With our prodigious minds, we can recall fond memories throughout our years: birthday parties surrounded by friends and families, the first time we fell in love, the day we received our first A+. But, it is the irrevocable fact of life that one cannot have pleasure without pain. Just as we have fond memories filled with joy and happiness, we likewise have ones filled with pain and suffering.
We remember the nasty things said to us, done to us, and suffered by us at the hands of others: the bully who put us in chokeholds, the peers who taunted us about how we spoke, or the inattentive mother who turned a blind eye to our pains.
In all likelihood, we may never have forgiven others for what they did. We have held on to the hurt, in the process stopping ourselves from finding peace. In order to free ourselves from the self-imposed bondage of memory, we need to share one of the most precious gifts of the soul: forgiveness.
Just as we cannot fight fire with fire, we cannot extinguish the egregious hurt others have committed against us by holding on or deflecting that hurt back. Instead, by cultivating humility, patience and understanding towards those who have hurt us in the past, we allow ourselves the opportunity to forgive. Other people are – as we know all too well about ourselves – flawed, impaired and damaged. Rather than misanthropy, it is recognition that nobody is perfect in every way. When we remind ourselves of this, the fact that we have been hurt by them becomes more understandable. We can show forgiveness in the hope that others will do the same when we (inevitably) experience our own moments of weakness.
Yet, we hold ourselves to different standards than we hold others. To forgive others may be difficult, but one of the most monumentally difficult tasks in life is mustering the necessary kindness and affection to forgive ourselves. We are, unfortunately, often our own harshest critics and strictest moral teachers.
We can find the space in our hearts to forgive others, knowing they can sometimes be petty, impetuous, and almost incorrigibly blind to how their words or actions affect others. Yet, we hold ourselves to a different (and impossible) standard. We tell ourselves that we cannot be this way and that we must be (although we might never say it precisely this way), perfect.
When we withhold forgiveness from ourselves, we continue living in the past. We never move beyond what we have done, and we continue to allow these things to define us. The petty arguments we started in our last relationship, the time we kicked up a fuss when we were made to wait 20 minutes (even though they had a very good excuse), and the bitter breakup because we were unfaithful; are not seen as unfortunate errors that have given us an opportunity to learn, but rather as irrevocable stains of our character that will never wash away.
It would be wise and therapeutic for us to apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others. We are, just like everyone, prone to faults, missteps and mistakes. But these do not define us any more than they do others. Rather than immutable statements about our flawed nature, our past misdeeds should instead be seen as unfortunate but somehow necessary moments that have given us the opportunity to reflect and grow. In doing this, we can finally begin to forgive ourselves and nurture the most important and long lasting relationship we will ever have: the one we have with ourselves.
Almost everywhere we turn we are encouraged to express ourselves. Social media platforms extol us to share whatever is on our minds, advertisers promise their products will manifest our deeper-selves and reveal them to the world, our employers inform us we can ‘speak up’ about any issue without fear of reprimand, our friends remind us that we can tell them anything, and freedom of speech is one of our most cherished and highly valued freedoms. Despite all this (or perhaps, in spite of all this), we shut up (or shut down) those parts of ourselves that aren’t beautiful or readily marketable out of fear of rejection, judgement, or misunderstanding.
As with so many psychological problems, this likely has its roots in childhood. The parent who tells their child ‘you are driving me crazy’ or ‘you will be the end of me’, or who, perhaps, is going through enough problems of their own that the child sees that their own trouble would only add more weight to an unbearable load; sends a sometimes clear and other times implied message to the child to keep their sufferings to themselves.
As we grow up, we continue bottling up, and therefore perpetuating our suffering, so as not to annoy the people around us. We smile, appease, and do what we can to keep those around us happy; a poor compensation for an inner happiness we cannot have, or believe ourselves unworthy of. In this sense, we aren’t nice, but instead, scared. Our friendliness is not borne from choice, but from a fear of making others upset, just as we did our parents when we were younger.
