Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wired Hermit - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst entertains an Old Friend




Development is central to analytic theory and technique.  Development is also one of those words that I just didn’t understand in graduate school, and I don’t think it was one that I was exposed to much before then.  I remember teaching Introductory Psychology and explaining that kids thought differently than adults did, but I didn’t really believe it – or, I guess I believed it, but I didn’t get it.  Through my own eyes, I had always been myself.  Or maybe, I had always been myself, damn it.  I remembered what I had seen and heard and the perspective that I had and I still had that perspective and I wasn’t going to be convinced otherwise.  Ironically, of course, this perspective has changed as I’ve aged.  I now remember fondly the intensity of youth, but am no longer driven by the destabilizing energy that used to push me from pillar to post.  I have also lost some of the certainty that I once had.  Of course, I have traded it in on wisdom and a broader world view… OK, some things never change, or do they?

 My first personal experiment in development across the life span occurred when, in my mid thirties, I decided to travel back to Florida, a state that I left when I was twelve and my family moved north to Ohio.  I left behind my best friend Jimmy, whom I had only known for three years, but who was someone I felt deeply connected to.  He and I had been in a gifted child program together and we had bonded by competing over just about anything.   We played one-on-one tackle football – he was faster and could outrun me but I could outmuscle him and run over him, we played chess – and derived strategies and gambits that I use to this day, we spent sixth grade being excused from both math and English class because we tested out at the beginning of the year, so we sat outside together and, instead of reading the A encyclopedia entry for Algebra as we were supposed to do, we played a game called dots where we connected those dots to create boxes.  We were mean and vicious competitors, but we were also careful and considerate friends.

I sensed that Jimmy was different from my other friends.  His parents were very protective and – though I didn’t have the word for it then – conservative.  In fact, as I was preparing to look him up again, I reasoned that they must have been Baptist, something that I don’t think I knew or cared about in sixth grade, but something that was, indeed, a very important part of Jimmy’s family’s and of his own identity.  So when the other kids started teasing Jimmy because he didn’t know about the birds and the bees and were threatening to tell him, I thought it best to protect him from them and, in my twelve year old moral system, to let his parents tell him about this sacred secret when the time was ripe based on their perspective (Sex education in Florida in the late sixties simply did not happen in the schools).

So, when I looked up Jimmy, I knew where to look.  He would be working in his father’s furniture store, living in the town we had lived in, and following in his father’s footsteps.  And I was right.  I called the furniture store and explained my wish to the person who answered the phone.  They said, let me transfer you to corporate headquarters, and there was Jimmy.  We renewed our friendship and, though he was older and more mature – he now not only knew about the birds and the bees, he had two children and three stepchildren – but he was still very much himself.  He was conservative, true, somewhat naïve about the world, but very involved in his community and with his family.  It was now apparent to us, in ways that it had not been when we were children, how different from each other we were, but because of the childhood bond, we renewed our friendship and have maintained and enjoyed it since.



The second experiment was much more recent and one that was not as intentional.  Last summer, when we travelled to California, I looked up my friend John whom I had known when we were both psychology postdoctoral trainees together in Topeka Kansas.  John was then and is now a Monk.  When we were in training together, he lived, on the weekends, at his home monastery in Atchison Kansas and stayed, during the week, at a parish house in Topeka.  He has since joined a hermitage in Big Sur, California and that is where we visited him this summer.  My children were not excited about going to visit Brother John.  It was going to be a long drive in the car, which they hate.  And my stepdaughters, who are Jewish, were concerned that a religious person would try to convert them.  I, frankly, wasn’t certain what to expect.  I had kept up with John, on a somewhat sporadic basis, after our training, but he had become much more monastic – indeed hermit-like - and no longer went on trips that allowed him to drop in on me.  Indeed, we had also fallen out of email and snail mail contact. 

The girls, and my boy, became quite smitten with John.  He immediately took their side in arguments over things like the amount of sugar they should eat, and brought them a big bag of chocolate to munch on in the cell we stayed in.  And the cell was nice.  John also gave us a lovely tour of the hermitage and was present and forthcoming about what he did, while simultaneously being very interested in all that we were doing.  Previously I had known him primarily as a psychologist and, though I visited him at the Monastery and spent considerable time with him both professionally and more personally, I had thought of his ability to listen empathically, to think about situations and dilemmas critically, and to be avuncular – in the ways that he was with the children – as attributes of his psychological identity.  But this time it was not so clear.  And this had to do with more than the setting.

Last weekend he returned the favor of the visit.  He came with his iPhone, his iPad, and his Mac Book.  He was wired – or more precisely wireless.  We spent considerable time with him at a very busy time in the semester.  While I was looking forward to seeing him, I was concerned about how we would manage large swaths of time that we would have together.   In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been.  He has lived in community for the better part of his adult life.  He knows how to be with others and to create space both for himself and for them.  But he also knows how to be present when he is present.  And this has a different quality than it did twenty years ago.  No longer an actively practicing psychologist, John talked about the joys and also the difficulties of living in community.  He also listened – in particular to a dilemma that I was having about a very difficult matter at work.  And he was able to helpfully articulate my experience.  He was curious about my spiritual development and that of the Reluctant Wife, but he neither pried nor proselytized.  In fact, he was respectful of our positions and of our experience more generally.  There had been a very subtle but also a very profound shift in him.  No longer was he as quick to point out the proper action, but he was, in a very compelling way, more certain of himself.  He was more comfortable in his own skin, and this allowed me to be more comfortable in mine.  Mind you, I enjoyed being with him before.  And our current relationship was continuous, especially in terms of the content of our conversations with our previous one, but it was also new, and based, I think on a more profound sense of love that John feels for himself and for the broader community of humanity in all its guises.  He had become, in the last twenty years, a monk.

Now John was always a believer.  He talked, twenty years ago, about his own psychoanalysis and about how people had said that the analysis would analyze his faith right out of him, and he responded that, if his faith was truly part of him, the analysis would enhance it.  And, while I am sure that the analysis did enhance his faith, something has developed in the time since then, something deeper, harder to articulate, but something that is truly wonderful, and comforting to behold.

Interestingly, in the fifteen years that I have now re-known Jimmy, he, too, has developed.  In part as a result of seeing me having realized one of our shared (though never spoken to each other) dreams of being a University professor, he brought his work with his father to a close, went to graduate school, and has become a professor himself.  He has just earned tenure but also courageously searched out a new job that will allow him to do the work – studying and helping family businesses succeed – that turns out to be his true calling.  He has also become a Presbyterian!

Traditional psychoanalytic developmental theory focuses on the earliest parts of life.  Some analytic thinkers have even considered character to be set in place at a relatively early age.  Others, Erik Erikson was one of the first, are champions of lifelong development.  I have witnessed the growth and development of my child.  I have come to rethink my own early development.  And I have witnessed across a span of years, the constancy but also the profound development of my adult friends.  Across time each has become more like himself.  This is certainly not the only developmental arc, but it is one that turns out to be neither stultifying – quite the opposite, I find it fascinating – nor erratic.  Instead there is a quality of achieving a goal – of moving towards something that is both defined and ineffable.

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