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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

28 MARCH, 2013

Afterwords: Moving Letters of Condolence on Virginia Woolf’s Death

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T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, H.G. Wells, and others grapple with the ineffable.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the gruesome onset of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with rocks, treaded into the River Ouse behind the house in East Sussex where she lived with her husband Leonard, and drowned herself. She had succumbed to a relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth. Once news of her death broke, an outpour of condolence letters captured the enormous collective grief, mourning at once the deeply personal emptiness left behind by a remarkable woman and a loyal friend, and the severe cultural loss of a brilliant mind and a transcendent artist. The most moving of these letters are collected in Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), edited by University of Sussex researcher Sybil Oldfield — a rousing monument to Woolf’s legacy as an author, humanist, and tireless exponent of the inner light of being.

Oldfield poignantly observes:

Virginia Woolf’s fundamental gift to women was to give us the courage and happiness to think our own thoughts.

One of the letters contained P. H. Wallis’s stirring obituary for Woolf:

In her person, the character of her intellect and irradiating property of her imagination, there was revealed the spiritual antithesis of all that is connoted in the phrase ‘Hitlerism.’ More than any other writer of her generation she grew to be regarded as the apostle of culture, of a learning humanized by the breath of life [and] of a quality of living the more radiant because of its quickening by things of the spirit.

Three days after the suicide, Virginia’s one-time lover and lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West — one of the seven people to whom Leonard had broken the news before the Times and BBC announcements — captures the ineffable grief of the loss in a letter to Leonard:

The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.

A week later, on April 7, Vita replied to a distraught letter by Dame Ethel Smyth, one of the other seven whom Leonard had alerted to the tragedy:

Darling Ethel I wish I could say something comforting. All I can feel is that it is better for her to be dead than mad, and I do thank God that she has not been found. The river is tidal so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.

But rather than being swept out to the ocean, Woolf’s body, like her spirit had throughout her life, defied the mainstream and was found three weeks later entangled in branches under the river bank. On April 20, upon hearing the news, Vita sent the following stirring letter to artist Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister:

My dear Vanessa,

I am so horrified by the news that Virginia has been found that I scarcely know whether to write to you or not. I had gathered from Leonard some time ago that the search had been given up, and was so thankful, partly because it felt that there was something fitting in the idea of her being carried out to the sea, (a small comfort in the midst of all this tragedy,) and partly because it would spare you and Leonard so much. I really do not know what to say, except that I am haunted by the imagining of what you may both have had to go through. I won’t write to Leonard, such blundering words as I write to you; but if you think you can do so, perhaps you will tell him sometime that I wrote.

A number of the condolence letters came from some of the era’s literary greats. T. S. Eliot wrote Leonard on April 4, 1941:

Dear Leonard

I only learned the news yesterday afternoon when I was in London, having had no previous intimation. For myself and others it is the end of a world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment, and can’t think about this or anything else, but I want you to know that you are as constantly in my mind as in anyone’s.

Affectionately,
Tom

On April 3, E. M. Forster wrote:

Dear Leonard,

I have just seen The Times, feel a bit trembly and unable to think of anyone but myself. I will write again to you. As I daresay you know she had invited me to come and I had suggested doing so later in this month. I am just going to Cambridge; dear Leonard, it will seem empty and strange. I can’t write any more now, only send my deepest love and sadness. Leslie Humphrey came over that very day and we talked a great deal about Virginia, he will be desolated like so many of all generations.

On April 4, poet Edith Sitwell reached out to Leonard and shared in the mourning:

No words can express our feelings at this dreadful heartrending thing. We are absolutely overcome. … It cannot help you in the least to know how many people must be feeling a desperate sense of loss. I know that we do, here, — but that does not help you in the least. Nothing can.

Perhaps the day will come when we shall think, ‘At least she was spared seeing people sink lower and lower, and all the new desecrations and shames;’ but at the moment that doesn’t help at all.

