Category Archives: psychology

Shakespeare on Narcissism, Commitment,and Marriage

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth.  This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.”  Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person.  This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.”  And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”

Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it.  Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”  In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.  Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot)  was the source of the Infinite.  But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it.  Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it.  And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

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Robert Frost’s “Mite” of Wisdom

Robert Frost is one of the best known 20th century American poets and one of the first poets I stumbled across in junior high school, being forced to memorize one of his poems, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  I also remember him reading a poem as I watched the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on TV, getting my first impression that a poet might be a person of importance!  I can’t say that Frost has made my personal pantheon of poets but I do like his work, deeply admire the story of his personal struggles, and am particular struck by one of his poems which I will now share, “A Considerable Speck.”  This poem takes the simple experience of Frost witnessing an innocent insect frittering about on a piece of paper on his desk, sparking the image in his mind of the human predicament of the daily life of frenzied, hyper-kinetic activity without ever taking a pause to contemplate, “Just what is the point anyway?” There is a certain foolish dimension to life the consideration of which can actually deepen the meaning of life if we will give it occasional attention.  Frost used the image of this desperate little “speck” of life on a piece of paper to suggest an occasional venture into the humility of finitude.

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt–
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind. 

 

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.

Human Bondage and the Mystery of Truth

I want to continue to explore the Carl Sandburg poem, “Who Am I?” and focus on the notion included in the poem that Truth is a “captive” quality in our heart.  It makes no sense that such a noble quality of Truth is hidden, even imprisoned in our heart, suggesting that beneath the surface of our conscious life there are things of which we are unaware.  Truth is usually seen as a commodity in our life, a body of wisdom that we can claim as our own if we subscribe to what we see as essential tenets of Truth, and hold steadfast to them.  But poetry, and certainly Holy Writ such as the Bible, if taken superficially will lead us to believe that “I” know the truth and so would anybody else that listened to my passionate affirmation of this “fact.”  But Sandburg throws a monkey wrench in this mind-set, insisting that “Truth” is not factual but is a hidden dimension in our heart always seeking expression but only in the context of our conscious wish to avoid it.  If we understood this wisdom, it would give us pause about our certainties and encourage us to hold firm with them but to realize that other people’s understanding of the matter might be different than our own.  The absence of this humility is daily on display in our world in the Trump administration.

Poet John Donne understood the bondage of his will on this issue, declaring that the Reason he has assumed would lead him to Truth, is “like an usurped town to another due…(and) is captive’d and proves weak or untrue.”  In the beautiful sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” he portrays this internal conflict in the human heart that wants the freedom of truth but is stymied on the pursuit without Divine intervention.  Here is an excerpt from this sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Sandburg and Donne realized that humankind has a divided heart.  Yes, we want noble qualities like “Truth” but fail to realize that on another level, “No we don’t!”  They realized that Truth is very disruptive to our status quo, personally and collectively, and does not come without a willingness to pay the price of disillusionment.

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/

 

 

“Literary License” and Personal Narrative

I became “literary” lew when I started this blog about six years ago.  I increasingly realize that the choice of that moniker was more astute than I realized.  These six years have helped me explore further the inner recesses of my heart and I’ve learned that my early grasp of the world was very “literary.”  Then I was taught that the world I lived in was a very literal, linear-thinking world.  I dutifully complied and I’m glad I did, but wish I’d have done so with less passion! But now, pretty late in the old “ball game”, I’m using this literary license very freely and enjoying the freedom to interpret life from a less rigid perspective.  The world is multi-dimensional and I’m finding life much easier and pleasant, having slowly allowed this wisdom to sink in.

Decades ago friends introduced me to the notion that life itself is but a story and approaching it as such makes it easier to pose the question occasionally, “Now what’s the point of this story going on here, the one I’m being presented with, or the one that I find myself immersed in personally.”  This is simple use of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which, if employed here and there, can allow us to make better responses to parts of the story that we are presented with.  Otherwise, we will be unwitting participants in a narrative that is, unbeknownst to ourselves, setting the course for our life.  One simple example, drawn from my clinical practice of the past, is the “martyr complex” of someone who finds himself/herself constantly playing the role of the victim throughout life, not realizing that some unconscious need is being fulfilled.  When one self-created crisis has resolved itself, this person will seem to ask upon awakening the next morning, “Hmm.  Now what’s underway in my life today that will allow me to perceive myself being the victim, allowing me to start the drama mill of my life to going again?”  This person seems to pray daily, “Give us this day, our daily crisis…”

Though most of us aren’t martyrs or victims, we inevitably play some role that we are only barely aware of if at all.   I’ve found this “literary license” helpful in gaining some degree of awareness.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com