Thursday, April 9, 2020

Good Grief!

Now everyone is wondering what the therapy culture has to offer those who are locked down at home, who are missing their everyday routines, their interactions with colleagues and co-workers. So, New York Magazine has trotted out famed therapist Esther Perel to shed some insight on the problem.

Perel is a media star, a best selling author of books on maintaining sexual desire in marriage, a couples counselor who charges exorbitant fees. Her degree is in expressive art therapy. Of course, the term itself is a misnomer. If you are producing art in order to express yourself you do not know anything about art. It would be nice if people understood that making art is a grueling enterprise, only to be undertaken by those who have real talent for it. It is a job, a business and hopefully a career. The number of people who succeed at making art is infinitesimal, so the notion that art is therapy or that it can express your deepest feelings is a lure to trap unsuspecting young people.

Anyway, Perel is a popular author, but not, by my understanding, one of the leading intellectual lights in the therapy world. Call her a practitioner of pop therapy. She might be very good at it, but once we examine her thinking we are going to suffer some serious disappointment. Fair enough, we are not at the level of Jean Holloway, the therapist at the center of the television series “Gypsy,”-- see yesterday’s blog post-- but Perel still resorts to standard psychobabble and various forms of sophistry. 

New York Magazine offers some of Perel’s pearls of pseudo-wisdom, beginning with this explanation of what happens when couples are forced to spend all day and all night with each other. And thus, what happens when people shelter in place, under lockdown:

First it’s the fact that usually in a family or in a couple you have multiple roles of which there is a location for these roles. There is a place to be the parent, there’s a place to be the lover, a place to be the partner, place to be the friend, the professional, the worker. Here you have a collapse of all the roles in one space and they are intersecting with each other all the time. The only boundary left is the mute button on your Zoom. Then you have the fact that people are experiencing prolonged uncertainty, acute stress, the grief that comes with the world that you have known no longer being nearly as predictable and no one knowing really where this is going.

Here, Perel starts out well. People do have roles. Roles define relationships within specific places. When people are sheltering in place, the roles do not collapse as much as they suffer disruption. Since the shutdown occurs within the space of the home, the presence of a male being will cause a disruption in his wife's household organization. This problem is not difficult to understand. It is difficult to navigate.

As for the role of grief, you may or may not know that grief is a very trendy psycho concept these days. From within the world of grief counseling, every change in your life is like having a loved one die. In truth, these are not the same thing, so the discussion of grief is based on a specious analogy. And yet, if therapy did not have specious analogies, it would have very little to offer.

I will note that grief is based on an event that cannot be undone. In effect, funneling all human disruptions into grief can only make people feel helpless, even hopeless. We do not want people to feel helpless or hopeless. We want them to know that they can succeed at reorganizing their lives, and that their lives will, in time, return to normal. The process is already taking place around the world, so it will eventually come here.

Couples who are trying to reorganize their lives are not mourning a loss. And yet, Perel seems to think that it’s all about dealing with the unknown. She does not mention that many people do not see death as the great unknown.

Still, it’s not about the unknown at all. Husbands and wives are not unknown to each other. They normally spend time together without going to work. The new order is an expansion of what was already known. It’s about different people trying different ways of reorganizing their new world and to overcome the psychological effects of disruption. And yet, in nearly all cases, no one has died. Only those who have lose loved ones are mourning. The rest of us are carrying on.

But people don’t mention it as grief, so what they have is different coping styles about how they deal with the unknown. Those who become clear organizers because it’s as if order will provide a bulwark against the chaos of the external world and the one that is rising inside of us and those who are wanting to talk all the time with other people and check in and have a sense of what’s going on with everyone and those who are thinking that their partner is making too big a deal of it and those who are thinking that their partner is not cautious enough. And so you have this polarization going on around the way that people deal with fear, with anger, with the preparations if you want to this impending disaster that is literally coming at us.

Of course, America is polarized, especially politically. In truth, the national effort to combat the coronavirus is, to some extent, helping to bring people together. That people living within a single household are stepping all over each other, derives from the disruptions that have been caused by the lockdown.

Perel then explains that she sees disaster as accelerants. They precipitate decision making. This may or not be the case, but grief, in the sense of the sense of loss you feel when a loved one dies, does not precipitate decision making. It decelerates it. But, don’t let that apparent inconsistency bother you:

And then I think what your colleague described here, which is also interesting, disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship. It means that life is short, mortality is hitting you. It’s like in the shadow right here. And then either people say, “Life is short, let’s get married, let’s have babies. What are we waiting for?” Or on the other side, “Life is short. I’ve waited long enough, I’m out of here.” And so we’ve known that there is generally a spike in divorce and a spike in marriage and babies that follows disasters.

One understands that blackouts, as in the time when the lights went out in New York, do entice people to produce more babies. This is well-enough known. But, does this happen because of some existential crisis or because, once the television and radio and stereo no longer function, there is nothing else to do to pass the time… but to have sex. One notes that the lockdown of business now threatens to produce a condom shortage.

