Monday, March 22, 2010


We are all part of many communities. I am part of many communities. I am about to leave one of my most sustaining communities: my synagogue. I will be moving away and I will be leaving my synagogue. The synagogue for me has been all about community, very little about religious practice. I have been a member since I was pregnant with my now 31 year old daughter. That’s a long time.

In the Jewish tradition separating yourself from community is seen as a major problem. The community is the very expression of G-D. Prayer is done in community, holiday celebrations are done in community, mourning and addressing one’s soul, all done in community.

I am just beginning to assess what this separation will mean to me. I have gotten a few posts from my unconscious. Thought I would share.

Post #1. I was looking at the facial profile of an acquaintance, a woman I have known for most of 30 years. I do not know her well, but I know that face. I was noticing that it is now the face of an older woman—a woman probably nearing 70. She looks all of those years, but I don’t really see that. I see a montage: a woman of 40, 45, 50. I see a very bright woman, a somewhat argumentative woman, an annoying woman. I see all those qualities accompanied by visual images superimposed on one another. I see her as she really is I think, a collection of all her younger selves. I don’t have an emotional history with her so there is really no affective content—but the visual alone is quite complex.

In this moment, sitting around a table with people who have no history with her, I had a flash as to how she looks to these new friends and acquaintances. I’m sure they look at her and see an older woman. All that that phrase means “older woman” is all that they see. Her current audience doesn’t see the kaleidoscope. They see her as she is now. There is no dynamic picture, the one that carries meaning, the one that has a past as well as a present. That face, that montage: I think of it as the “real” face.

Post #2. Recently I sat at a Purim party in the synagogue watching a smart and funny Purim play. I knew many of the participants. As I watched the “shpiel” I thought: I have known these people forever, and then surprisingly I heard a quiet voice in my head: “and I forgive them.” I wasn’t even sure what that thought meant, but it felt right. In that moment I had enough distance to feel my love for them, and their flaws, their errors, the injuries we have inflicted on one another, small and large. For a moment my ego, my involvement was suspended. For the moment none of that mattered. What mattered was history, shared affection, and forgiveness.

These are people with whom I have an affective history—the photo montage is not just visual, it is emotional, it is real. Over 30 year there has change, growth, maturity,and a lot of loss. All of it. To have something to forgive is meaningful and it comes only with the gift of time.

So in my new community I can only hope to be able to know people well enough to approximate their “real” faces, and have mine be known (approximately) by them. It is, however, unlikely that I will experience enough intimacy enough intensity to become truly, meaningfully forgiving and forgiven.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Healing II: Adaptation

I read an article today about the role of adaptation in depressive illness, not just your ordinary blues, but debilitating depressive disorders:

It turns out that Charles Darwin himself suffered the blight of depression, describing himself as so undermined by his malady that he could not work one day out of every three. Darwin was unable to make sense of what might be a heritable disorder. He observed, that there was no adaptive value to being impeded by intense sadness. It made people unable to work, caused great pain, killed desire, and it sometimes led to suicide. It seemed to Darwin to be a mistake in the evolution of the brain.

Recently some psychiatrists interested in “evolutionary psychology” have taken a look at depression in a different light and tried to tease out what is adaptive about it. They raise questions on the efficacy of (anti-depressive) medication which may make you feel better but delay the resolution of underlying problems. Therapists are well acquainted with the phenomena: people on medication might feel better (and might not) but after awhile they seem to be more apathetic about their problems rather than energized in the search for solutions.

There is another useful way to look at adaptation, adaptation within the life cycle.

For instance a depressive response may be adaptive in childhood in a particular family. Some families prefer sad children over “bad” children. Depressed children don’t rock the boat quite so much as acting out children. Some children learn to keep very quiet so as not to ignite volatility in their parents, or anxiety in their parents. This is adaptive at the time. Later, not so much.

Depression is described by sufferers more often as an oppressive wet blanket sort of feeling, more of a heaviness, than a sadness. When unacceptable feelings are not safely expressed they need to be suppressed. Chronic suppression becomes depression.

I have a silly story, not a story about depression, a story about adaptation. When I was growing up we lived near a deep pond. The area around the pond was marshy (we called it “the swamp”). We were told that there was quicksand around the pond and to stay away. As I type this I remember vividly jungle-themed movies of people being swallowed in quicksand. Needless to say, I stayed away from the pond.

Fast forward: in my 20’s I heard my mother counsel a new neighbor who had adventuresome little boys, on how she had kept her children away from the pond by telling them there was quicksand around the pond. This would keep them safe.

In a flash I remembered that queasiness I always felt in "the swamp, even in winter when it supposedly froze (quicksand was said to freeze in winter!) and we went down there to ice skate. I never did learn to skate well.

I never remembered the source of the anxiety, only the anxiety. I was now 20 something and I had not revisited this story/memory and therefore never had an opportunity to revise. Until that moment deep inside I still believed it! I was stunned at how “unremembered” this memory was—“unremembered” but not disarmed.

And so it is with so many adaptations, what once kept us safe now keeps us stuck. There are probably no repercussions of the swamp-quicksand story, other than my failed skating career. But perhaps there are, my good girl adaptation borne of both fear and attachment to my mother maybe plays a hidden role in a risk averse lifestyle, a lifelong aversion to taking physical risks.

It was certainly important to keep us away from the pond. No one drowned. But if we don’t revisit early adaptations we are unable to revise. And a healthy life is all about the ability to revise.