Posts in Category: Words

“In the Name of What?” Finding Common Language


katy rose






I never understood the Shakespearean phrase, “beggars description.” I understand it literally of course. Some experiences or feelings defy words.

These past two weeks have been intensively and sadly divisive. Grief, fear and shock have been fought over as though they are desirable currency. Who is entitled to these tarnished coins? Who can feel important feelings? The answer: anyone who does.

After the attacks on Paris from terrorists, some of my patients wondered if they “should” feel anxious about terrorism because their peers were not. College freshman feared they were not brave because they had nightmares. Some raised the issue of greater losses elsewhere and felt we “should” feel more for other countries. 

Many others were simply concerned about a science midterm or Thanksgiving break. Evacuating Harvard Yard made it hard to reach a professor with office hours. The omnipresent drone of a circling plane activated PTSD from 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks. I sat in my office like a shaken sphinx. I was full of questions. What was normal? What was pathology? Hard to know. I could not promise security to anyone. I could not reassure a patient that we were all safe. All I could do was continue to listen to each person’s response to another attack on the world. The responses were wildly different. None, however were hard to understand.  

My life has been spent putting words to feelings­. I have been a  writer. I have taught others to how to write. Now I use words to cast a net over someone else’s experience. I search for a “common language.” The best words I can hear are “me too.” But there are never “no words.” If someone says “I don’t understand” or “I can’t imagine what you’re gong through” I feel alone. I want to say, well then—“try.” So this week, like others, I tried. Even when I urgently wanted to talk about the situation of the world, I tried. I listened when active listening was especially hard to do.

I’ve rarely met a situation where I can’t find words. These past two weeks I had to hunt for them a bit. The older I am, the more I find clichés comforting. A stitch in time saves nine. One swallow does not a summer make. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Old poems worth memorizing came back to me this week: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say ice.”

In the carpool I explained these proverbs and poems to seventh graders. I quizzed my calm daughter on their meaning at night. What was I suddenly trying to transmit? Nothing she wants to hear— yet. Understanding, as John Green wrote about falling in love, happens like falling asleep, slowly and then all at once.” In therapy, months are spent visiting an experience or  a relationship until suddenly, you see it from above. An X on a map. A discovery of perspective. 

Insight comes as a flash of brilliant green after months of words dry as cicadas. Someone across the world says “I am Paris.” Someone else answers. “I am America.”

“You too?”

“Me too.” 

It’s All Good. Is it?

Sometimes my work as a therapist and my experiences in the outside world clash resoundingly. I have to be careful to discern if my annoyance is a false note. A feeling of envy, insomnia, or a loose end?  But no. There is something in the air that rings false to me. 
The phrase that currently bothers me is:
“It’s all good.” This phrase feels like the spiritual equivalent of telling each other we are “fine”—a meaningless word. I don’t know who invented this but it definitely comes from the same sea where we fished out “God never gives us more than we can handle.” I haven’t seen this to be the case. In fact aren’t the most gracious wonderful people seem plagued by random hardship? This year I have seen the strongest marriages break apart and one friend try to kill herself.
Please don’t tell me this was “for a purpose.” If so, I don’t have the hubris to believe I know what the purpose might be. I have stopped delivering those karma-telegrams to myself.
Freud wrote of “necessary suffering.” He was right. Life has pain. When we don’t believe this, we feel we are wronged. Then, suffering and sadness become misery. Many of us are still wondering what is “fair” or how to “get happy.” As I recall “happily ever after” turns out to be just the beginning.
Perhaps if we were taught this earlier, we would grow up more resilient, more in charge, and not so sucker-punched when bad things continue to happen.
Turning older is terrifying. What surprises me is that, to a fault, everyone with whom I share this fear tells me how good I look.
Mortality is what I talking about—or immortality.
I want a re-do of many important choices I’ve made.
I want to embed a chip with everything I know and love into my daughter’s head.
I want to put my heart into hers.
I  want life never to stop, not ever, even if it has been dazzingly good enough for a long time.venice

“Let’s talk about me…”

There is a lot of talk about narcissism. People who used to curse a swindler now debate whether he is narcissist or sociopath.  Does everyone want to be a psychologist?

To my psychological mind a lot of what we now call narcissism is the mere ‘pathologizing’ of traits from the familiar list of the Seven Deadly Sins. Nothing new is plaguing us. We are merely emerging from a bewilderment of choices and riches–the perfect storm of consumerism. Terrible greed corrupts us beyond measure and jealousy makes us murder. Shakespeare knew this.  So did Chaucer. Before the DSM IV was invented we knew what it meant to be sound of heart and body. Now, lust is ‘addiction’ and we are all ‘powerless’.

What’s up with the psychobabble?  As a psychologist I find it frustrating—it draws attention way from real suffering. The game of pathologizing may derive from the media publication of psychotherapy—from Analyze This, to The Sopranos, to The Treatment. People in therapy are fascinated with the other side of the couch. Having watched and read about it, they become armchair psychologists.  Perhaps it is easier to be be sick than wrong or admit you have made a mistake?

Before we label people narcissistic we have to ask what values our culture of acquisition embodies? We are the people who adored Donald Trump as he pointed his scrooge-like finger and pronounced: “you’re fired.” We loved the idea that others didn’t make it. We still revere reality TV shows in which only one man or woman survives.

The culture of loneliness dangles objects up before us to consume and then we are called materialists. If we feel terribly lonely despite our millions of Facebook friends; we may believe we are have ‘borderline” personality disorder. If we become frantic to perfect ourselves through a bit of Nip and Tuck we may be called ‘hysterical.’

This is, again, an anxious and hopeful time. We have a new President. Women are working. We are poised to think mindfully about our lives.  We may remain terribly separate, ordering pizza and Netflix galore. Or, I hope, we will understand that we need to be known.

We can learn the name of the women or men who sell our coffee, wrap our flowers, the local grocer.  We can teach our children how to prepare a meal, and write or draw. We can make time for the joy in dailiness, study the ways of making our homes and lives a haven. E.M Forster once wrote, “Only connect.”  He was right.

Photo credit: Cliff. Painting by William Merritt Chase.