the examined life
I just finished reading an incredible book by Stephen Grosz called "The Examined Life - How We Lose and Find Ourselves". The book is no more than a collection of observations by a career psychoanalyst of the insights offered by his patients over the course of his career. Life told in small stories. It is a potent book.
It reached out to me much more than most of the psychology books I've read over the years because it recognised just how much "we all make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen." Someone "to listen for the hidden meaning behind some of our most baffling behaviour".
The stories in the book are elegant and simple - engaging the writer himself to reflect about his own self as much as he helped his patients. As a reader, I found myself in many moments of self-reflection as well. Gut wrenching at times. I would read a statement and my tear ducts filled in an instant ready to pour freely. I have reproduced below some of those statements that ripped into my chest with a visceral immediacy as if there was no flesh or bone to penetrate at all. Do not read further if you are lacking in mood for a bombardment of self-reflection by this writer.
I sometimes wonder if my (almost entire) lifelong desire to write is a form of possession. I have always told others that writing is my tried and true means to alleviate stress. My form of escape. I have been driven to understand the answer to the obvious question this illuminates - escape from what?
The voice of my emotions is often on the written page rather than inside of or articulated directly by me. I purge the pain into words spoken by my stories' characters. I wonder whether this a fair substitute for experiencing the real thing?
The parenting I experienced during my childhood involved a flat out denial of the punctured psyches that fractured each and every member of my family (myself included). An aloof father prone to unpredictable bursts of emotion (the entire spectrum including rage) was far too intimidating for a Bambi-like silent mother. Intelligent discourse encouraged, emotional revelations not, the behaviour I learned from this lethal combination was to forcefully and regularly suppress any healthy release of cathartic fluids.
In my working life, I am afflicted by something I call Martyr-Brothers Syndrome. (Aside: it is not a real disease though the concept is probably more familiarly known as workaholic.) Choosing a highly stressful career, where my days are full of crises to solve for demanding political masters, and a willingness to sacrifice excessive hours of my life to get the job done for them. My own well-being sometimes suffers for the cause but who can say no when it means avoiding the far more difficult things that life has to offer. Over time, I have gotten much better at striking a balance between work and play. Replacing one passion (policy advising) for another (writing fiction) helps me to do that (sort of). A niggling doubt remains though that I am still making the same emotional mistakes I made forty years ago. Could it be that (even with all the writing) those fractures in my psyche born during my youth continue to be triggered (and, with that, behaviours worthy of striking a foetal position pose such is the regression). I am my own worst enemy.
Replace "he" with "she" in the above statement and it is the perfect summary of the story of my life. Find me a person who does not think they are flawed in some way and I will certify them as the rarest of creatures ever to walk the earth. I often ask myself how someone intelligent can ever lack self-esteem. I believe some of the answer has its roots in those moments in the past when another intelligent being (let's say a parent though it can as easily be anyone in your life with some ability to influence you) belittled my achievements in an effort to encourage that child to strive to be better. The driven child becomes the driven adult who often feels (though rarely reveals it) as if no one could ever love them.
The driven adult tried to find love in a marriage. With the benefit of hindsight, I now readily admit that I never gave myself entirely to the commitment I made to my then partner. Afraid of loving and being loved in return, I sleepwalked through the ten year interlude. It took a long time to step away from something with plenty of embers to spark alight a fire but ultimately devoid of the sustaining heat needed to survive through a long winter.
I do not believe I am in the minority when it comes to taking action to adjust things in my life that are not working for me. We are all notoriously slow in seeking and embracing change. Most of the time shit happens and some folk seem to be better at treating that as an opportunity rather than a setback. It was a slow and painful adjustment when my partner abandoned me though I am now cantering along nicely in a different city that has offered many opportunities to repair my fractured psyche.
I have dated on and off in the last decade (mostly off as I remain gun shy). Of late, I have thought a lot about my lasting legacy. [Aside: the last three months have been a challenging time due to a life-threatening illness and this undoubtedly added to these thoughts.] I do not wish to slip quietly through an entire life time known as a person on the periphery and easily forgotten. The idea that the past might have shackled me so much that I might never shine as a blinding light to another living soul.
A heaving breast of disinterest. I do not mind long stretches of time alone. There are days when I long for the silence. Days when I am lost in my writing. These are the glimpses of me at my happiest. But I am also lonely at times. I can be surrounded by people and feel completely adrift. These are the glimpses of me at my saddest.
Let the past go. Live in the moment. Really connect with this minute in time. I would love to go on a holiday without a camera and with some way of medicinally preventing any memory past or present from holding me back from doing whatever I might choose to do. What would my holiday be if I was completely free to do as I pleased? What would my life be if I lived outside of myself?
Instead the choices I make in the now are tied by the invisible strings of the past. Cut the chords that bind me tight. But know that there will always be frayed pieces, draped fodder that adds to the drag of wind resistance, no matter how fast I sail across unchartered waters. I have long accepted my fractured psyche is part of who I am and I write better when I accept the grief that comes with that from time to time.
While I may not have a significant other to ponder the meaning of life with me in those long stretches of silence on any given day or night, I am content that I have shared enough of myself in my written words. Whether to dream, or to lie awake, or to sleep the sleep of a thousand sleeps, somewhere to someone the museum of my thoughts will take an infinite time to crumble to dust.