Category Archives: mental health

“My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” —Hermann Hesse

Life is messy.  So, we attempt to eliminate the mess but the end result is that at best we lessen the mess for ourselves and heap it upon others.  But we can’t get away from the gist of Hesse’s observation, life is messy unless we are willing to lie to ourselves. Of course, “lying” to ourselves is how social convention is formed in the first place.  That is to over state the matter for sake of emphasis but, as Otto Brown once wrote, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” and I’m benefiting from this veil even as I write.  The problem lies only in the human tendency to not acknowledge the veil, to not realize that it subjects us to seeing “through a glass darkly” and basking in the comfortable illusion that we see things objectively.

“Not wanting to lie to ourselves” is now becoming ever more apparent as the contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies of our social facade have crystallized into a single point, Donald J. Trump, who is merely the figurehead of our collective duplicity.  He is obviously the “toy of some great pain,” spinning and twisting about like the bit of paper cavorting about in the wind in that mesmerizing scene in the movie, “American Beauty.”     He is being used by the gods to give us an opportunity to own our ugliness, our horrid self-absorption that refuses to see beyond the end of our own nose.

Of course, I’m talking about you…and all of those who aren’t reading this…as I stand above all of this, being as narcissistic and psychopathic as Trump!  Wink, wink!  Really big wink, wink!!!  My facetious point is that this is a human problem and all of us have this tendency to go to great extremes to avoid reality, reality which includes a deep-seated aversion to being disillusioned of our pretensions.  ‘Tis much easier to cling to our “invented stories.”

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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There’s Something to Say for Tedium!

DOLOR by Theodore Roethke

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces. 

I’ve always liked this poem though it is so heavy-handed and grim, using mundane phenomena of day-to-day life to paint a picture of the relentless tedium of life.  Usually we don’t notice this tedium for we are acclimated to it and take it to be reality…and it is good that we do; for this “tedium” makes consensually-validated reality possible and we can trudge through the necessary pretenses of daily living.  But then Donald J. Trump stumbles onto center stage and we see just how “unnecessary” this sheep-like behavior is!  For example, why must we “make nice” every day, obeying rules of decorum and civility when we could easily just lay aside our inhibitions and say or do what we really are thinking?  Just one example comes to mind, last fall on the debate stage, when all but one of the presidential candidates were “making nice” with one another only to discover one of their members was playing by different rules.  Furthermore, Trump’s willingness to “tell it like it is” resonated with many voters who quickly fell in line with him, finding his disinhibition the perfect expression of their pent-up frustration which Roethke beautifully portrayed in his poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Thingsfall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.  (The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats)

 

Emily Dickinson and Consciousness

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

This little ditty by Emily Dickinson was one of my first imbibations of this delightful New England poet of 19th century America.  The poem reveals the vulnerability of Dickinson which in turn gave her the perspective which allowed her to offer such a wry glimpse into the human enterprise, a glimpse that is so relevant to any generation.

Dickinson was herself a “little boat” on the “gallant sea” of life and her poetry reveals that she frequently feared she was going to be swept away by the current.  And the second stanza vividly conveyed the fear that any of us have of getting “swept away,” the fear of being “lost” and having no awareness of it.

Consciousness is a perilous adventure and as Hamlet told us it does make “cowards of us all.”  To be conscious is to realize, cognitively and emotionally, that we live our life strung out on a narrow precipice above an unabiding void.  It is fear of this void, i.e. “Void,” that makes us “cling to these ills that we have, (rather) than fly to others that we know not of,” borrowing from Hamlet again.  Dickinson spent her adult life on one of these narrow precipices, ensconced in the attic of her father’s house, where she explored the vast riches of her tender heart and shared her findings with posterity.

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Families Are to be From”

Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families.  She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time.  If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity.  My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years.  And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical.  It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns.  Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.

The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family.  I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more.  She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.”  Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.

There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture.  This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation.  T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:

What we have written is not a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.
It is possible you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

Thinking vs. Feeling Our Way Out of Life’s Wounds

Shakespeare knew that unacknowledged fear could stymie a person and keep him from meaningful action.  This was best illustrated in Hamlet whose internal conflict led to a tragic end.  In his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy he said, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Hamlet was tormented by Oedipal issues which he could not acknowledge and thus was driven to unconscious “acting out,” leading to a tragic course of action.