What we need is two things. Firstly, we need to recognise how we do not want to speak up because we think the people we hold dear will find us broken, inept, and unworthy of their time; that is, we need to see how scared we are people will reject us for who we are beneath the thin veneer of false cheeriness we have carefully cultivated over the years. Secondly, we need to develop the courage and insight to open up and see that the people around us really care, and are here to accept us in all our hues; not just our best, but our worst too.
Just as we silently suffering around others, we also suffer silently within ourselves. Echoing Paul Goodman’s 9 Types of Silence, there is the ‘noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination’ a ‘loud and sub-vocal’ inner monologue of self-hate which drowns out the quiet whisper of the better part of ourselves that says ‘there are others here that love you and are here for you’.
There is another silence, the silence of absence. It is the suffering that has never been registered as suffering. It is not silent because it does not speak, but because it is not heard. When we act tough to avoid feeling pain, or run away from intimacy to avoid being hurt, we dress these up as acts of maturity in a turbulent and contradictory world. The suffering here is silent because the suffering has been dressed as pragmatic realism. If it is never registered for what it is, it cannot be acted upon properly.
Developing into the best versions of ourselves we can be demands that we begin to investigate and reflect on who we are and how, without our knowledge, we perpetuate our own suffering. Following this, we must then muster the necessary courage to share our suffering with those around us, knowing that they truly love us and we do not have to suffer in silence anymore.
One of the problems that arise when listening to others, as David Bohm wrote in his exquisite work On Dialogue, is our belief ‘that one already is listening to the other person in a proper way’. It is always the other person who is misguided, isn’t it? It is the dangerously misplaced belief that we are doing something right (and not just when listening) that ‘blocks’ us from seeing how we might be doing it wrong, and therefore, improving through reflection.
Similar to how we notice other people’s annoying habits, but rarely our own, the ‘block’ which Bohm details, is an ‘insensitivity of anaesthesia about one’s own contradictions’. For example, I am an atheist and my friend is a Christian. We are discussing God and I can plainly see that everything she says is filtered through the lens of her religious convictions. I find her reasoning limited and her judgment flawed. She passes over the difficult questions and answers a different one altogether. She hits mental walls where she cannot follow her own train of thought because it would lead her to contradict her basic position. She is unable to speak freely and therefore, her logic is often fallacious, and her answers often nonsensical. It is easy to see the blocks in another person and no awards are handed out for it. But what of my own? What of my blocks? My adherence to the non-existence of God will in turn lead to its own ‘blocks’ that while different, are no less problematic. The result is a conversation (if you can call it that) that traverses well-explored territory. Or, rather, it is two kings exploring their own territory behind high walls, neither seeing nor interested in what is on the other side. Neither person grows because neither person wishes to leave their position. Tracing the internal landscape of a ‘blocked’ individual, Bohm writes,
Whenever certain questions arise, there are fleeting sensations of fear, which push him away from consideration of these questions, and of pleasure, which attract his thoughts and cause them to be occupied with other questions. So one is able to keep away from whatever it is that he thinks may disturb him. And as a result, he can be subtly defending his own ideas, when he supposes that he is really listening to what other people have to say.[i]
And how many weird uncles or overly zealous friends have we spoken to who, while thinking themselves as good listeners genuinely concerned about what you have to say, are nevertheless busy defending their own ideas, not taking the time to actually hear what you are saying?
The block arises when become more focused on defending a position than inquiring into the truth. Of course, we will never say this. More likely, we already believe our position to be the truth, which amounts to the same thing.
When we are busy defending our position (vaccines cause autism, climate change is a left-wing scam), we lose the ability to speak freely. We become committed to a stance that disallows the creative and free flow of meaning that is at the heart of communication. In defending a position, we stop ourselves from growing and learning anything and merely experience repetitions of the same old thoughts. Bohm continues,
Communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other. Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for. If, however, two people merely want to convey certain ideas or points of view to each other, as if these were items of information, then they must inevitably fail to meet. For each will hear the other through the screen of his own thoughts, which he tends to maintain and defend, regardless of whether or not they are true or coherent.[ii]
If we could, only for a moment, drop our own prejudices, assumptions and preconceived beliefs, we may come across something entirely new, fresh and interesting. Of course, we may not. We might be talking to a very boring and simple person. But, at least, when we drop our position, we open up the space for this to occur, and that is something that would not have happened otherwise if we were just busy defending ourselves.
