in here. (Also, expect to be listening to me for 11 minutes).
            Today I’m repeating a topic which I covered 6 years ago, and I’ll admit that I’ve got a lot of fear about repeating this topic. Don’t get me wrong-- I love it, I’m committed to it, and I’ve prepared as much as I can, but we just never know what the future will hold, do we? So how can I just return to this topic and hope everything will go better this time around? At least you’ll all be with me, right?
            Also before beginning, I’d like to thank the following people who have served as consultants for this speech: Mimi Arbeit, Fonda Lowe, Yotam Schachter, Naomi Zaslow, and my therapist Mjriam.
            When I last spoke about the folly of love, I closed by noting how “sometimes love makes me feel like I’m two things, like I’m one thing, like I’m one-half, and like I’m nothing.” I quoted my partner at the time, Mimi Arbeit, who once asked me: “So if I’m yours, and you’re mine-- whose are we?” Throughout that speech I was realizing, without fully diving into, the fact that the follies of love are just propped up on top of follies about the self. Questions about love expose problems in how we conceptualize ourselves. So I’ve been wanting to pick this theme back up by going into the deep end of relationship as a dilemma of self.

I find “Who am I?” to be a rather difficult question. My current favorite philosophical answer to this question is that I am a shifting bundle of characteristics. This answer allows me to gesture vaguely at myself, while leaving essentials of “who I am” undefined. I resist talking about anything “essential” for two reasons:  (1) The deepest parts of me may not actually be accessible to my own consciousness, so I may not know my own essence, so, strangely enough, I can’t factor it into my sense of self; or (2) There may be no such a thing as “the deepest part of me.” I really can’t say whether I have some solid unchanging core. My sense of self is as a shifting bundle of characteristics, some of which stick around longer than the others; beyond that, or deeper than that, I don’t have much to say. To paraphrase Augustine, I know who I am, until you ask me, and then I don’t.
            In facing the challenge of lasting partnership, these poorly defined dimensions of self are leading to a lot of anxiety. How does one commit to a long-term relationship when self-knowledge is so limited? And the word “love”-- to me, it’s a word that expresses deep resonances, contact between the deepest parts of two people-- what can “love” mean if one’s own deepest parts are inaccessible or simply an illusion? In my last speech on this topic, I noted Ayn Rand’s wisdom that “To say ‘I love you’ one must first be able to say ‘I’”-- so if we believe that the self is folly, then love must be folly too.

I mean, I’m not saying that the self is folly, I’m saying that self-definition is folly, and since loving partnership (or any collective identity) is an attempt at constructing a compounded-self and therefore an attempt at compounded-self-definition, it is a compounded form of foolishness.
We could think of self and love as mereological dilemmas, that is, dilemmas of parts and wholes. To say “I” about myself is this attempt to muster all the parts of me together into a whole. To say “We” is to do the same, except to include a whole extra person in the claim of wholeness.
            Existentially-speaking, this is all fraught with risk. To say “I” or to say “We” is to commit to an identity, which means tending it, defending it, and facing its loss. To have an identity means to be jerked around emotionally by it, to feel threatened by anything that threatens that identity. To choose to be part of a couple or a group is, in one sense, to reduce myself to a part, and to attach my individual destiny to the destiny of a larger unit. Do I really want to do this?
Plato says yes. In the Symposium, he has Aristophanes tell the story of human creation, one echoed in Midrash, in which humans begin as double-sided, four-legged creatures later split up by fearful and jealous gods. Love, according to Aristophanes, is “the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.” There are two key statements in here that I question: (1) that we are essentially united, with the individual as only a fragment of that larger whole; (2) that each “I” is better off united into a “We.” How much do we actually want oneness with others, and how much might we simply prefer individuality? And am I being more “true” to my “original nature” by seeing myself as a part of a larger whole? Am “I” better as a “We”?
            I keep returning to this one question split into two-- how is the nature of self fulfilled or troubled by engagement in partnership? Is the self in partnership a fragment finding its whole or is the self in partnership a whole risking fragmentation? This is exhausting, and I don’t feel like I’m getting any closer to making sense.

