The Awe of Being Alive

November 13, 2019

Existential therapy explores the darkest corners and craggy edges of the many-sided self. The result is true transformation.

Over the past 60 years, I’ve had the privilege to witness many poignant transformations. As a practising psychologist, I’ve witnessed them in state hospitals, in psychiatric emergency clinics, in drug and alcohol agencies, and in private practice; and as a youth I experienced them in my own intensive psychotherapies. There is little ‘pretty’ about these ordeals, but when they succeed they are profoundly gratifying: life-changing.

Poignant transformations emerge from the depths of despair, but they result, if one is fortunate, in the heights of renewal. Certainly this was true for me, and many of the people I’ve known or worked with. What could be more precious than the gift of liberation from crippling despair, of being freed to pursue what deeply matters? What could be more critical than participating in – really grappling with – the rescue of one’s soul?

Yet what I’m seeing today throughout our culture is an increasing tendency to skip over this grappling part of the equation and to shift abruptly to the transformational part. Not that there’s anything untoward about desiring to be rapidly transformed, it’s perfectly natural. When one is in distress, one seeks an instant remedy. I do that, my friends do that, and it’s a good bet that you do that also; it’s instinct.

However, there are solid reasons to question instinct at times. For example, most people don’t punch someone just because they feel slighted. Similarly, most people don’t just blurt out whatever they feel just because they feel it. To the contrary, there is much to consider from the people you might hurt, to your conscience, to the setting and circumstances of the event. I’ve seen many clients who initially want to assault someone who assaulted them; however, they rarely do.

This is because through the course of therapy, these clients recognise that their assailant is often someone they can relate to – or perhaps even love – and they don’t, in the end, want their fellow human being to suffer as they themselves have suffered. There are many times when delay is much preferred to reacting, especially when it comes to emotions.

Emotions are wonderful signals – they alert us to danger and they mobilise us when action is called for. But they are also highly complex, variegated. For example, many people feel contemptible or unwanted at times, yet they don’t resort to suicide or drugs. They see that, despite their dark mood, they have a right to live and grow, just as others live and grow, and that they can become something more than the stereotyped messages about themselves, such as that of being a failure. These are messages, by the way, that too often come from others who themselves feel contemptible and unwanted and who project those devaluations onto their unwitting victims.

But such realisations, particularly if they are to endure, often take time, they take struggle, and they take encounters with larger parts of ourselves that go beyond our internalised oppression to a kind of conciliation. In the end, depth and existential therapy promote a hard-won coexistence between rivalling parts of ourselves, parts that sometimes agonise yet in the long run shed light on the experience of being fully human: of being deeply and richly alive. Put more formally, existential therapy emphasises three major themes: freedom to explore what deeply matters to oneself; experiential or whole-bodied reflection on what deeply matters; and responsibility or the ability to respond to, act on, and apply what deeply matters.

Yet today it is all too easy to bypass such freedom, experiential reflection, and response-ability – such grappling with who we are and who we are willing to be. For today we are seduced by an avalanche of devices, formulations and machine-meditated transactions making it all too tempting to let others, including mechanical others, do the job. Whether it is psychiatric medication, psychotherapy apps, 12-session clinic appointments or the distraction of net-surfing, there are innumerable ways to surmise that our pain has been dissolved, that we have been transformed, and that life proceeds apace.

But the looming and overarching question is: at what cost? At what cost is an externally or even cerebrally normalised life, a life of routine and regulation, elevated over a life that flops and flutters but also throbs? At what price is a life that sails over the many-sided intricacies of emotion and the ripples of discontent? Too often the price is death, both literal and figurative, and the statistics bear that out. Consider rising rates of depression and addiction, and the sense of isolation often linked to smartphones.

My earliest memory is a gauzy image of my parents weeping on the living room couch. That was when I was two and a half years old, and my seven-year-old brother Kelly had just passed away. It was 1959, and the combination of chicken pox and pneumonia proved too much for an otherwise radiant and vigorous child.

The explosion of this event in the collective psyche of our family cannot be lucidly grasped. The most I can say is that the parents I knew before the event were dimly recognisable in its crushing aftermath. The warm and playful sibling I knew – the smiling leader – was vanquished, and in his place yawned an unrelenting void, a pit of rage, sorrow and terror.

By three years old, I was imploding. My defences were all but expired. I had night terrors and I had tantrums. I was panicked and I was lost – floundering, tailspinning into a helpless and paranoid world.

Given that ordeal, I’m fairly certain that if I had the same experience today that I’d had in 1959, I would be hastily pacified by drugs. Instead, my parents sat with me back then. They did all they could to talk me through my battles and, eventually, at age five, they referred me to a psychoanalyst.

This psychoanalyst helped to turn my life around; for although I continued to have profound fears and outbursts, he helped me to work through rather than mask over these potentially restorative maladies. Greatest of all, he was a rock-solid presence who enabled me to say or feel anything. I was hanging on by a thread, but he remained a pillar, steadfast and supportive, until I passed through the storm.

Yet today, how many children are encouraged to work through their torment – or even to supplement their medication with an emotionally supportive encounter? How many are granted the time and money to do so? Few, I would venture. But what most are encouraged to do is to ingest antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and a variety of mood-stabilisers. While these remedies can at times be lifesaving, too often they are pushed by pharmaceutical companies and insurers more concerned with profit margins than the enduring care of people and people’s own resources to live the life they seek.

I wonder how I would have turned out if I had been treated by today’s standard. I wonder if I would have experienced the rigours of being alone, or being challenged, as I was by my analyst, to develop inner resources such as my creativity, curiosity and imagination. He encouraged me to reflect on the bases for my fears and to move at my own pace. He respected me and my capacities, which in turn spurred me to create drawings, stories and thoughts about life’s puzzlements; or to venture out into uncertain terrains, relationships and ideas, which I eventually did after much tussling and even further therapy.

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