Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

Jessica Grogan Ph.D.

Encountering America

Being in The Midst of Life

To engage more deeply with others, we first need to address our numbness.

Posted Dec 23, 2014

Most of us remember the holidays of our childhood as much more magical than the holidays of adulthood. The snow had no connotation of shoveling, the presents no shopping and wrapping required. As adults, we’re responsible for orchestration and execution, which threatens the unadulterated creaturely pleasures of good smells and tastes, soothing music and twinkling lights.

But beyond the simple fact of work dampening fun, the holidays have the brutal power to reveal our incapacity for truly being present. We can blame this partly on our addiction to smart phones (surrounded by our elderly aunt, ebullient children, and dear friends it’s suddenly painfully conspicuous to check our phones, but also psychically irritating to not) and on our overreliance on the structure of work. Holidays often offer intolerably high levels of idleness and stillness.

We can also blame it, though, on the very human difficulty of being “in the midst” of life, of opening ourselves up to the people around us in all their strangeness and differentness. This might be striking: to think of our spouses, parents, siblings, and children as strange and different. But the idea that our differentness from each other, our utter unknowability, is what makes life so rich, stimulating, and full of mystery is also particularly compelling.

If you have children, think of the moments that hit you the hardest. The moment when your 3-year-old uses a turn of phrase with which you thought him totally unfamiliar (So witty! So cute!). Or, the first time your 7-year-old does the butterfly stroke (You can’t even do the butterfly stroke!). It’s the mysteries of other people, their hidden potentials, that captivate us and make us pause.

The opposite of experiencing these moments, these glimmers of engagement with another’s uniqueness, is what the scholar Eric Santner calls “undeadness” (Santner, 2001, 36).” In the true zombie sense of the word, undeadness is a state that looks like aliveness, but in which something crucial is missing. You may be watching the children unwrap presents, but feel numb to the wonder of it. You may be sitting in a church or temple mentally making chore lists. You may be chatting with a friend with an illusion of his utter predictability, a sense of knowing him so well that nothing he says surprises you, or maybe even truly interests you.

Santner writes that “There is, in a word, often a thin line between the passions infusing our engagement in the world and our defenses against such engagement (Santner, 2001, 19).”  Our defenses, at any given moment, are often numerous. We’re tired, sick, depressed, busy, overwhelmed. On an unconscious level, too, the defenses are prevalent. We’re self-protective, afraid of rejection, terrified of vulnerability, and we’ve been hurt before. But the cost is this zombie-like state. This dullness and half-asleepness.

Santner actually sees psychoanalysis as a vehicle for “de-animating the undeadness (Santner, 2001, 101).” He cites expressly the potential in psychotherapy to “be in the presence” of another, in which you are both subjects, rather than subject and object (Santner, 2001). Mindfulness experts identify other vehicles, including guided meditation and deep breathing exercises, for helping to focus our attention fully on our awareness in the present moment (Brown & Ryan, 2003).

There’s also the good, old-fashioned value of self-knowledge and insight, though. To grasp our numbness in a given moment is a step toward dismantling it. To ask ourselves questions: Am I genuinely bored or distracted because of the usual reasons, or are the usual reasons obscuring something deeper? What if I truly engaged right now; what could I gain or lose? If I tried to know this 4-year-old, tried to appreciate from all angles his passion for legos and cutting paper, what would I risk? Will he turn on me in an hour when I say no to a second cookie? Will he change in a matter of months and express a whole new set of passions about which I know nothing? Will he grow up and leave me behind? The same kinds of questions, of course, apply to our spouses, our parents, our co-workers, and our friends. We protect ourselves at great cost.

To be in “the midst” of life is to risk it all in the hope of gaining greater vitality and aliveness (Santner, 2001, 29). It should be noted, though, that the very act of living and dying is to have an “all” that we are risking every moment just by breathing, that we will certainly ultimately lose. So it’s more about how we want the quality of those breaths to be—taken with eyes half open, between texting and scolding children, or with full senses, swimming in all colors of feelings? 

References

Brown, K. W. & Ryan, R. M. (2003)  The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 84(4), April, 822-848, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822

Kieffer, C. C. (2004). Eric Santner and the psychotheology of everyday life. Self Psychology News, 1 (2), http://www.psychologyoftheself.com/newsletter/2004/kieffer.htm

Santner, E. L. (2001). On the psychotheology of everyday life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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