            Naomi gave me an engagement ring with an inscription referencing a page of Talmud-- Sotah 2a. In a passage on that page, one rabbi claims that God matches partners according to their actions, and another chimes in that this task is as difficult for God as it was for God to split the Red Sea. The text brings in a third rabbi who states that people are actually matched before they are born, and so they are not matched according to their actions. So which is it? Does matchmaking happen by a simple divine command before birth, or does it happen through the complex algorithm of some divine matchmaker? The text reconciles the two sayings by explaining that first marriages are decreed by heaven, and second marriages according to one’s actions. Which is fine-- except is the upcoming wedding for Naomi and me a first or a second wedding?
            Let’s ignore that last question, because I’d rather unpack how this passage actually incorporates and organizes the elements of my talk so far.
            One scenario is that God announces the partner of an individual before they are born. I’ll label this scenario “essentialist”-- God proclaims the person’s identity and, in doing so, associates their soul with some other soul. The essence of one paired with the essence of another; soulmates before the rest of the self even forms. This understanding of partnership stems from the framework of essential selfhood, and suggests a framework of essential couplehood. Being my partner’s partner would thus be essential to who I am.
            The other scenario is more complicated to unpack, so bear with me. In the second scenario, people are matched according to their actions, which is described as “as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” Now, what’s going on here? If you’re God, what’s so difficult about splitting the Red Sea? Also, what sense does it make to compare the pairing of two people to the splitting of other things? Rabbeinu Tam, a 12th century French Rabbi, provides commentary which I find useful-- he explains that the difficulty for God in splitting the sea wasn’t producing the miracle, but choosing to save some of his creatures while killing others. Rabbeinu Tam makes the analogy more direct by providing the specific example of a 2nd marriage between a widow and a widower; it’s super-morbid, but it’s an example of God bringing two people together while having to ‘sacrifice’ their previous partners. Ok, that’s very morbid, so let’s abstract it extensively-- a match is difficult for God, and for the partners, because it necessitates sacrifices, requiring each person to cut off possible partners, possible paths for themselves, and even parts of themselves that might not be nourished by this particular partnership. If I called the first scenario “Essentialist,” we’ll call this second scenario “Existentialist”-- just as God at the Sea faced the anxiety of choosing some and nullifying others, a person choosing a partner faces the existential anxiety of affirming and rejecting parts of themselves.
            And the heart of existential anxiety in coupling is built on our uncertainty about self. If we have an essential self, it’s hard to access it. If we have no essential self, then it’s our responsibility to create ourselves, and that can be overwhelming. Somehow, acts of self-creation in one regard are acts of self-destruction in some other regard. Among all the parts of ourselves, how is it that we’re able to choose who lives and who dies?

            This is very real, and it’s inescapable-- that is, it’s an anxiety built into both marriage and divorce. There’s a violence in self-creation that makes me cringe because it’s coupled with such uncertainty. I’ll quote Garnet from Steven Universe, who captures this feeling: “Why am I so sure that I’d rather be this than everything I was supposed to be, and that I’d rather do this than anything I was supposed to do?” Can you feel that? I feel it when I face the decision to leave Boston after 10 years, just to follow Naomi to New York City. What identity, what self-knowledge, what attempt at self-- what is it that is enabling me to choose this person over my life here? I also felt this when I was going through the split with Mimi-- I felt exactly that, split, having to choose between parts of myself as individual and parts of myself as the couple. Heart-breaking choices. How did I choose? How did I know, or think I could know, what of me was ok to leave behind?
Can you see how both pairing and divorce involve sacrificing parts of self, making decisions about who I am and who I will be? What qualifies me to make these decisions? Whether there is or isn’t an essential self, how can a person wisely commit such acts of self-reckoning?

            Ok. As I say every time, but more and more in recent years, this is getting long. If I recall correctly, my responsibility is now to convince you all to engage in the folly of love, despite (and probably because of) its foolishness. And, this year, I think I have a double burden, which is to also endorse continuing the folly of self.
            I think I’ve got it. There are two follies involved in both self and love, and I think I can explain both their foolishness and then endorse them anyhow. These follies go together-- they are called “objectification” and “attachment.” The folly of objectification occurs when we try to fix in place something that changes, and the folly of attachment quickly follows, when we become emotionally invested in that illusion of a permanent thing. In the long run, there is no Matt Lowe, and in the short run, Matt Lowe changes-- so, in a sense, I’m more of an event than I am a thing. The same is true for our partners and our relationships. But I easily forget this, and so I get invested in these things, and then threatened when these things change.
            We become foolishly attached to illusory objects, whether the object be ourselves or our partners. Caught up in attachment to these illusions, we face striving, suffering, existential dilemma, loss, and death. If it’s so foolish, shouldn’t we drop the charade?
(Sigh.) Of course not. We love objectification; we love to do it to ourselves, we love to do it to others, and have it done unto us. Naomi has fallen in love with an image of me, and I’ve encouraged that illusion every step of the way, because her loving image of me is a major factor in the image I attempt to use to love myself. The same is true for how I’ve fallen in love with her. And if there is no essential self, then this is the best we get. If the loss of these illusions leads to a feeling of foolishness and senselessness, that’s because the only meanings we do get in this world are the ones we build and prop up ourselves, as long as we can. The illusions are the meaning. If it is foolish to invest in our sense of self or in relationships, it would be far more foolish to forego these things and simply begin and end with meaninglessness.

