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The Power of Absence

What isn't there captures attention and traps in in an emotional embrace.

What do deadbeat dads, estranged or dead relatives, and birth parents in closed adoptions have in common?

What they have in common is the power of absence. That's when what isn't there is what captures attention, and traps it in an emotional embrace. The power of absence; let's look at how it works.

The power of absence begins with the human propensity for the negative. Human beings are designed to be more sensitive and reactive to threat than to reward. We are impacted more strongly by pain than by pleasure. Frightening and sad events have the strongest grip on our memory. We fear loss more than we desire gain. These preferences and inclinations are easily understood in evolutionary terms, since the chances of survival are improved for those who perceive threats, respond to them effectively and remember to avoid them in the future. In doing its job, evolution wired us for survival, and not necessarily for happiness.

Humans are also designed to seek closure and completeness. The missing piece of a puzzle calls to us, making us feel uncomfortable. We are motivated to find that piece and achieve the satisfaction of completing the puzzle. This tendency is functionally useful when it leads to persevering at a task until it is done. But the power of absence extends well beyond tasks. It is an important dynamic in relationships, in therapy, and even in spiritual matters.

The power of absence lies in the longing it engenders. An absent parent might be romanticized, a birth parent sought, an estranged or dead relative's life fictionalized into a narrative of what-might-have-been. Occasionally, someone will meet the absent parent or relative, and then the longing disappears. It doesn't seem to matter whether or not a relationship ensues; when the mystery is gone, the longing evaporates. The puzzle piece has been found. It may turn out not to have been an important piece at all. What was important was its absence.

Absence is so powerful it can evoke a kind of trance. That's one explanation for the fact that clinicians from Freud to Kübler-Ross and since were all wrong when they wrote about grief and mourning through the prism of their experience. Loss, death and grieving were pathologized and normal variations misunderstood. Conventional clinical thinking gave rise to the invention of bereavement counselors and de-briefing specialists. When the ideas about how people manage grief and loss were finally examined systematically, it turned out that the experts' conventional wisdom couldn't have been more wrong.

When George Bonanno conducted a prospective study of bereavement he found three styles of grief: common grief, in which people showed an elevation of symptoms of depression which abated in the first year or two after the loss; chronic grief, in which there was a high, dramatic level of depression that did not resolve for several years; and—the most surprising finding— absent grief, in which people showed no disruption in their functioning at all. They might be sad about the death, they might miss the person, but they kept functioning. As much as half the subjects fall into this group. Because the researchers knew a lot about the subjects before their loss they concluded these were healthy people, resilient—and they did not follow the clinician's script about the way people grieve. They were not in thrall to the power of absence. (For more on this research, see Bonnano, George A. The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.)

The power of absence can be a vital, productive life force, as well. This is particularly true in spiritual and religious enterprises, and it may also be true in the arts. Human beings, stuck in mortality with its partial, limited view, long to see the total picture. One might say that the human search for immortality, or the eternal, or God, is, just on another level, a search for the piece that will complete the puzzle. We can only know this fragmented and incomplete reality, so we are continuously frustrated by what it lacks. Ours is a world made of fleeting moments, and we yearn for the whole picture.

The unmet need, the yearning for wholeness, has been a productive force in human history. The power of absence is what fostered the development of marvelous religious civilizations, with all their art, culture, morality and spiritual practices. The religious imagination continues to draw on the power of absence for its creativity and drive.

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