Despite what we may say to the contrary, we are not very good at listening. We are good at judging, discriminating, criticising, and comparing, but not listening. Listening involves a type of silence, not the silence of a mind waiting to speak, but of a mind receptive to what is being said; a mind both empathetic and understanding, working in good faith with others to try to discover the truth.
Real communication, as Carl Jung observed, involves not only sharing your beliefs, but sharing in the others’ too. You must fully identify with your partner in conversation. It is reminiscent of Gadamer’s art of conversation as “a process of coming to an understanding” and that therefore, “it belongs to every true conversation that each person opens himself to the other, truly accepts his point of view as valid and transposes himself into the other to such an extent that he understands not the particular individual but what he says”.[iii] If you are a pro-vaxxer, you must identify with the position of the anti-vaxxer. Why have they come to the position they have? Was it distrust in government, evidence of corruption in science, the links between research and big money? It is on these grounds, the ground of your partner’s point of view, that the conversation must be held. It is only with the quality of total listening, which demands identification with the other that we will begin to understand. It does not mean you must agree, but that at least now you understand why they form the position they do. It will, therefore, allow the conversation to proceed from a considerably more stable starting point. Hopefully, we will reach new understandings. It isn’t certain, nothing is, but it is worth trying.
Being a good listener is very similar to being a good friend and lover, because in each, you are a partner on a journey. If you make it all about yourself, it will fail. If you refuse to ever see the other’s point of view, it will fail. You are required to have empathy, understanding and importantly, love. Not love in the erotic sense, but in the sense of reaching out and overcoming the fear of losing yourself. It is with these qualities that we will be able to overcome our blocks, become better listeners, and, in the process, become better friends and lovers too.
[i] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 4.
[ii] Bohm, D.B., 2014. On Dialogue. New York: Routledge. 3.
[iii] Gadamer, H.G.G., 2013. Truth and Method. United States: Bloomsbury. 403.
‘Better to have loved and lost / than to have never loved at all’ wrote Tennyson in his work In Memoriam, discerning the negative qualities of something do not necessarily discount or negate its positive ones. And so it is with a lover now gone. The pain one feels now should not justify deleting the experience from existence in a ‘sunshine of the spotless mind’.
Yet, while we may agree intellectually with Tennyson’s sentiment, when we are sitting across from an empty chair or walking alone along a pier seeing couples holding hands, it becomes immensely difficult, ridiculous even, to agree emotionally. We can agree with our head it seems, but not with our heart.
Once again, intellectually, we may acknowledge loss cannot be separated from love. We know that even without a break up and the blessing to spend our entire lives together, one day one of us will still be looking over the casket of the other. Yet the intellect provides no solace to the soul. We know that eventually one was destined to leave, but that does not make it hurt any less. The realm of the intellect is neat and formal, but the realm of the heart abides by no such standards of cleanliness, it is a messy and often chaotic place. What may be clear to the intellect is not immediately clear to the heart.
The antagonism between holding on and letting go leaves us feeling caught between an emotional Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, if we hold on, this person can remain as a precious memory in our heart. Love will continue, even if the agony of their loss will haunt each precious memory and poison it. On the other hand, we could let them go, but then we would come face to face with ourselves as the petty, ignorant, broken individuals we are; if we were better after all, would they not have stayed? Between the rocky shoals of holding on and the whirlpool of letting go; navigating the precarious passage seems impossible.