I’ll close by ripping off and corrupting a Tibetan story about illusion and attachment. Let’s say you see me, sometime around the wedding, looking very, very happy. And you might say, “Matt, why are you so happy with yourself? You teach that the self is an illusion.” And my answer is: “Self is an illusion. And the love of another self is an even greater and wonderful illusion!”

Thanks for your time today.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What it feels like to be a therapist (after one year of practice)

I’m still trying to put words to a feeling I’ve been having about being a therapist. I will try to write “the short version” here, in hopes that I can feel that I’ve expressed this thing, and then maybe know what to do with it.
I think there are two feelings at play, which I’ll call “Awe” and “Isolation.”

Awe - It’s special work. Preparing to do it, doing it, reflecting on it, I feel purposeful, helpful, engaged in something holy (meant in a secular sense, if that’s possible). Emotionally, the awe informs feelings of both joy and fear (serving the client, failing the client), pressure and shame/ambition (feeling myself to be not enough, feeling driven to improve).

Isolation - There are so many separations built into the work!
  • Being the only therapist in the session
  • Knowing the client but not letting anyone else know that I know
  • Setting aside my own life issues to focus on someone else’s
  • Rejoining my own life and its issues following long periods of focus on others
  • Sifting through my internal reactions to the client, choosing responses
  • Developing a therapist personality, authentic and yet separate from out-of-session personality

Yeah. I think that covers a lot of it. I’ve been wanting to express this to someone (friends, family) outside of the profession all year, but I’m still not sure what I want from that interaction. Do I just want to “feel felt”? To be seen in that complex experience of connection/isolation which is k’dushah (in Hebrew, this word means ‘holy’ but it also means ‘separate’)? Maybe. Maybe I’m hoping that I will have some experience of expressing it that just leads to some catharsis.

I’m not sure. It does feel good to have a shorthand for the experience: “awe and isolation.”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Tidying Up the Mind?

I haven’t read it, but this post is inspired by what I have read/heard about Marie Kondo’s “the life changing magic of tidying up.” My understanding of the core of her message goes like this: In determining whether to keep or get rid of some item you own, hold it in your hand, ask yourself if it “sparks joy,” and then keep it if it does.

This morning, I was thinking about what it would mean to apply Kondo’s method to mental objects, such as memories and emotions. Wouldn’t it be healthier to stop torturing myself with certain (apparently) unproductive emotions or with nagging memories?

Quickly I realized something about joy. Joy is something I’ve struggled with, as a concept (probably also as an experience), specifically in my desire to understand how it relates to other terms like pleasure, happiness, satisfaction, and meaning. In thinking about tidying up the mind and tossing out “the bad stuff,” I realized that joy is contextual. My experiences of joy always occur within the larger context of my life, within the context of my struggles, failures, and regrets-- not as contrasts, but as foundations.

I have plenty of memories that spark anything but joy; but, for the experiences that do spark joy, those other ones are the kindling.

Against Monotheism

I recently found this lost in my emails. 
I wrote it in 2009, during my last semester at divinity school, about a year before I realized I was a nonbeliever.

They tell me that God is One.  But I keep wondering, whether,
God being One,
He might also be many other numbers.

If "this and this are the words of the living Torah," then the one God is also Two.
If God is the dilemma and the resolution, then the two God is also Three.
And so on, right?
If God is One with those who suffer, then isn't God also Six Million?  Twelve Million?
Isn't God 12 children every minute?
If God rests where "two gather in His name" at the same time as "three gather in His name" somewhere else, while I "sit alone in meditative stillness," and you and a few others sit at "the table before God," then God is any number between One and I'm-not-sure.

And they tell me that God is One, but not in the same way that one is one.  Not the same way that I am one, or that the world is one.  The One that stands above all numbers.  Is that number still really one?  Can a number lie on and above the number line?  Perhaps that number is actually None, or just some number we haven't invented yet.

They tell me that God is One.  But I keep wondering, who,
who made One so goddamn important?  Since when was there ever really
One Truth?  Since when did all of this make sense and add up to One?
I've seen fragments, I've seen composites, but I've never seen or thought an Absolute Whole.

