Many times, I have heard the expression, “Some things you never get over, you just learn to carry them.” It’s a phrase that rings both true and false for me. Yes, old patterns of relating affect the ways we interact with new people. And yes, some wounds cut so deep we are left with scarring. But there is a difference between climbing over something and/or dragging it behind you, and stopping to cut it up into little itty bitty pieces, cook it over a campfire and then eat it, so you can keep going, unencumbered and energized. Sitting down to write this post, I found myself banging my head against the wall, trying to take a definitive position on whether or not there are some losses you just can’t get over. Ultimately, the stand I decided to take is this: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know if grief is something a person will ever be rid of, or if it is something he or she will simply learn to carry. Or if it is something you think you’ve gotten over, and then it shows up again at your back door, like a cat begging for milk. The truth is, there is no way for anyone else to know either. Only you can answer that question for yourself. And anyone who tells you otherwise, is trying to sell a book. I can tell you from my own experience and the experiences of others, loss is something that will never go away.
And in that vein, here’s another quote for you, “Attachment is the root of all suffering.” I saw this as I was happily researching articles on Attachment Theory, looking for clinical support for this book on grief I am writing. It stopped me in my tracks. There I was, with the aim of offering hope to grievers and clinicians alike, and Buddha had to throw a wrench in the works. At first, I took the meme as a personal criticism; “You’re steering people towards suffering,” it told me. But then I realized it was a thumbs up that I was headed in the right direction. After all, ‘Attachment is the root of all suffering,’ is really just a short hand version of the ridiculously long title for my WIP: The Art of Integration: Short Term, Art Therapy Treatment Models For Working With Attachment Disturbances in Grief. And how can we overcome suffering—or learn to carry it—or cut it up into itty bitty pieces—if we are unwilling to address it?
As an art therapist, I have been largely trained in the psychoanalytic tradition, which, in its modern configuration, is a humanistic clustering of theories aimed at examining the machinations of our biological drives, the ego and its relationship to early love and attachment “objects,” and the development of a self identity. While analysis has been largely criticized for being a horse of a different color, with no unifying vernacular or streamlined modus operandi (unlike behavioral sciences, which are often based on a single and uniformed model), I would argue it’s strength lies in this varied approach. Examining psychic phenomenon–such as the experience of grief–from within numerous frameworks allows us to see alternate patterns and transfer our point of view, according to the needs of the individual (Pine, 1990).
But one need not accrue the student loan debt that I have, to grasp the common thread throughout all of these theories, which is this: relationships are important. Chances are, you already knew that (because everybody knows that) but how they are important, and in what way for each and every individual, slips into a gray area that has kept many an analyst—at least, in New York City—well fed and living on the Upper West Side. It is not my intension to paint black and white picture, or to suggest formulaic solutions, but to illuminate just how foggy it all is, and offer a small but steady night light.
The title of this blog post, When There Are No Words, alludes to an experience of loss that shakes us to our very core. From our earliest beginnings, we form a sense of self through what are called “identifications,” which is a fancy word for saying, “in relationship to others” (or more specifically, our perception of others). As an infant, we are prompted to respond to a collection of sounds, and eventually learn that these sounds are called “words.” The first word a child is encouraged to learn is his or her name, and hot on its heels, the use of a first person pronoun: “I,” “me,” “mine,” “myself,” etc. A mastery of these words allows us to think abstractly and thus identify with this concept of “self” in relationship to others (both animate and inanimate objects) and thus, we think we know who we are. This is when the ego–our thinking self–assumes its throne. But remember, we are not our thoughts, but our awareness of them.
My given last name, MacWilliam, is Scottish, and it means, “son of William.” The name, which has lasted for generation upon generation, exemplifies this defining of one’s self in relation to (or in belonging to) another person. But what happens if we lose that person? What happens if I assume someone else’s last name? What meaning does a name have then? What meaning does the “I” have, if I no longer have an identification to tell me? Who am “I” now?
Perhaps, I am without words. Without a name. But I still am. And I have experienced a shift in self-awareness. Albert Einstein referred to the “illusory sense of self” as an “optical illusion of consciousness.” Spiritualist, Eckhart Tolle, assures us, however, “the recognition of illusion is also its ending. In seeing who you are not, the reality of who you are emerges by itself” (2005, p. 28). I am not suggesting the only way to be your authentic self is to leave all your loved ones behind and live in isolation for the rest of your life. What I am suggesting, is the illusion that grief creates—a feeling as if you cannot go on, or your life is irreparably damaged—is one that prevents you from inhabiting a more whole sense of self. It’s true, you may never be the same; you might find ways to grow! You might also crash around butting up against whatever external people, places, and things help you recreate that illusion–until it dissolves again. And it will. Because as I said before, loss is something that is here to stay.
So, you’ve decided you’d like to grow, raise anchor on the grief that has been weighing you down.What now?
Well, the first step is following my blog. The next, is reading it when I post something. 🙂 I will be dropping bits and pieces of the book I am writing here and there, so please stop by on frequent occasion, and share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.