When we hold on, we fail to move into the present. We tell ourselves that while our lover is now gone, that they have been mistaken and will soon realise their error and return. With the music of love absent, we fill the empty space with the misguided symphony of hope; the opiate of a broken heart. ‘When we eventually acknowledge the asymmetry of feeling’ writes Maria Popova in her masterwork Figuring, ‘we first labour to persuade ourselves that the intensity of our own love is reward enough’. Soon, when the illusion of return dissolves, we grasp onto another illusion (no less illusory but feeling so as we reflect on our previous attitude) that while our love is no longer reciprocated, the strength of our own love is so strong that it will sustain us. We tell ourselves that we will continue to adore them from a distance, finding solace and fulfilment in our unrequited love. But this illusion too fades and we realise this love is empty and we must now deal with the loss that was too raw to deal with originally.
Letting go carries its own metaphysical burden. Thinking about a life without your partner seems like the highest betrayal. We think that if we let go, it is proof that the love itself was never genuine in the first place. We want to believe that the one whom we loved was truly special and unique, and therefore, if we let go of them and transform them into a memory, they become like every other person we have met, flattened in the one-dimensional space of recollection. If we accept we can let go, then this person becomes just like any other person we could have met, and our love becomes diminished in our own eyes, a product of chance rather than destiny.
Perhaps we are destined to love, but not destined for the one whom we love. If this is true, to love fully, to love deeply, and to continue loving, we must be willing to accept loss as an essential feature in any relationship. This does not mean that we should count on, expect or hope for the moment our beloved leaves us, but rather, it means we should recognise the fleeting and ephemeral nature of love. ‘A consideration of death’ wrote Alan Watts, ‘can lead to a greater appreciation of life’. Considering that every love must inevitably come to an end may prompt us to act differently. We may realise because our time together is conditional, not guaranteed; momentary, not everlasting, that we should savour each moment we have together, which may lead to a richer, more fulfilling relationship. Accepting that once things have run their course that this should not be a cause for despair, but a cause for celebration for time spent well together, of a life lived fully. In turn, we will be prepared for the inevitable loss and rather than running away from it, be slightly better equipped to deal with it.
 Popova, M.P., 2020. Figuring. Great Britain: Canongate Books. 348
Your friend has just been dumped by their girlfriend. Limp, depressed, and possessed with a weltschmertz threatening to degenerate into total apathy to life, they begin telling you about their suffering, about how they miss those texts ‘good morning’ each day, and how – as is common when we have nothing left but memories to provide solace – those idiosyncrasies that once annoyed him, now bring a smile to his face. Your friend continues that it is hard to find anything worth smiling about now, with every day seeming bleaker than the last.
‘There is so much to be happy about’ you reply to your friend, as you list all the joyous things they have (including having a friend so adept at listening). But this does not seem to cheer them up.
Are you at all surprised? All you have done is affirm the distance between yourself and your friend, between one who is content (or, at least, not manically depressed) and one who is not. If anything, your friend’s depression has been compounded with shame, because not only are they depressed, but they are now depressed because they seemingly do not even have the right to be depressed.
None of this is said, but it is certainly felt in your friend’s heart. Unmoved, you tell them to pick up yoga, focus on the things that are great in life, or go out and meet someone else, after all, there are so many fish in the sea. Once more, this does not change your friend’s countenance one iota.
Are you at all surprised? There is danger in telling people what they ought to do. When people are depressed, they are not looking for a teacher, they are looking for a friend; looking for a (mental or physical) embrace, not a guidebook. We often fall into this – well-meaning, yet misguided – trap of providing advice when people open up to us. What those in need require, even if it may not seem so to us, are not instructions on how to live their life, but patience, kindness, and the subtle understanding that indeed, life does suck at the moment, but it won’t forever. To be there for someone requires us to stop thinking about what we think should happen, but to focus, here and now, on what is actually happening. It means responding to them, not as a person who needs help, but as one who needs comfort. At its most fundamental, it means listening, really listening; that is, not listening merely to give a response, but to hearing out the inner anguish and unheard screams of a hurting soul.