Is this ridiculous?  I'm not saying that there's no unity; I'm just saying that not everything fits into a perfect unity. 
Yes- we live in one "world.'
Yes- we are all interconnected, interdependent, interpenetrating.
Yes- we may indeed all have one source.
But that is different than "God is One." 
God is One, to me, means one purpose.  God is One, to me, means one truth.
God is One, to me, means one that is the best, over all others which are less-than.
God is One means my One, and perhaps your One but an indirect way, and his and her One is just way off.
God is One, to me, means the subsuming of particulars in the One, a higher unity
that cancels far more regularly than it keeps.

I'm just trying to say that Oneness is just our trip, our obsession.  The world might have other plans. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

An Atheist Theological Perspective

I was recently invited/honored to contribute to a project collecting Jewish perspectives on God. Each section below (after the disclaimer) is based on a prompt from the organizer of the project.

Disclaimer on Sources
It seemed simpler to write something myself rather than cobble together a sheet of primary sources from more public (and scholarly) atheists, but my thoughts are definitely not original. Here are my major intellectual influences on this subject, in chronological order: Pseudo-Dionysius, Maimonides, Meister Eckhart, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Rabbi Adam Chalom, Rabbi Greg Epstein, and John Figdor, MDiv.

How do you understand God?
Some answers that atheists give:
  • As an anachronism of pre-scientific society
  • As a projection of childish fantasy on the universe
  • As a human concept that people use for dubious moral purposes
  • As a human concept that people use because they need meaning to be absolute, and they need the universe to have a Face
  • I don’t know and I don’t care (“apatheism”)
  • God cannot be understood; all attempts to understand God are idolatrous (“atheology”)

What is the nature of your relationship with God?
Some answers...:
  • Similar to my relationship with unicorns and other fictional things
  • No relationship with God; angry at believers for their intellectual/moral failings
  • I don’t really think about it
  • I used to believe in God but now I don’t; it’s been a major loss in my life, but that’s no reason to return to belief

Why isn't God a part of your Jewish experience?
  • My relationship with Judaism is focused on the Jewish people, history, culture
  • My relationship with Judaism is my relationship to the Jewish state, etc.
  • I care about Jewish values of social justice and activism; God part is unnecessary
  • Because I don’t believe in God and, fortunately, Judaism can be engaged meaningfully from SO many other points of contact. To take one example: for Shavuot, I stay up all night learning, socializing, eating cheesecake, and then I leave before services.

If I were to ask you about God, what would you talk about instead?

Let’s talk about what we really want to talk about when we talk about God. Instead of talking about “Our Father” let’s talk about family. Instead of talking about “the true Judge,” let’s talk about justice. Instead of saying “God is love,” let’s talk about love. Instead of “Messiah” let’s talk about a better world; instead of “heaven”, death and legacy. Instead of assuming that only God can provide a sense of good and/or meaning, let’s take the risk of seeking/making those things for ourselves, and braving the fragility and fallibility of their human origins.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Folly of Therapy - April Fool's 2016

