Saturday, April 28, 2012

Living in the Future

Conventional wisdom tells us to live in the present. Carpe diem, as the Romans put it: Seize the day.

Unfortunately, living fully in the present means ignoring the lessons of the past and failing to plan for the future.

Over the past week several commenters have asked relevant and pertinent questions about some posts on therapy, especially about whether or not therapy should hlp people to plan for the future or learn from the past. Links here and here.

NYNM quoted the famous dictum of George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Many people believe that you cannot live fully in the present unless you escape the past.

I have been trying to say, with Jonathan Alpert, that spending too much time belaboring the past will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to plan for the future. If you don't plan for the future you will surely get trapped in the past.

Allow me to continue the conversation here.

Freud invented modern therapy when he declared, without very much evidence that hysterics were suffering from forgotten traumas.

He believed that if his patients could remember their forgotten traumas, they would be freed from the past. Thereby, he continued, their symptoms would disappear and they would lead normal lives in the future.

Historians like Mikkel Borch-Jacobson have studied the available information about Freud’s hysterics and have discovered that Freud fabricated evidence and claimed treatments successes that did not happen.

To this day, there is no reason to believe that remembering a forgotten trauma will prevent you from repeating it or even preventing you from doing something worse.

When I or Jonathan Alpert question the value of rehashing the past we are thinking within this context.

You are not going to solve your present problems by figuring out why you did not solve them in the past or why you got into the mess in the first place.

Knowing why you got it wrong tells you nothing about how to get it right.

Of course, Freud revised his initial theories about repressed memories and replaced them with a new theory that emphasized repressed infantile wishes and fantasies.

Replacing presumed fact for fantasy and fiction, Freud introduced a level of uncertainty into his practice.

How could you really know what your infantile wishes and fantasies were? And how could you accept them as yours when your analyst was basically fabricating them as he went along?

In any event the Freudian plan forced patients to explore their past in the hope that once they were liberated from its influence they would, naturally, know how to conduct their lives in the future.

At its inception psychoanalytic treatment lasted for a matter of months. In time its duration would be extended for years.

If a patient believes that he must uncover the repressed past before he can effectively deal with the future, he will be watching his problems get worse for lack of active management.

This is the treatment paradigm that Alpert and I have been trying to counter.

Theoretically, this approach assumes that today’s errors are repetitions of yesterday’s traumas. It also assumes that we suffer anguish and make mistakes because we have not gained a full understanding of the forgotten past.

Cognitive and behavioral therapists offered the most substantive challenge to this theory.

Aaron Beck saw depression as a bad mental habit. Behavioral psychologists saw phobias as bad habits.

Aristotle first articulated the theory of habits. It has recently been revived in the media by Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

When we define something as a habit we are saying that it has no deeper meaning. This explains why none of the psychodynamic explanations for habits have ever cured anyone of a bad habit.

Behavioral therapists do not dispute that a phobia might have been triggered by a traumatic event. They observe, correctly, that no one has ever gotten over a phobia or any other bad habit by discovering how it started.

I hope that my brief sketch will show what I meant when I said that I agreed with Alpert about the importance of directing one’s attention away from the past and toward the future.

Yet, as several people have mentioned, if you are managing a crisis or making a game plan, you will naturally need to know something about the past.

You cannot make a game plan without knowing your players and those of the opposing team. You need to know their past history and you need to know how your own team has performed under different circumstances. 

Knowledge of the past does not, however, liberate you from oppression. It allows you to move forward and to plan for the future.

If, as often happens with therapists, you are called in to help manage the game after it has begun, you need of all the relevant information. And that will include past history.

This does not prevent the best laid plans from going astray. Understanding the way things worked out in the past will help you to plan for the future but you should never expect that the future is going to repeat the past.

You cannot play the same game twice. You should never suspect that your new relationship is going to follow your old one.

To live in the future you need to draw on information about the past.  But, if you get mired in the past and expect that you will thereby be avoiding a repetition, you are very likely to be disappointed. 


JP said...

Dwell on the past and you'll lose an eye.

Forget the past and you'll lose both eyes.

I think that sums it up.

Dennis said...

Exactly my point when I stated I learn from the past, but I don't dwell on it. At some point one has to recognize that the past is the past and needs to stay there. How much damage has been done to people through such concepts as "repressed memory syndrome," Freud, et al?
I do admit that I begin to wonder when someone spends a lot of time in quotes without ever challenging the truths of such quotes. These same people would run screaming from anyone quoting the bible, but place great faith in someone else from the past because it makes one seem erudite. Will it take another 100 years or so to challenge such time worn euphonisms or ways to not think more seriously about a subject?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree entirely with what Dennis says. It is truly amazing to see so many supposedly critical thinkers accept the word of some great authority, and to accept it as gospel truth, uncritically.

I am wondering whether they are suffering from an advanced case of sloth. They might be too lazy to do the hard work of questioning received opinions.