Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I just finished reading the excerpts from the interviews with James Hillman [“Conversations with a Remarkable Man,” by Sy Safransky, Scott London, and Genie Zeiger, July 2012], in which Hillman says, “Where you are is as important as where you came from. What you do every day is as important to the soul, to the revelation of the soul, as what your parents did to you, or what you were like when you were five or ten. We don’t generally subscribe to such notions, not really; instead we emphasize the notion of individual career, personal biography.”
As an incarcerated man and someone who has shown addictive tendencies in the past, it has been useful for me to explore my past as a way to chart a future path that will be less selfish and less harmful to me and the people around me. My personal biography is helpful in predicting how I will behave in the future. There is scientific evidence for this. When, as a science teacher, I was trying to explain how we made weather predictions, I’d tell my students that the characteristics of an air mass — temperature, humidity, air pressure — can predict (somewhat) where it will be tomorrow. Similarly, it’s reasonable to say that I, as a former lawbreaker, will continue to do what I have done in the past.
An air mass, however, has no will, and I am not an air mass. Looking only at my past is not a definitive way to predict my future.
I am not defined (or, I would prefer not to be) by the damnable, despicable act that I engaged in. How do humans learn? How do we change the way we act? We do it by choosing never again to do things that bring harm to ourselves or to others. I choose to change.
Thanks for reprinting excerpts from the Hillman interviews and Michael Ventura’s wise and witty essay [“James Hillman Never Said Hello to Me,” July 2012]. Hillman’s critical approach to American self-help culture and family-history-obsessed psychology reminds me why I’m annoyed by the endings of so many stories printed in The Sun. The Readers Write section especially seems prone to moralistic memoir in which the present is justified or understood or accepted by unlocking or confessing a past hurt. Such poignant conclusions tie up what Hillman might encourage us to unravel.
I just finished reading “Blues for Allah” by Krista Bremer [July 2012]. Her words left me with the feeling I had been listening to music. What a beautiful essay. I’m still basking in it.
This morning I ducked out of the New York City heat into a coffee shop to finish reading Krista Bremer’s “Blues for Allah,” and tears welled up.
Unlike Bremer’s ethnically mixed family, mine could aptly be described as “white bread.” But her essay touched on the universal themes of how we love our children and want to do our best by them, and how heartbreakingly difficult it can be to figure out what that is.
I just finished reading Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills” [July 2012], and I want to say thank you to the author for this gorgeous piece of writing. It’s raw, piercing, and an example of all that great fiction should be. I was so overwhelmed by it that I had to put the magazine down a time or two to gather myself — and to make it last longer. I write for a living (if legal writing counts), but at this moment, I am happy simply to be a reader.
I was happily reading Sy Safransky’s July 2012 Notebook when, as he is apt to do, he slammed me with a liberal rant: this one a sweeping generalization that Republicans ruined the postwar twentieth century.
I find it disappointing when Safransky sinks into his dualistic dogma. Apparently he assumes that everyone who appreciates a fine literary magazine is a liberal Democrat. If he doesn’t make this assumption, why does he feel entitled to use his bully pulpit to offend and insult those readers who may have thoughtful but different opinions than his on politics, history, and national policy?
Safransky’s participation in the current “gotcha” culture of public discourse is saddening and counterproductive to a civilized society where we respect others’ right to free thought and inclusion in the process.
I know it’s his Notebook, but all I’m asking is that he “give peace a chance.”
Cary Tennis’s advice in “Citizens of the Dream” [June 2012] is wise and insightful. I’m sorry, though, that he still feels a nine-year-old’s resentment at his “imprisoning” classroom in the sixties and at the authoritarian teacher who made the children raise their hands before they spoke and marched up and down the rows in her “hard heels.”
I feel the need to point out that she was imprisoned too, alone in a room with thirty or more restless children. Her job was to make them sit quietly in an assembly line of seats and desks while she poured measurable quantities of learning into them. She was, no doubt, watched and judged by an authoritarian principal, who was judged by an authoritarian superintendent, who was judged by an authoritarian school board. And they were all judged by grudging taxpayers who assumed that if children didn’t measure up, it was the teacher’s fault.
That’s how it was in most schools back in the sixties, and I’m afraid it still is.
I work at a very traditional men’s barbershop, where the testosterone runs high and any hint of sensitivity is a sign of weakness. The banter is brutal sometimes. It’s been difficult for me to adapt, but I’ve done it, and I’m thriving.
Still, I sneak little morsels of The Sun in at work between customers, more so on Mondays, when the other barbers are out.
There have been moments on Mondays when I’ve let the tears come up and out, such as when I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Unspeakable Things Between Our Bellies” [June 2012].
Thank you for publishing what is in some places unspeakable.
“Summer Evening” by Carolyn Miller [May 2012] is as fine a piece of writing as anything you’ve printed, and a demonstration that it does not take a novel to tell a life story.
Like Christopher Lane, who was interviewed in your March issue [“Side Effects May Include,” by Arnie Cooper], I’ve been concerned about the “pathologizing of emotion,” the expansion of the list of diagnosable mental illnesses in each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the readiness of doctors and patients to turn to mood-enhancing pharmaceuticals. But I detect a note of dismissiveness on Lane’s part toward people’s desire to feel better emotionally.
I agree with him that complex emotions, including sadness, anger, and worry, are part of the human condition. More than fifteen years ago I happened to mention to a good friend who was also a therapist that I’d been feeling mildly depressed and didn’t know what to do about it. I found it incredibly freeing when she said to me that emotional ups and downs are a natural part of life’s rhythms, and that she’d learned to accept them to some extent rather than pathologize them and try to fix them. That bit of wisdom is a touchstone I’ve returned to many times since that day.
Yet, as the daughter of a man who was paranoid schizophrenic and committed suicide, my antennae were up from an early age for signs within myself of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and rage. My “emotional ups and downs” seemed to span a wider range than others’: I felt unhappy much of the time, occasionally entertained suicidal fantasies, and had a problem with anger that was destructive to my romantic relationships.
Though my issues weren’t crippling — I held down a good job, maintained healthy relationships with family and friends, and hadn’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol — by the time I was in my midtwenties, I felt a need to get help. Looking for a permanent solution and wanting to avoid unpleasant side effects, I decided to commit to a path of healing that didn’t include pharmaceuticals. (I did promise my counselor that, if things got worse, I would consider an antidepressant.) I went to talk therapy, read self-help books, attended twelve-step meetings, developed a spiritual practice, and even spent thirty days in an inpatient treatment facility that rarely prescribed pharmaceuticals. Basic self-care was vital, too, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, and the occasional “news fast” when the world out there seemed too overwhelming. I felt improvement right away, but it was a slow process. I’ve experienced firsthand how brain chemistry, and therefore mood and emotional states, can be influenced by behavioral and cognitive patterns. More than twenty years later I can say that happiness — or, at least, contentment — is now my default. That was my goal, one that Lane seems to view critically. There are times, of course, when I still experience outrage over injustice, grieve deeply over loss, and worry about the problems facing our planet or my loved ones.
What if I hadn’t started feeling better after undertaking my program of recovery? Or what if I’d lacked the motivation to stick it out? Would I have considered a pharmaceutical remedy? Probably. I wasn’t content to live feeling bad most of the time. I tremendously value and appreciate the work of writers, artists, and musicians from centuries past who explored painful emotions in their art, but if they’d had access to modern psychotherapeutic tools that could have helped them feel better, including judicious use of pharmaceuticals, would I deny them that relief? No.