Archives for Existential Therapy
I came across a little piece of eternity the other day (there it is in the photo, above). Or, more precisely, it came across me. Tumbling towards me on the footpath. Blowin’ in the wind*. Ok, so it was also just a loose page of a newspaper, blowing around the street, with an advertisement on it featuring a stone angel pointing towards a single word: “Eternity.” Just a banal moment of dodging some floating flotsam on my way home. And a bit of a wake-up call. What do you do when eternity comes barreling right down the street at you? I picked it up. And could suddenly feel my heart beating. I took it with me. What will you do with yours? (Your eternity). (Your heart).
I took a different route to work yesterday. And I saw different things. Suddenly, in a gap between buildings, I spied this view in the photo, above: stairs and a distant clock face above them. A thought struck immediately: "Take the steps to make the time..." And then, a heartbeat later: "... time for the things that matter." I had to stop for a second, to drink it in and let all the bustling commuters around me blur on by. So what are those things for you? The things that matter? Life can change at a moment's notice - we all know this. Profound, unexpected change where the things we previously took for granted become the things we miss, for we can no longer experience them in quite the same way again. At least for now... At the moment, I'm getting lots of reminders of this. Lots of losses, big and small, in my own life, and in the lives of those close to me. I guess it comes back to our fragility. Our mortality. Our passage through the (limited) time we have. And our ability to recognise what really matters to us, so we can live it, love it, while it's here in our hands.
So much is unknown about this mystery we like to call “life.” We have our theories and ideas about it, our values and beliefs that may help guide us through it, but watertight certainty about any of it is hard to find. Except for one thing: This is probably the only time your life will be lived. Just think about that for a moment... This is the only time when your unique talents and abilities and yearnings and experiences and even your pain can mix together in quite this way. It’s more than just the chance of a lifetime… So it’s also probably the only time your dreams have a chance to be lived out in quite the way that you – and only you – could live them. So will you let them live?
You know those times when the same message keeps on turning up in your life? Over and over? Where you keep recognising the same idea in many different places (and you know you could apply it to yourself)? Well, I’m having one of those times. And the message is about editing. Cutting back. Slicing off the excess to leave some empty space. To leave more room for simply living. (Something in me relaxes even just thinking about it – how about you?) So let’s have a look together for a moment and see what you might have to gain by losing some things…
If you’ve read this blog a bit, you’ll know I often draw on existential therapy and how the idea of death – and really engaging with it – can help you live a more vivid life. But this time I don’t just want to talk about ideas. I want to talk about the nitty gritty stuff. The real stuff. The physical realities of this dying business; and the way that many of us in the western world will probably die (and whether that even gets close to how we might like to die when we finally do). Because it’s important stuff to talk about. And, as Jean Kittson put it: “there are no Apps for this stuff.” I’ve spent the last few days at a conference on palliative care* with some really inspirational people (doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, volunteers, pastoral care workers and therapists) who all work with life and death. Who aspire to help us all “live until we die.” Who are guided by principles like these: “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life. We’ll do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to LIVE until you die.” - Dame Cicely Saunders, Hospice Movement Founder So let’s talk…
It’s easy to be seduced by the idea of “later”: I’ll do that later. I’ll fix that up later. It’ll have to wait until later. I’ll have time for that later. (I think I’m slightly addicted to it, myself…) And the thing with this “later” business is that you have to believe that there always will be a later. That maybe you get some kind of say in how much “later” there’ll be (a lot, thank you). That your time – your life – can be controlled, planned, predicted. Yet, existentially, none of us can really do that. For the end of our days – the end of all our “laters” – will come when it comes, and however much we procrastinate, it seems that’s something that just won’t be put off. One day, it will simply be too late for your “laters”… So then what? Where does that leave you with “later”? (And where does it leave you with now?)
There’s a well-known existential exercise that’s supposed to really ‘bring death home’ to you. And in so doing, really bring life home… You might already know it. Basically, you take a moment to imagine your own headstone in a cemetery. And then you write what it would say about you. How it would capture a snapshot of your life as it is (which can sometimes highlight the gap between there and where you might yearn for it to be). Or maybe you’ve heard of the other idea of writing your own eulogy? Or perhaps you've felt moved by the Canadian blogger Derek Miller's last blog post, which he wrote to be published after his death (of colon cancer, last week). But have you ever done these sorts of things? Personally, I’ve only ever thought about them (which is so different than actually putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keys, and making it all more ‘real’). They always seemed too ‘big’ somehow – too involved or something. Until the other day…
They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. That’s a long way to see in… But the thing about windows is that they work both ways. So they’re not just about seeing into; they’re also about seeing out of. (Or not). And that’s sort of what happens with another kind of window – your “worldview”. It’s also like a window, but one that frames what you see in the world, and how you see it. It influences what you imagine exists. What meaning you make of it all. So it can also shape how you react to that world. And who you become. It can feel so ‘normal’ to just look at the view from our window, that we forget to see the window, itself. Forget to wonder if it’s framing things as clearly or supportively (or perhaps even ‘objectively’) as it might. Forget to question if it’s in the right place, or if it could use a bit of renovating. Forget to notice what our window’s actually like, or whether, like the closed window in the photo above, we might sometimes open the curtains a bit more often to expand our understanding of the world. So how long is it since you’ve checked out your window to the world? How long since you’ve even noticed your worldview? And how might it unwittingly be shaping who you are?
I just bought this bunch of everlasting daisies from the cemetery florist. It seems more than a little ironic… For wandering between the old, sunken headstones out here, the knowledge of the temporary nature of things – of life – sinks in a little deeper. How we like to forget this… to remain hidden from it in the everyday. Shielded. If you believed the stronger messages and myths that our (western) society spins, you’d think that youth can last forever (if only you buy the right face cream or get the right surgery or adopt the right frame of mind). But the hundreds upon hundreds of graves out here all tell a different story. What price might we pay, collectively, to do this to ourselves? And what might it be costing you (and your loved ones) if you stay hidden from the thought of your own death? From the impending truth of it?
So much seems caught in this handful of words (on another strangely insightful billboard*): “One day could change your life.” For, existentially, all of our lives seem certain to change one day – changed forever from the life we know into something we can only understand as an ending; as death. One day, life; one day, not. Yet how easy it is to forget this. To, instead, get caught up in the other kind of ‘one day’ – as in: “One day, I’ll get around to fixing that broken step/heart/relationship”. Or, “One day I’ll finally have the courage to test out my dream of …” Or, “One day, I’ll eventually let myself be the kind of person I secretly feel myself to be.” One day… (Just not today).