In King Lear, we find another example of this truth.   Goneril said to Edward, “It is the cowish (cowardly) terror of his spirit/that dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs which tie him to an answer.  Our wishes on the way may prove effects.” Lear, like most people, did not have the courage to face the terror in the depths of his heart that left him powerless to “undertake” or to commit to action.  This was because he had experienced “wrongs” in his youth which were so profound that his adaptation had locked him into a pattern of avoidance, a pattern which could be broken only by “feeling” these wrongs.  Because of this imprisonment, the whims and fancies (i.e. “wishes”) were only the “effects” of unconscious wounds and the not the result of conscious, purposive intent. Instead of being the driver in his life, he was driven.

Shakespeare grasped a powerful insight of modern psychotherapy.  Gut-level issues that wound us deeply cannot be resolved with band-aid interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy in which “thinking” and “thinking about our thinking” are utilized, albeit often with a degree of effectiveness.  But he knew that the real core issues of human experience, those that tie us up in knots, must be addressed with “feeling” and not with thinking.  These issues we must “feel” our way out of as we can never “think” our way out of them. I think the emphasis of cognitive based clinical intervention, though certainly of some value, ultimately reflects our culture”s wishes to keep maladaptive behavior and mood disturbances on a surface level and not address the gut-level dimensions as depth-psychology seeks to do.  Until we are willing to acknowledge the subterranean dimension of life, and go there when the circumstances of life nudge us in that direction, our life will be, as Ranier Rilke noted, merely, “The toy of some great pain.”

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The following are three blogs that I offer.  Please check the other two out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Shakespeare, Madness, and Trumpism

Sometimes I’m tempted to focus on Shakespeare alone in this blog.  His work offers us more wisdom than I’ve found anywhere else, if one has the courage and discipline to explore it.  As I’ve argued recently, I think his work reveals that he thought that madness inflicted the whole of this human endeavor and that even the “consensually validated reality,” if closely examined reveals this to be true.  Freud probably had this in mind with his book entitled, “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

One line from the play, “Hamlet” that has always intrigued me on this subject is, “What’s mad but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare was telling us, “We are all ‘mad’ but the label ‘madness’ belongs only to those who are ‘nothing else but mad.’”  Yes, everyday life is “psycho-pathological” but to waste much time and energy calling it that is kind of, well, kind of “nuts.”  Labels like “psycho-pathological” or “mad” must be reserved for those who go beyond the pale of everyday insanity and illustrates for us what is really going on with our daily grind of “consensually validated reality.”

But there is a continuum to this madness that we are all inflicted with by virtue of being “mere” humans.  There are occasionally people, even prominent people, who come along and illustrate for us madness though manage to avoid institutionalization and possibly even become powerful political leaders.  In my lifetime I can think of people like Idi Amin,  Sadam Hussein, and their predecessors, Hitler and Mussolini. And, you guessed it, there’s Donald Trump.  Though Donald Trump was “freely” elected in a democracy, his election proves the speciousness of any notion of “free will.”   Trump is a good example of someone who Shakespeare would describe as mad but he would also note that with him there is definitely “something other” than mad, meaning he really doesn’t deserve the label “mad,” but he sure comes close to it!  He is pretty far down on the spectrum toward madness but he lives in a culture that has found what he offers valuable enough that they are willing to overlook words and deeds that would disqualify most people from the White House and from the entitlement of the word “sane.”

It would be so helpful if my country would use this moment in its history for self-reflection and consider the wisdom that Shakespeare offers us here.  If we were mentally healthy as a culture we could contemplate our “madness” as Shakespeare challenged us to do and not be daunted by the task, realizing that to contemplate the notion does not make us “mad.”  For, most of us in this exploration would learn to chuckle, or even guffaw at things we began to discover about ourselves, quirks and oddities which reveal merely the conflicted nature of human experience and do not mean that we are mad.  But one dimension of the human ego which can tyrannize one into madness is the fear of having any flaw, and of having any flaw coming to the light of the day.  That fear often drives us not acknowledge our conflicts even if this lack of acknowledgement causes these conflicts to worsen to the point of mental illness or even to the point of validating one who is mentally ill and electing him President of the United States.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/