Welcome to my 11th annual April Fool’s observance. I have to admit that it’s felt like an extra-foolish year for me this past year and I can’t really tell if that’s a good or bad thing. Feeling wise makes me feel confident, but I tend to I get worried if I’m walking around feeling too confident. I like a little insecurity to keep me on my toes. However, if I judge myself foolish for too long, all that insecurity becomes tiresome and kind of a bummer. So, what I tend to do, is dance back-and-forth between self-assured and self-doubting, and that dance seems both wise and foolish in its own ways. I suppose I began this April Fool’s observance as a way to share this paradoxical dance of affirmation and rejection with you, in hopes that you’d recognize it in yourselves, and I’d get to see you recognize it in yourselves, and then I’d feel a little better about doing it myself. Does that make sense?
All that being said, my speech this year is titled “The Folly of Therapy,” and it’s about 12.5 minutes long, which is far longer than a therapist is usually supposed to talk, so thanks for indulging me. I realize that my title leaves open whether I’m going to talk about the folly of being a therapist or the folly of going to therapy. Well, I’m going to continue to break therapist rules and talk about myself for a while, and then we’ll get to you if there’s time, ok?
        My goodness, where to start? I’m feeling lost. Actually, let’s start with lostness-- my supervisor has encouraged me to feel lost with my clients. “Getting lost” with the client feels very foolish, and it’s the opposite of how I pictured doing therapy. I used to picture my client inside a hedge maze, with myself standing on a platform over the maze, and from this vantage point I’d be able to help them form a mental map and find a way out. Doesn’t that sound helpful? Plus, it makes sense to get trained to do this-- you’re having trouble with the mind, I’m trained to know my way around the mind, and so I show you the way. Instead, what, I’m supposed to climb down into the maze?! When I do that, I look around with them, and I say, “Dang, we’re really lost, huh?” And when I do this, I do not feel helpful. I feel foolish. If you’re lost, how could I help by joining you?
        Of course, the image of me standing over the maze is equally foolish. I can’t realistically expect to be the expert on someone else’s life or an expert on life, period. So, where does that leave me, in my maze metaphor? Instead of standing above, I join someone in their maze, but they are the host and I’m the guest, and I need them to show me around. This sounds like what my supervisor is telling me to do, but I still can’t see how it helps. This is my first paradox of therapy: that I am getting graduate-level training just so someone coming to me for help will be told that they are, in fact, the expert.
        If I am to learn my way around another person’s mind, I need to listen, which brings me to my second set of paradoxes, about listening. Early on in my training, I realized that, in switching from teaching to therapy, my professional ratio of talking to listening flip-flopped. Learning listening has led me to feel foolish in several ways, so let’s talk about listening for a little.
        Here’s my understanding of the basics of listening: first, don’t talk. Second, pay attention. Third, don’t get distracted. This seems simple enough, right? Well, it isn’t. Let’s talk about the instruction to pay attention. Pay attention to what? Obviously, I have to pay attention to what the client is saying, and that’s the easy part, because it’s coming right out of their mouth. At the same time, in my head, I also have to pay attention to any patterns I notice in the thoughts and feelings they share, and this higher level of listening can get a little distracting. But a little multi-tasking is to be expected, right? Sure. Listen to what they’re saying, and listen for the patterns. This is fine, until my supervisor tells me to listen to what the client is not saying. What?! Do you realize how many things a person is not saying at any given moment? Are you hearing what I’m not saying right now? Of course, my supervisor’s advice is wise-- I’ve had clients who suffer insult after insult but never mention feeling angry; I’ve had clients who tell me all the ways they try to escape emotional pain but never talk about the pain. What the client doesn’t say is crucial. As a therapist I have to listen to everything said and everything left unsaid.
        Now let’s talk about not getting distracted, which really is just the contrapositive of paying attention. Suppose a client starts talking about something, and I find myself thinking about my own similar experiences. Or I think about how I’m feeling right now. Or I start thinking about dinner. Distractions, right? Except!! I then need to ask myself why I’m having the thoughts or feelings I’m having, and listen for the answer, as it may tell me something about the client. Even distractions, then, must be listened to. Do you see how listening fully is paradoxical and ridiculous? I have to listen to everything said and unsaid, from the client and within myself.

        And for all that, the hardest part about listening as a therapist has been trying not to think about what I’m going to say next. This is generally a good practice for all listeners, but in conversation or therapy it’s actually tricky advice to follow. If I’m not thinking about what to say while they’re talking, when do I start thinking about it? After they stop talking? Think of the silence! I’m not so concerned about the awkwardness, but more about the ambiguity of silence-- a delay in response could indicate to the client that I wasn’t listening, that I didn’t understand, that I’m overwhelmed, that I’m clueless, or even that I’m judging them. And, some of those assumptions might even be true.
        Trying to think about my response brings me to my third area of paradox in therapy, which is the tension between authenticity and theoretical orientation. After listening so fully, how do I choose what to talk about? In the course of my education and training, I’ve been told that a theoretical orientation can make listening easier because it defines what is most salient in the client’s words. As a Freudian I would listen for early-life experiences. As a cognitive therapist I would listen for distortions in thought. Other orientations might guide me just to listen for tone of voice and body language. Other orientations tell me to listen for what the client thinks is important. I hope you see how any orientation will help me filter through everything that’s said, and in doing so, will keep me from listening fully. But, hey, at least an orientation gives me some sense of what to say next.
        However, it can seem like an orientation gets in the way of authenticity. Common wisdom in counseling tells us that, more than any particular orientation, the client is helped by experiencing an authentic and caring relationship with the therapist. After all this training, however, authenticity feels impossible! A good therapist doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t give advice, and doesn’t judge; but, authentic Matt Lowe does do all those things. Instead, I’ve been learning to sit patiently, ask questions, and try to discover from the client what they believe is my role in helping them achieve whatever they believe is their goal. I want to believe that this way is more helpful than my philosophical guru approach, but I also wonder how I’m supposed to feel and act authentically when adopting such a constructed role in therapy.  This effort towards a constructed (and thus artificial) authenticity makes me feel foolish.
        Ok, this is going long, as it often does. I’ve talked about the paradoxes in joining the client, listening to the client, and being authentic with the client. All of these realms, and all my concerns about them, are involved in what is really my ultimate question about being a therapist: What does the therapist do that truly helps?
        My supervisor tells me that the relationship heals, not the conversation. This observation is probably true, but I don’t know what to do with it, since I only know how to develop the relationship through the conversation. He tells me to listen for the quality of the relationship; again, good advice, but that’s yet another level of listening that I’m barely understanding.
        I think I’m starting to understand the key paradox at the heart of my development as a therapist, and it lies in the tension between analysis and presence. Freud called his approach to therapy “analysis,” and that word says a lot about his role and relationship with clients-- he’s the expert, and they and their problems are objects to be analyzed. As someone who loves philosophy, I love the idea of analyzing, and I thought becoming a therapist would be a way to use my analytical skills to help others. This is not wrong, but it’s becoming clear that it’s not enough. Let’s return to my original metaphor of the client as lost in a maze; I had thought that my folly lay in thinking of myself as the expert of the maze, but now I’m realizing that the image itself may be what’s foolish. To analyze is to problem-solve and to problem-solve is to help someone move from here to there; the client is trying to escape the maze. But, is that what therapy is about?
        Here are some other metaphors to describe therapy. First, let’s consider therapy as the game Tetris. In this metaphor, the analyst shows the client how all their pieces fit together and, amazingly, once they’re all fit together they disappear! To mix my metaphors here, the master of Tetris is also great at packing luggage or, as it’s called sometimes in mental health, baggage-- the master of Tetris knows just how to pack away all the baggage, and once it’s packed, they can shut the door and go on their merry way. The analyst as master of Tetris seeks to understand the space, to understand the pieces in the space, and to explore the many possible configurations of those pieces, to see how best to fit them together. In this image, the analyst is the problem-solver, is the expert, listens for specific elements, and is required to be efficient rather than authentic.
        And this entire image is missing the key element of therapeutic presence-- presence is the element through which the therapist is a guest, the therapist listens openly, and the therapist must be authentic. So here’s a different metaphor:

