Saturday, April 1, 2017
Once you begin delving into philosophy, you face immediate choices. You likely want some kind of grounding or foundation. I do. If you start in the West, you face the contrast between Parmenides, who conceived of being as unchangeable, and Heraclitus, who envisioned an eternal becoming. Or, you can set out on a dualistic path — arguably reaching its peak with Descartes — by agreeing with the Greek atomists like Leucippus and Democritus that spirit and matter are separate. I think not.
I side with the Greek Milesians whose philosophy parallels, in many ways, ancient Chinese and Indian views. Heraclitus thought change arises from the dynamic and cyclical interplay of opposites. He considered opposites as parts of a greater unity, a wholeness called Logos which, he believed, contains and transcends all opposing forces.
I apply this idea of unity to my psychoanalytic work. Consider a patient who presents with “a sad feeling.” I adopt the attitude of the television detective Colombo, initially responding (inside voice) with “what do I know?” Working in conjunction with the patient, I facilitate a discussion of the causes and meanings of the sadness. I consider it but a manifestation of a much broader whole.
For example, if the person tells me of a close friend’s serious illness, our conversation may turn to the history of her relationship with that person, her concerns about the illness, its nature, whether it might elicit her own fears of vulnerability or mortality, and so on.
If the patient attributes the sadness to his marriage, our discussion may turn towards understanding the relationship. Here, again, possible avenues of exploration are endless. We may discover the marriage is actually “good enough,” but he’s developed expectations based on novels, movies, and other media. He imagines a union actually impossible. In contrast, we may discover his wife rarely comes home, often criticizes him, and reports no longer loving him. The sadness in the first place results from unfair expectations; the latter likely emerges from the relationship itself.
Yet another possibility, among a literally infinite variety, is that the patient feels sadness for no clear reason. Exploration may, perhaps, reveal an existential aloneness. Alternatively, it could reveal a family history of depression, leading us to consider anti-depressant medication, an aggressive exercise program, or some other way to address neurobiology.
Moving outward from the consulting room, this same inter-penetrating vision leads to specific political views. Dissociation so common to individual psychology is writ large on a societal level.
For example, when I read of Trump’s plan to lay-off 25 percent of the employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I react with horror. He hopes to cut programs like ones seeking to restore the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Puget Sound or ones protecting the climate. These represent dissociations of epic proportions.
They are like my meeting a patient who, on the one hand, advises me her husband beats her weekly while, on the other hand, tells me he’s decent to her. Helping persons to integrate various parts of themselves–their dissociations–may well be the most common feature of psychoanalysts’ work. Denial, disavowal, avoidance are extremely common features of our personal experiences.
I remember an analogy made by one of my professors in graduate school. Typical psychotherapy patients come in complaining of pain in their feet. You examine their feet, determine their shoes are too tight, and recommend switching to larger sized shoes. They typically reply:
“I don’t want to change my shoes; I just want the pain to go away.”
I’m leaning increasingly anarchist — although not in the way that term is usually perceived. Anarchy is related to the word hierarchy (see Chomsky, below). In other words, anarchy is not about lawlessness. It’s about restricting laws to clearly justifiable needs. Telling a five-year-old child not to run across the street, for example, has an unambiguous justification. Our 80,000 page tax code exemplifies often unjustified, obviously over-complicated regulations. I like the idea of the so-called post-card tax return: Here is what you earned, now pay your 15 (or whatever) percent.
We definitely need laws and regulations. Corporations, which essentially behave like psychopaths (extreme self-interest, remarkable lack of empathy, grave dissociation), cannot be trusted to seek integration. Their interest is profit. Exceptions exist, to be sure. Some silicon valley firms are setting up all above-ground energy supplies, e.g. solar, hydroelectric, for their huge server facilities. We are all seeing more electric cars. In the final analysis, though, the world would be even more polluted were it not for the hand of democratic governments, rather than the “invisible hand” Adam Smith envisioned, intervening.
We humans are all in this together, residing on a planet with preciously finite resources. Persons’ lives become enhanced by attention to integration, by bringing the conflicting parts of ourselves into some kind of peace.
The world needs more of the same.
A wall between the US and Mexico? Are you kidding? Illegal immigration is a problem worth addressing, but not through walls. Because, again, we’re all in this together.
When I was a little kid, no littering laws existed. I remember throwing trash out my parents’ car window. With maturity (always an aspirational goal), I realized my soda can became an eyesore on someone’s yard, detritus later swept up in a rainstorm and, some day, clogging the ocean, affecting fish, birds, and so on.
Hindus refer to such an inter-connectedness, a one-ness, as Brahman; Taoists call it the Tao. Neither the Brahman nor the Tao can be understood. The Tao Te Ching begins:
The Way — cannot be told; The Name — cannot be named.
The idea of integration as a helpful goal seems inarguable.
I write in my small backyard, enjoying the sounds of the birds, the gurgling fountain, the wind in the trees, and neighbor’s dog softly barking. And a few seconds ago, the same neighbor began loudly playing his drums.
Should I ask him to stop?
Chomsky, N. (2013). On anarchism. New York: The New Press.
Smith, A. (2003). The wealth of nations. New York: Bantam.
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