Next, Perel shares some of her incoherent thoughts about grief. She might or might not know it, but this notion that death is the meaning of life comes to us from existential philosophers. Non philosophers trot it out to show that they are sophisticated thinkers. The philosophers are wrong about this, as is Perel. Death is the end of life but that does not mean that it is the end of life, as in the meaning of life. As for Perel’s suggestion that the pandemic will cause the death of a worldview, I find it idiotic. People might change their worldview-- how much remains to be seen-- but metaphorizing it in terms of death merely obscures the issue.

Once you define everything in terms of death you remove people from their social groupings and make them into biological organisms. Like frogs and toads and tatantulas. And once you identify as a biological organism, you will become naturally alienated from your social groups, as well as from the duties and obligations that inhere in them.

Moreover, it is positively absurd to suggest, for example, that a child going off to college is grieving the loss of high school. No one died when a child goes to college. No one holds a funeral for high school. People celebrate the end of high school. If you watch the television series, 13 Reasons Why, you will understand that there is nothing to grieve about in leaving high school.

When we are dealing with death we are most often dealing with an event that we did not cause. When a child goes to college, he has made decisions, has worked at a process that has placed him in a different social environment. Once he is there, he will need to construct a circle of friends, of colleagues, of teammates and will need to learn to function within an academic environment.

True enough, when a family member or friend dies, you will need to spend time adjusting and adapting to the absence and the loss. But the pain of true grief derives from the fact that you are not responsible for the fact, but that you will need to adjust to it.

Grief is not just about death in the physical sense. It’s the grief that accompanies a worldview. And what happens when you have a plague, when you have a pandemic, is that you are reminded that death can randomly exterminate you and it can throw your world upside down like that. Yesterday they were still running in the park and today he’s gone. We know it, but the level, the frequency and the intensity at which we’re experiencing this right now. So there is the sense of the world that we’ve known, there is the sense of the routines that we’ve had, the relationship that we’ve known. It’s that sense of impending loss that we talk about with grief or what is often called anticipatory grief.

Despite what Perel suggests, a disruption in your routines is not the end of the world. It might in some part coincide with what happens when a family member dies, but only an existential psychologist would want us, at that time, to ruminate about our mortality. If we do, we will of course, be avoiding the work that is required to put our lives back in order.

Naturally, no whining about grief would be complete without Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. Perel treats us to them, as though they were scientific fact:

So in the process of grief you have different stages and different ways that people react. Now these are not linearly laid out. People go back and forth with each other and inside themselves or in their community. So you have the people at first that are getting into gear and began stockpiling and began preparing and knew it very early on. They kind of knew something bad is happening and you had the other people that were considered in denial. Why?

And so then you have stages, denial, anger, bargaining. You bargain, you create order, you think you’re going to be super productive, you’re going to work much better, and then you realize that in fact your productivity is much lesser. People are all over the world, they’re working more and they’re producing less and they are using the very devices that used to keep us apart as the prime way to stay connected.

Whatever is she talking about? People around the world are hunkering down. They are working less, for the most part. Considering the spikes in unemployment, people are not working more. For the most part people accept this new order because they know that it is temporary. For the record, and for those who still know how to think, death is not temporary. It is permanent.

Naturally, people are exhausted with the effort of reorganizing everyday life. They are exhausted because they are often out of work. They are exhausted because the new routines that they are creating are only temporary, not permanent. They are exhausted by the need to care for and to educate children. They are certainly worried about the state of the economy.

Perel sees little of this. She believes that people are exhausted because they are not running around searching for meaning. In times of trouble psycho professionals often tell us to search for meaning. In Perel’s case, and she is not alone at this, the meaning of life is death. And that is what we should be thinking about. How else can you let despair take hold.

People talk about feeling exhausted and part of the exhaustion is because you try to organize your life in practicalities and not think about the bigger issue, the bigger meaning of what is happening, which is we are vulnerable creatures and no matter how much toilet paper you bought, you can only protect yourself up to a certain point and that is a much more sombering, sad, less resilient American effort optimism kind of approach.

One will give her a pass on this largely incoherent and illiterate sentence. She is not a native speaker of English, so we will not criticize the sentence. And yet, we will not give the editors of New York Magazine a pass. They ought at least to have introduced some correct punctuation, the better to make Perel at least sound coherent.


Heidi said...

Thank you for the gift of this post. Today is my birthday. Awakened and began thinking I should have some profound thoughts to mark the occasion. Nah..Just (?) Gratitude for: my marriage and family, health, and the comforts, large and small, in my life. And my dog. I picked up my phone, and your tweet appeared. Having read your blog, I now feel ready for a GREAT day! Your blog is the gift that keeps on giving.😁👍

Sam L. said...

This post makes me ever-so-happy that I live nowhere near New York City (and the state of, too). As the song lyric goes, "Don't bring me down, BRUCE..."