I have been listening to Book of the Week on Radio 4 this week.
The current book being read was ‘An Examined Life’ by the psycho-analyst Stephen Grosz.
By way of explanation he begins simply by reasoning that the world bedevils us, to make sense of it we tell ourselves stories. His book is about change, change and loss are deeply connected, and there cannot be change without loss.
At one time or another we find ourselves trapped by things we are thinking of doing, imprisoned by our own unhappiness, fearing our own history. We feel unable to go forward yet we feel there must be a way.
As one of his clients explained: “I want to change, but not if it means changing.”
Grosz believes his work as a psycho-analyst is to help people to change and his book concerns a person’s desire to understand and to be understood. It is about listening to each other, not just our words but the gaps. This is not a magical process but a part of our everyday lives.
At the beginning of the week the author outlined how we create a story or a narrative to make sense of ourselves and we need these tales to be heard and to be understood.
In a way it’s how we discover meaning and a unity to all the fragmented bits of our lives. In light of our stories we have to learn to cope with and understand change and the impact this has on our lives, relationships and our place within the world.
Speaking from personal experience Stephen Grosz relates a story from his own life. A number of years ago before Christmas his four-year-old son was taken into hospital due to a skin inflection which had developed around his eye.
The doctors were concerned the infection could travel into the optic nerve and then into the brain. After receiving treatment his son returned home but refused to take antibiotics. Both his mother and father pleaded with their child but to no avail. Finally his father told him a story how as a child when in hospital he had run away from two nurses. The nurses were to take him to theatre where he was to have his tonsils removed but he just didn’t want to go. His son considered this and after a few moments agreed to take his medicine.
Grosz remembers how later that night he was startled awake by a dream which dissolved as soon as he awoke. He had an image of himself reaching out to catch a small grass green lizard as it darted between a dark space between two rocks and then disappeared into the earth. He thought the dream had something to do with his son’s illness. He lay in the dark running after the dream but failing to remember anymore. So the author got up and sat in the living room embarrassed at not being able to remember. So he did what he would tell clients to do when trying to remember a dream by using the free association of thoughts to capture the dream. In this way he remembered the words of the poet Petro Salinas, ‘I forgot your name, the letters of your name now move about unconnected, unknown to each other.’
Grosz goes into more detail about how he remembers four letters forming a Spanish word and through this flashback remembering a young man who was terminally ill, referred by his doctor because he was refusing treatment for pneumonia. As a psychoanalyst Grosz wished he could find some way to encourage his patient to listen to his doctors and his parents. In their session the man revealed how he was born in Cornwall in a small village on the tip of the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point. They discussed his illness and Grosz was disturbed by the man’s lack of concern for himself. Later they discussed his fear of dying and how his defence against this anxiety was denying he was ill by refusing treatment. The young man remained unconvinced of his need for help and later in the autumn, Grosz heard how the young man had died; he was 26-years-old. Grosz wished he could have persuaded his client to take his medicine, to receive treatment but he was like the lizard in his dream, out of reach.
After being lost in his thoughts Grosz recognised his own reflection in the window and became aware of his own helplessness of the previous evening at his son’s refusal to take his medicine. He was confronted by the fear that his son too could disappear into the earth.
In light of this reflection I had the image of God as a father and as a parent watching helplessly as we refused his help, as we refused the medicine of his grace which he provides for his children in their journey through life. From the moment of our baptism we are God’s beloved children, each one of us cherished. Only in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ can the story of our lives make sense. Only in God’s love for us as his children can we find meaning which provides true hope in the face of death. Only faith and trust in God can sustain each person in their experiences of change and loss. God’s love remains ever present, our Father is always knocking on the door of our hearts, but we must open up and allow God to enter in.