Tuesday, 22 January 2013

the examined life

You might have come across the saying, "the unexamined life is not worth living", a statement Plato attributes to Socrates in his Apology. It is a pretty bold claim. Must we really examine our lives - investigate them critically - in order to give them any value? I'm not so sure about the self-interrogation and introspection this implies. What about just being present in the moment? That sounds great, and yet I have to admit that in my own life, I've needed to examine, indeed have been compelled to in order to find ways of living and being that, put simply, I could live with.

{mixed media artwork by Liza Pozer on Cloth Paper Scissors}
So naturally I was intrigued by the title of psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz's new book. I heard him give a talk once and he was a charismatic speaker. Also I must confess that I love psychoanalysts' books about their work because I'm such a nosy parker and love the glimpses into other people's lives that they afford.

Turns out I was right to trust my instincts and get myself a copy straightaway. Before I get started on what is great about it, I must confess to a couple of small disappointments. The first (and most flattering for the book) is that it was all over too soon! I started it on the bus on the way home from work one evening and finished it on the way in the next morning! This is seriously easy reading: simple in style, moreish in content, and above all really quite short in length!

The second, more subtle disappointment is related: the stories and clever insights of the book are kept simple and sweet, leaving me craving more detail and depth - and wishing I could ask questions. I suppose the point is partly to keep its mass appeal, but also to leave thoughts hanging, demanding reflection from the reader. Typical of a psychoanalyst: he is not going to answer all your questions, you have to do half the work!

What I loved about the book is simple too: like some of the greatest novels it is all about other people in ways that also lead to reflection upon one's own life, in a kind of counterpoint or dialogue. It had me thinking about mothering, relationships, lying and truth-telling, memories, bereavement and childhood sadness. And then there are all the stories: the man who fakes his suicide, the one who starts to fall asleep in every session, the mother who realises how much she misses her baby now he's all grown up, the damaged 9 year-old who teaches his analyst a lesson in sadness. With each tale, we glimpse something of how the patient changed during his or her analysis, and what Grosz himself learned about life.

Sometimes the insights are a little obvious (see my second disappointment, above), but the process that leads to them is always intriguing. Whatever you think of psychoanalysis, you can't deny that it trains people to think in incredibly creative and lateral ways. I love seeing how Grosz has to look beyond the content of what people say and think about how it is expressed and what kind of a performance it is, what response is needed and why. In writing about all this so simply and clearly, Grosz makes the processes of analysis accessible.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite moments in the book: something so simple and yet so right. Typically, just to make sure we're still doing some work, it is phrased as a question:

"Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn't this attentiveness - the feeling that someone is trying to think about us - something we want more than praise?"

Ah-ha! So it's not just about examining our own lives, but paying attention to others, making their life worth living by taking an interest - even if we're not psychoanalysts.

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