        Let’s consider therapy as the art of interior design. Wikipedia tells me that “interior design is the process of shaping the experience of interior space,” which, c’mon, that’s a fantastic metaphor for therapy. The interior designer, like the Tetris master, must consider the space, the objects, and the arrangements, but the interior designer must consider all of these things in terms of the need to live in that space. The client is not lost in a maze; the client is trying to be at home in a place that doesn’t feel like home. The only way to help is to join them, to learn what “home” feels like to them, and to help them make that home. And the space is not just the client’s own mind, but also their relationships, their plans, their past, and all the other realms of their reality. This sheds light on my supervisor’s statement about the relationship as healing-- the therapeutic relationship is a place for the client to practice making a home and feeling at home. The therapist helps by bringing their own presence into the relationship, by focusing on cultivating presence so that the client can arrive and feel able to be present. Analysis helps move the furniture, but only presence can confirm that a space has become livable.

        Well. Um. That was quite a little flight of fancy, wasn’t it? It sounds good, even though I have little to no practical thought about how to do such work. Another foolishness I feel a lot this year is from recognizing the gulf I regularly experience between theory and practice. Um. Tell you what. I’ll summarize, and then ask and answer one last question.
        The therapist is the expert who must join you so that you’re the expert. The therapist is the full listener who listens to everything said and unsaid and then must speak. The therapist is the authentic person who listens through the filters of various theoretical orientations as they are needed. The therapist is the master of Tetris. The therapist is the interior designer. The therapist is a fool.
So the question is: Why would you want a fool for a therapist?
        You want a fool for a therapist because a fool can’t show you the way, and anyone who can show you the way is showing you their way, not yours.
        You want a fool for a therapist because a fool doesn’t know how to listen like an expert or respond like an authority, and experts and authorities see their field of expertise but they don’t see you.
        You want a fool for a therapist because a fool cannot help but be authentic because it takes too much cleverness to be someone else. The fool is the foreigner who humbly learns from the natives, and the fool is the foreigner who sees what the natives miss. The fool is regularly disoriented and so regularly struggles to become oriented; this makes the fool a good companion.
        You want a fool for a therapist because it feels foolish to want to help without knowing how to help, so a fool will join you no matter what—and presence, I’ve heard, is the key to helping.
        Thank you.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Folly of Retrospection - April Fool’s 2015

Retrospection is the act of looking back at the past in order to evaluate it. These days I am engaging in a lot of retrospection because I am encountering a lot of issues involving time, which is another way of saying I’m encountering a lot of issues involving change. Over the last ten years, I’ve undergone a lot of changes, involving religion, relationship, lifestyle, and career. In examining retrospection, I’m attempting to answer some important questions:
  1. How should I feel about my past?
  2. Can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future?
  3. What does my life add up to?

