Therapists and novelists both tend to focus on language. Novelists work with what phrases say between the words, or in their silences. In the same spirit, therapists listen hard for what their patients say indirectly, rather than explicitly, when those patients are speaking from anger, helplessness, or joy. Therapists have to develop their own language-use, too. A therapist learns how to phrase things in a way that's helpful or eye-opening rather than insulting. In addition, both therapists and literary minds have the principle job of observing human character in its rich complexity--the multiple motivations and desires that are always at play in people's behavior.
With all this in mind, I love a recent article in The Atlantic, (click here), about George Vaillant. While modern psychology is, as a field, rapidly moving toward a behaviorist approach (i.e. name the problem and "fix" the problem; find "happiness" ), Vaillant is a psychiatrist who represents the old guard, or who holds tightly to the nuance that's best recorded in great literature.
Apparently, Vaillant's medical residents have a tradition of warning the incoming class to look out for his references to Tennessee Williams, Dosotevsky, Tolstoy and Ibsen in his lectures. Vaillant sees tragedy--rather than behaviorist's fix--as the sign of a rich human life.
He currently focuses his research on the negative feelings necessary for so-called successes. For example, he's written about the inherent pain in honestly accepting a compliment. Insults can be easier to stomach. If someone insults you, after all, there's not much ambivalence: You can name a bad guy, enter defense mode, and protect yourself, finding the cleanest way in and out of confrontation.
But if someone gives you a compliment, you enter a position of vulnerability which extends further into the future: Will this person continue to like you? What will you need to do to maintain the bond? Relationships are our most reliable source of happiness, but intimacy also generates anxiety. In this sense, to make friends or to fall in love, we need to welcome some daily pain (vulnerability and embarrassment, at least). That's why Vaillant calls a dream of unadulterated joy the idealist's escape. The fantasy of pure happiness is an avoidance of the tension that makes any good moment "good."
The Atlantic article gives one great snapshot of Vaillant's sense of the tragedy or ambivalence at the heart of human life. Vaillant used to read a certain poem to his kids when they were growing up. In that poem, a family of joyous bears starts out in a sort of paradise. One day, a clan of smarter, harder-edged bears comes around and enslaves them. Vaillant repeatedly read the poem to his daughter, even though it made her weep. In adulthood, the daughter claimed that her dad was proud of her sense of the truth behind the poem--that "this is how life is."
Vaillant was essentially teaching his kids Freudian theory in poem form. Freud said there is no pure bliss for any human being. At some point, we each grow up, which means we do the socially necessary work of enslaving our joyous, teddy-bear selves to the "smart" and harder-edged part of us that sets the rules (super-ego or conscience). Freud said that the "good life" doesn't mean ridding ourselves of that parenting super-ego; instead, it means intermittently re-encountering the childish joy inside the castle walls.
In this sense, Vaillant is a great example of a psychologist with a novelist's sensibility. He is not the fix-it man. He is the man who, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, gets us to sit with the tension that makes life as good as it can get.
You must be a registered user to add a comment here. If you've already registered, please log in. If you haven't registered yet, please register and log in.