If your friend wanted advice, they would have asked for it. Give them the credit – as you would expect others to give to you – that they will reach out for help if they need it. Sometimes we need help, but sometimes we just need someone to listen to us, to feel with us, and to understand us. It requires a particular kind of silence; the silence of a mind that is receptive to the other, without simply waiting to speak.
The redemptive power of friendship is more powerful than any advice. Rather than telling your friend what they ought to do, you could instead, place your hand on theirs, stare into their eyes, and tell them, with words that carry the weight of one who feels what they say in their very bones, that ‘I hear you’. Reminiscent of one of the 4 mantras of Thich Nhat Hanh,
The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. So the first mantra is very simple: “Dear one, I am here for you”.
Cultivating presence and really being there for someone is an incredibly difficult task, yet one of the most enriching and gratifying aspects of friendship. The most powerful remedy to depression is not advice on how to be happy, but on knowing that despite everything that has happened, you are not alone. If you can show your friend that you are there for them, your presence will help them heal more than any advice ever could.
In his work Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl remarks that while being able to imagine a future beyond the camps did not stop death, it did create the opportunity for life. He observed that with sufficient imagination, we can tolerate the intolerable. He was, after all, a survivor of the holocaust.
While our problems may not be quite as severe, they are no less deserving of attention and empathy; and likewise, how we learn to deal with them will benefit from a proper dose of imagination.
When a loved one passes away, we cannot imagine getting through the day without their cute reminders that they are there for us; when a partner leaves, we cannot imagine waking up in the morning to an empty pillow beside us; when we receive a debilitating injury, we cannot imagine getting through the day with a constant jarring pain every time we take a step. We cannot imagine a world different to the one we currently inhabit. We stop. Walls rise around us. We become unable to summon an alternative world where things could be different than they are now.
In one of the many self-fulfilling prophecies of the mind, whatever we think will be, becomes. We turn life into the experience we already believe it to be. If we believe our loneliness will always be painful and our injury always debilitating, than this will be the case. Of course, this is not an argument of magical thinking, but rather a recognition that, to a significant extent, the world is a reflection of how we already perceive it to be. In this sense, we live very much in our own minds.
It is surely difficult, especially when we are oppressed by intense suffering, to conjure the necessary strength to see things differently. As is often the case, we fall into the trap of nostalgia. We may try and reconnect with an old flame after our partner has left us, or we may spend our time rummaging through old photographs after the death of a loved one, or we may run back to an old job when our current one does not work out. Of course, these may sometimes be necessary short term mechanisms to help us get through things. But we can easily trap ourselves in loops of returning to the past, rather than creating entirely new scenarios for ourselves in the future. Frankl cautions, we must reject the narrow prison of the past and embrace the spacious freedom of the present. Unable to imagine a fundamentally different future, all we can see is images of our past.
‘There is a danger’, writes Frankl, ‘in robbing the present of its reality’. By ‘closing our eyes and living in the past’, we seal our fate and doom ourselves to live in a reality that no longer exists. Despair offers us all a ‘challenge’, and ultimately, it is up to us whether we decide to make a ‘victory’ out of opportunity, or ‘vegetate’ in defeat. What we require, is sufficient imagination to craft a future out of the broken pieces before us.
In his work The Body Keeps the Score, the psychoanalyst Bessel Van Der Kolk writes,
Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities – it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes comes true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasures, and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility.
Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.
Imagination is a metaphysical springboard, lifting us off from the past towards a future not yet defined or clearly seen, but certainly just as (if not more) interesting and exciting as what came before.
Of course, telling ourselves and others to let go of the past and keep on moving is easier said than done. Sometimes, when things get particularly bad, the dark chasm we find ourselves in seems immeasurably deep and impenetrable to the light of benevolent thoughts. We simply cannot imagine that after our loved one is struck down with disease that life will ever be joyous or happy; or that after the person we thought we would spend life with leaves us, that we could ever love again. These are our darkest moments and they call for a commensurate amount of inner strength and determination. With imagination, despair can be transformed into courage, and defeat into acceptance, appreciating that while your life may never be what it was, you have the power to determine what it will become.