            So-- how should I feel about my past? At first glance this seems like a dumb question, but I think we’ll also find that it’s ultimately a dumb question too. It’s initially dumb because it’s probably better just to ask “How do I feel?” rather than seeking to dictate my own emotional responses. And yet, I often find that my instinctual emotional responses rely on selective memory, and so they lack a deeper authenticity-- I either look back nostalgically on the good times, forgetting experiences of emptiness or disconnection, or I look back angrily or regretfully on various struggles and failures, forgetting how they were also experiences of growth.
            It turns out to be wise to ask how I should feel, since in doing so I push myself to develop a more complicated sense of self and history. I come to find that some fondly remembered experiences took place in a context of problematic character and relationship issues; I come to find that some experiences I regret laid the foundation for joy I’m experiencing now.
            So, to the question “how should I feel about my past” is the answer simply: “complicated”? In some sense yes, but in another sense, look, “complicated” is not a feeling, it’s a state of mixed feelings. And while I see how the good and the bad are always intermingled, “mixed feelings” feels like a cop-out answer to how we should judge our pasts. Nietzsche either clears this up or makes it more complicated, by advising that we adopt the attitude of amor fati, or love of fate, in which we practice acceptance of our lives as a whole, experiencing our future as the realm of freedom, and the past as that of necessity. This is either an amazing paradox or a ridiculous contradiction; I can’t tell. Still, I find myself unable to embrace the past as a whole, and the reason for that brings me to my second question regarding retrospection:

Can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future? Do you see how this question pulls the rug out from under any attempt to embrace the past as a whole? If we ultimately embrace our various mistakes and missteps, then why bother worrying about future ones? Or rather, contrapositively, if I’m worried about avoiding future mistakes, doesn’t that imply a rejection of past ones? I think the most practical use of retrospection is for the purposes of prospection-- that is, using the past as a lesson for optimally shaping the future. And I think that using the past as a cautionary tale implies certain feelings about the past.
But, moving forward-- can I learn enough from my past to help me make decisions for the future? In mundane matters, the answer is yes-- through retrospection I have remembered to put on the emergency brake before changing a flat tire, to smell milk to see if it’s gone bad instead of tasting it, and to spit out milk when I realize it’s gone bad instead of swallowing it. In weightier matters, I’ve also gained some emotional wisdom for the future from looking back-- for example, don’t drive while angry, don’t send an email while angry, and generally not to do things while angry.
And yet, there are many ways in which the past fails to serve as a model for the future. While very few know his name, everyone’s familiar with Santayana’s quotation “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Insofar as retrospection keeps us from repeating mistakes, this is true. A less famous quotation by Hegel opposes Santayana, which is: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” (This quotation is especially interesting, since Hegel’s philosophy is largely focused on the spiritual progress of humanity through history.) So, what could Hegel mean here? I’ll actually refer again to Nietzsche, who opens the second essay of his Genealogy with the challenge that humans face of becoming “promise-keeping animals.” I believe that we fail to learn from history for the same reason that we fail to keep our promises-- that being, we just don’t know the future. The lessons of yesterday often do not match up to the reality of tomorrow. Within not knowing the future, we sometimes don’t know our future selves. I learn this lesson every time I put something off for later, with the assumption that future Matt will somehow be more motivated than present Matt. We here in the present can make some accurate predictions, but often on the existential level our different temporal selves simply have different priorities. I sometimes call this the grandfather paradox-- not, not the time travel one-- in which, I know that older Matt will have this intense craving for grandchildren, but younger Matt is not in any rush to produce the children that will get that process started in a timely manner.
            Do you see how complicated this has become, and how much foolishness is wrapped up in retrospection? I look back at the past, trying to figure out how I should feel, and what I should learn for the future. But, sitting in the present, I have some different priorities than past and future slices of myself, so my attempts at emotional processing and goal-setting have limited success. This is the central paradox of meaning and time, that I want to create a coherent narrative of myself, but my past, present, and future are very, very difficult to unify.
            But I do want a coherent narrative, and I want to invest wisely in the present in producing that narrative. Avivah Zornberg tells us, rather obviously but hopefully, that “the present is, in large part, informed by a particular sense of the future,” which  I would broaden to say that our experience of the here-and-now is rarely isolated, but rather highly contextual. Zornberg quotes Malcolm Bowie, who says almost the same thing, but in terms of retrospect and (to me) more sadly: “The history of an impassioned individual life carries with it… a history of wished-for states by which that life was impelled.” We don’t just live in the present; we are always living with an eye towards the past and the future. My past is the record of a series of presents, motivated by visions of futures. And yet, the past, present, and future are often worlds apart. Insofar as the future is the realm of the unexpected, the past has little to teach.
            In response to my question about how I should feel about the past, my answer was “complicated” or “tentative.” In response to my question about how to use the past to plan for the future, it is once again “tentative.” All of this leads us to the final and horrifyingly large question: “What does my life add up to?”

