Tuesday, 22 December 2015

suffering made possible by solicitude

John is back in the clinic. He's sunken into despair, enmeshed in hopelessness, racked with desperation. I ask 'what's wrong John?' He replies:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

We've seen him in this state before. It besets him repeatedly; it courses through his mind and body, colouring the whole horizon of his understanding of self and world.

'Loneliness', he sometimes thinks, 'I'm lonely': the thought is itself a small achievement, a passing condensation of some small nugget out of the gloam. Again, and like the thought about loneliness, the words in the poem start to bring some small relief. A little space is created, between himself and his feeling; yet the relief is so little, so very little.

What has happened to John? All of us get lonely, feel saddened, dejected, rejected. Yet such states normally rise and (after a good while) vanish in the midst of our ongoing everyday lives; they don't give rise to such melancholia as afflicts John. With John the desolation spreads out to frame the entire horizon of his lived experience. The feelings, we could say, now become moods; they become fundamental modes of world-encounter. Every thought he now has is constrained by this horizon; he cannot escape it. This inescapability is what constitutes his depression as such - it is what makes for the hopelessness. His feelings are no longer within the Lichtung; rather they frame its perimeter. Their host, that is, is now oblivion itself. Rather than - rather than what?

The answer I want to give is: rather than a containing sense of self which is constituted by a sense of lovableness and of possibly being in the loving presence of the beloved other. I've called this 'the idea of love' at other times. It needn't imply the actual presence of a beloved. There need not even be one now alive. But there must be a background sense - not a mere thought, not something held onto as a mere fact - of one's own value, lovableness, goodness. It is this background sense of lovableness that makes for the possibility of a meaningful, particular, experience of unlovedness. It is only against the background of the former that the latter can be properly felt, suffered. This is why solicitude makes for suffering and, at the same moment, for its eventual release.

How can John achieve it? Let's be clear - his difficulty is not that his actual friends have deserted him. Doubtless they have - his self-involvement is too much for them. And doubtless too it did not help - all that brief fame he achieved, his celebration in literary circles, his being dropped again, the blow of being unable to marry his beloved Mary - all of this helped precipitate his psychotic depression, his compensatory wish-fulfilling delusions of being Shakespeare and Byron. It is not that his actual friends have deserted him - it is that the possibility of friendship has deserted him; the 'idea of love' - this is what is lost. The 'idea' that he can be known, met, as he is, that he could be cared for, as he is - not with compensatory fame, unreal manic celebrity, and so on. That he may love and be met with in his love. Not with Mary perhaps, sure, but with someone, somewhere, should he ever meet her. Instead of that poor John longs for the peace of a place where man and woman has never trod or wept - the peace of nirvana, the chilling silence of the death drive.

But how can he achieve it? One question for the clinician - the one I want to focus on here - is: How can we help John to know himself in the right way? We can see that his mind is trying to frame his emotional experience. Thus the poem comes forth, but it sputters - it does not get to the root. It is, rather, still a complaint. It is still only like the relief got from picking a spot: a relief from the pressure or itch, but the structure of the spot remains and it comes up again. John's complaint only voices the pain of the depression; it does not yet know of or voice the pain of those feelings - the actual disappointments, say - that throw up the depression. It does not allow these feelings to be felt, to be known.

So how can he come to the relief of knowing of himself that he is experiencing unlovedness? It will not help him if we introduce him to this as a fact. First off, this time he must come for regular therapy. The regularity of meeting with me will start to contain, make thinkable, his feelings. It starts to inscribe in his mind a psychic structure, a container, the idea of a place where caring accepting attention can be directed towards his hurt, can foster the idea of tending to the suffering, knowing it as such, seeing it as a worthwhile moment of the living of a human life, as a part of that life, as something tolerable, as something that can be borne with care. It may come about as he starts to talk with me in his mind, as he takes in not just the possibility of attention that comes from the therapeutic space, the consulting room, the function of attention, but also the possibility of tending that comes from the therapeutic meeting with me, of my hearing him, not shirking him, not interfering with him, not intruding with my own analogical experiences, not trying to help him out of it, not trying to overcome it. The trust that gradually grows as he comes to know that the feeling is part of what it is to be him, this man, this gentle genius with his frailties, his sensitivity, his human culpabilities, his gifts - this is the trust which comes from an approach that refuses to help him out of his experience, which instead allows him to master the terrible art. The terrible art, that is, of suffering the losses and disappointments of a human life.

Over time John comes to understand this. He knows now that he has experienced unlovedness and rejection. The unlovedness comes into the Lichtung - it no longer frames it, no longer spreads out as unloveability - instead he can have an actual emotional experience of it in its particularity. The loss of a specific hope becomes thinkable; hopelessness recedes. No longer the relentless insoluble inevitable hopelessness of the unlovable. John comes to know of and then accept his hurt feelings about Mary. He gives up his compensatory Byron delusion. His living and loving fit within the shape and frame of his actual life. He can do this because we helped him to suffer, to smile gently on that suffering, to take courage in it. He comes to trust again in the love of those dearest he loved the best; he lies troubled rather than untroubled, but he soothes his troubles. He comes back to life.