When I think of that noble and high spirit and mind!

There isn’t anything one can say, and one must not intrude on your sorrow. But all my life I shall remember the feeling of light, and of happiness, that she gave one. As a person, as well as in her art. Everything seemed worth while, important, and beautiful.

On April 10, H. G. Wells wrote Leonard:

I’ve been wanting to write to you these days about this distressful break in your life and finding it difficult to say what I had to say. you see I know you and your work very well. I have an immense respect for it. … I am concerned before anything else that you should carry on. Virginia I met only twice. Then she was invariably charming and delightful. But I knew she had these moods and phases that at once deepen and enslave affection. She must leave you extraordinarily void. I understand about that sort of thing but I cannot write about that sort of thing. But I do care for you and your work and I want to tell you that.

On April 8, Elizabeth Bowen, one of the last friends to see Woolf before the depression consumed her and among the seven personally informed of the suicide, replied to a letter from Leonard:

You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of this world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.

But perhaps most heartbreaking of all is a note from an anonymous refugee reader who had intended to write Woolf a letter of appreciation, but instead lamented all too late:

Artists must know that they are understood and that there are ‘Common Readers’ in the background.

Woolf’s own last words, penned in her famous diary on January 4, 1929, are at once tragic and serene, reminiscent of Henry Miller’s contention that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.” Woolf writes:

Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?

Complement Afterwords with Patti Smith’s moving tribute to Woolf.

Image via National Portrait Gallery

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26 MARCH, 2013

Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning

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“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Celebrated Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, remains best-known for his indispensable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) — a meditation on what the gruesome experience of Auschwitz taught him about the primary purpose of life: the quest for meaning, which sustained those who survived.

For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.

In examining the “intensification of inner life” that helped prisoners stay alive, he considers the transcendental power of love:

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

Frankl illustrates this with a stirring example of how his feelings for his wife — who was eventually killed in the camps — gave him a sense of meaning:

We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.

Of humor, “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” Frankl writes:

It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. … The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

After discussing the common psychological patterns that unfold in inmates, Frankl is careful to challenge the assumption that human beings are invariably shaped by their circumstances. He writes:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? … Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

[…]

[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Much like William James did in his treatise on habit, Frankl places this notion of everyday choice at the epicenter of the human experience:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Like Henry Miller and Philip K. Dick, Frankl recognizes suffering as an essential piece not only of existence but of the meaningful life:

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. … Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.

In working as a psychiatrist to the inmates, Frankl found that the single most important factor in cultivating the kind of “inner hold” that allowed men to survive was teaching them to hold in the mind’s grip some future goal. He cites Nietzsche’s, who wrote that “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” and admonishes against generalization:

Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

Lithograph by Leo Haas, Holocaust artist who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (public domain)

In considering the human capacity for good and evil and the conditions that bring out indecency in decent people, Frankl writes:

Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.

[…]

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.

The second half of the book presents Frankl’s singular style of existential analysis, which he termed “logotherapy” — a method of healing the soul by cultivating the capacity to find a meaningful life:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Frankl contributes to history’s richest definitions of love:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

Frankl wrote the book over the course of nine consecutive days, with the original intention of publishing it anonymously, but upon his friends’ insistent advice, he added his name in the last minute. In the introduction to the 1992 edition, in reflecting upon the millions of copies sold in the half-century since the original publication, Frankl makes a poignant meta-comment about something George Saunders recently echoed, noting:

In the first place I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails. … At first, however, it had been written with the absolute conviction that, as an anonymous opus, it could never earn its author literary fame.

In the same introduction, he shares a piece of timeless advice on success he often gives his students:

Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.

(Hugh MacLeod famously articulated the same sentiment when he wrote that “The best way to get approval is not to need it.”)

If there ever were a universal reading list of existential essentials, Man’s Search for Meaning would, without a shadow of a doubt, be on it.