“What does my life add up to?” At first glance this is a question about the final retrospection, the kind that I expect to have at the end of what I hope will be a long, healthy life.
            And immediately, I have to reckon with the fact that the death-bed retrospective is not a privileged perspective. Ok, it’s the most chronologically comprehensive point of retrospection, but with memory loss and geriatric complaints I might have a cloudier view of what was valuable and what was wasteful in my life. Also, I can’t really tell what time will feel like when I’m almost out of it-- with my time all used up, what does it even mean to try to judge how it was used? If part of the value of retrospection is planning for the future, then what exactly is the point of end-of-life retrospection? This may explain why Kohelet, the Biblical book of retrospective, is so full of despair—of course life looks like a waste when there’s nowhere left to take it.
            So, the end of my life might not be the optimal moment of adding it all up-- there may be no optimal moment. Especially as a teacher and/or a therapist, professions that have subtle and delayed effects on the world, I’ll likely never have enough data to make a full accounting of the meaning of my life. And who knows what kind of meaning my life will have even after I’m gone. I’ll paraphrase a modern philosopher: “History will ultimately judge [my] decisions… and I’m just not going to be around to see the final verdict. In other words, I’ll be dead.” Wise words on the foolishness of retrospection, by... George W. Bush. I agree with the President-- we are not the appropriate ones to add up our own lives. As Bush might say, I am the decider-- I am not the calculator.
            Ok. Phew. I’d like to make this short, but it’s already too long for that. At least, I’d like all of us to look back fondly on this speech, so I need to finish soon, and with something strong and hopeful that you can take away from it.
            Retrospection is one piece of a lifelong project of creating one’s life as a narrative, as this narrative is created both by re-telling the past and by planning the future. The problems of retrospection are the problems of meaning in time, which is to say the problems of trying to make a narrative fit your life (or making your life fit a narrative, whichever). Again, I’m indebted to Avivah Zornberg for my major insight on this matter, which is that narratives culminate in closure, in full or final meaning, while life mostly deals in instability, confusion, and error. Narrative wants closure, and most often in life, closure is bullshit. Retrospection comes from a desire to have power over our story, both as the life we live and the image of our life we want to fashion, and the folly of retrospection exposes the limits of that power.
            This insight is strong but it’s really not hopeful. The fact is, the questions I’m asking here are very important to me-- I vacillate between desperately wanting an awareness that my life will add up, and resigning myself to the fact that it won’t or that I’ll never know if it did. Both modes feel tragic-- the vain attempt at establishing a stable meaning for oneself, and the nihilism of giving up on stable meaning. I just… I keep living more and more life, and I fear wasting it. I don’t want to waste my life, but I don’t know how to turn my life not into a waste, or at least how to reduce waste, or even which parts I should be regarding as waste. (Looking back at my previous religious commitments, professional paths, lifestyle choices, and relationships,) How do I determine what was a dead-end, what was a detour, and what was a checkpoint? It’s upsetting to look back and regret. It’s upsetting to want so badly to get things right. It’s upsetting to give up the desire for stability of meaning, for control over my story.
So here’s the paradox: I retrospect in order to get a grasp on life, only to find that time slips out of my fingers. It’s a tragic paradox, and I’d like to give you something hopeful in it. Well, if we don’t get stability, and we don’t want nihilism, what are our options?
            I think the answer lies in Camus, in his image of Sisyphus which combines absurdity and rebellion. Between stable meaning and nihilism, there is the tentative, the provisional, the commitment to ongoing evaluation, favoring the act of meaning-making even over the possession of that elusive meaning. We can have some insights into our past, present, and future, even if those insights themselves are temporary. Time mocks our desire for control, for stability, and for enduring meaning; we rebel by forging ahead with courage, and looking back with compassion.

I’ll end with my favorite quotation by Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” I love this paradox but, after this whole speech, I’m highly doubting that can life be understood even backwards. I shared this quotation yesterday with a patient, who put a positive spin on it for me—that, whatever we understand about life in retrospect, it must be lived forwards, meaning, we push on anyhow. Thank you.