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25 MARCH, 2013

The Mortality Paradox

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“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not.”

“It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” Goethe, who ceased to be 181 years ago this week, proclaimed as he concluded that “in this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Since the dawn of time, it has been the human instinct to resolve the psychological dilemma by constructing various immortality narratives — one of the hallmarks of our species. In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library), Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave explores the inner workings of that ancient impulse, inviting us on a mind-bending, intense, at times unsettling and at times deeply comforting journey into the most cavernous quarters of the human psyche.

Cave argues that besides our immortality narratives, what sets us apart from other sentient beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness — adaptive developments that have enabled us to foresee different possibilities and make sophisticated plans, but also, in envisioning the future, to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise. He terms this the “Mortality Paradox” and argues that it gives shape to both immortality narratives and civilization itself:

On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.

[…]

Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

But while the survival benefits of these faculties are indisputable, Cave argues, they come at a cost:

If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety — it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

[…]

We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. … This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortal. … Since we attained self-awareness, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.’ No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, we know that the Reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war we are doomed to lose.

What Cave neglects to mention, of course, is that Montaigne shared not so much a lament over our mortality as one over our preoccupation with it, famously writing that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, Cave does consider the second half of the Mortality Paradox — our inability to even conceive of our own obliteration:

The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing.

He points out that even in trying to imagine your own funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the virtual eye doing the envisioning.

We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.

He cites Freud, who wrote in 1915:

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. … [Therefore] at bottom no one believes in his own death … [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

A century after Freud, contemporary science has dissected the inner workings of this quintessentially human phenomenon:

Modern cognitive psychology gives a scientific account of this ancient intuition. Our acceptance of new facts or possibilities depends upon our ability to imagine them — we accept, for example, that playing with matches could cause our house to burn down because this is something we can easily picture. But when our minds come across an obstacle to imagining a certain scenario, then we find it much more difficult to accept. Our own death is just such a scenario, as it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.

(Unless, that is, we were to do as Buckminster Fuller did and conclude that “all phenomena are metaphysical, wherefore … life is but a dream.”)

And while Christopher Hitchens, always the contrarian till the very end, claimed to “love the imaginary struggle,” for most of us, Cave points out, it’s a source of endless cognitive dissonance:

And thus we have a paradox: When we peer into the future we find our wish to live forever fulfilled, as it seems inconceivable that we might one day cease to be. Thus we believe in our own immortality. Yet at the same time we are painfully aware of the countless possible threats to our being. . . . And thus we believe in our own mortality. Our very same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not, both that death is a fact and that it is impossible.

[…]

The paradox stems from two different ways of viewing ourselves — on the one hand, objectively, or from the outside, as it were, and on the other hand, subjectively, or from the inside. When we deploy reason to view ourselves as we do other living things around us, then we realize that we, like them, will fail, die and rot. From this outside, objective perspective, we are mortals. But when we switch to our own perspective and try to make sense of what this means subjectively, then we encounter the imaginative obstacle — the inability to accept the prospect of annihilation. Our introspection tells us we are imperishable as the angels, indivisible and everlasting; yet when we look in the mirror we see ourselves as others see us … an imperfect and impermanent creature fated to a brief existence. . . .

But while the friction between these two perspectives might explain how the Mortality Paradox arises, Cave argues, it doesn’t make light of the fact that most of us don’t live with the constant, all-consuming tension such a conflict might suggest. Henry Miller’s timeless words — “The aim of life is to live. . . . No why or wherefore…” — reverberate as we amble along the increasingly dimly lit corridors of existence.

From ancient mythology to today’s dominant world religions to modern scientific models like Terror Management Theory, the remainder of Immortality explores precisely how we’ve enlisted storytelling in weaving powerful immortality narratives that lift us out of our cognitive dissonance and, in the process, lay the very groundwork for human civilization.

Thanks, Filip; public domain images via Flickr Commons

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