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How to Think about Hard Truths

Personal truth is strong medicine, but it's hard to look straight in the mirror.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small
But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day

— Crosby, Stills and Nash

Quoting Thomas Ogden, a contemporary scholar of the work of Wilfred Bion (and a great psychoanalyst in his own right) there are “four principles of mental functioning”:

  1. "Thinking is driven by the human need to know the truth — the reality of who one is and what is occurring in one’s life";
  2. "It requires two minds to think a person’s most disturbing thoughts";
  3. "The capacity for thinking is developed in order to come to terms with thoughts derived from one’s disturbing emotional experience";
  4. "There is an inherent psychoanalytic function of the personality, and dreaming is the principal process through which that function is performed".

Perchance to Dream

Knowing the truth is a basic human need, Odgen, interpreting Bion, tells us:

Dreaming occurs continuously both while we are awake and asleep. Just as the stars remain in the sky even when their light is obscured by the glare of the sun, so, too, dreaming is a continuous function of the mind that persists even when our dreams are obscured from consciousness by the glare of waking life. Dreaming is the most free, most inclusive, and most deeply penetrating form of psychological work of which human beings are capable.

Dreaming is something we do together, a canonically creative and primal social act. Dreaming is what gives birth to full reality, rather than a broken-up simulacrum. We can dream up a new world, we can dream up ways of dealing with a traumatic experience we never imagined, we can day-dream as in a state of fantasy or reverie (as Ogden puts it). Dreaming is the process by which raw thoughts are converted to mature thinking. Reality can have a bite to it.

Handle with Care

For the young or unformed mind, both inner reality—the jumbled up world of mental space, the confusing and sometimes troubling experiences we struggle to make sense of—and outer reality — what is actually happening around and to oneself, regardless of how we understand what goes on —can be a chaotic mass of dangerous and uncertain half-glimpsed, overwhelming truths. We don't know what is in the box until we open it up.

Dreaming is the process by which the flax of undigested ideas and perceptions is spun into the gold of thinking and coherence of self. We are wholly dependent on having other minds around us who know the way in order to learn how to think. Without having the other as a container, a sounding-board, a thought-partner, a namer of feelings, someone to translate primitive experience into mature understanding — we are stuck alone, not knowing how to deal with it all. When we have that other1, we have room to think more clearly, more effectively. Rather than settling for what we think is true, we can go further.

It is convenient to regard thinking as dependent on the successful outcome of two main mental developments. The first is the development of thoughts. They require an apparatus to cope with them. The second development, therefore, is of this apparatus that I shall provisionally call thinking. I repeat — thinking has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts. — Wilfred Bion, The Psycho-Analytic Study of Thinking

Do we have what Bion refers to as “realizations” when faced with difficult realities? Realization turns conceptions into concepts, thoughts beget thinking. If we don't develop true thinking, we instead rely on primal defenses, using splitting as a deceiving substitute for actually thinking — seeing people and events as divided into good and bad — and then projection. With projection, we are constantly ejecting the badness from ourselves, unconsciously pretending it is not ourselves but the other person who is to blame.

"Badness" is unformulated, chunky and vague, all-encompassing. One thing, though, is clear to the self-protecting, unthinking psyche; "bad" is not me.

Without thinking, there is no responsibility, no accountability... only fault, accusation, and punishment. It's not fun, and there is no room for play. If there is no room for play, we can't learn. If we can't learn, we can't grow.

When the psyche’s immune system can’t take what's real, from a psychoanalytic perspective it surrounds itself with a protective capsule of fantasy and simply pushes it out of the self. Unfortunately, in doing so we lose, even annihilate, essential aspects of who we are, alienating ourselves from ourselves.

Trusting Reality

So reality can be a friend or a foe, depending on how our mind can take it in or spit it out. When we look in the mirror and try to understand ourselves, we often catch a glimpse of things we can’t quite fathom. Stereotypically, we imagine that these are things about ourselves we don’t ordinarily want to cop to — sadism, a lack of empathy, greed, various forms of weakness, “selfishness”, poor judgment, times we were hurt or hurt others, and so on. All the things we regret and wish to forget or pretend aren’t real.

Must we embrace the Shadow, as Jung asserted, in order to be complete and at peace with ourselves and one another? Or do we heed Nietzsche's warning:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Less intuitively, we sometimes are unable to take in the most beautiful, awesome aspects of who we are and how life can be. The intensity of jouissance—popularized in psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan—is ecstasy so intense we cannot tolerate it. The noise of this joy is so great that we cannot make sense of it, what is wonderful about ourselves, what is ineffable about love.

The “too-muchness” of experience can come from troubling sources as well as from pleasurable ones. This is where pain and pleasure overlap; where the two sides of the circle wrap around and meet in the back, becoming complete.

Take Two Truths and Call Me in the Morning

When can we make use of truth, and when is truth too much? How is it that a truth which we could not handle, or we were afraid would overwhelm and possibly cause one to fall to pieces, one day becomes something ordinary, if sad? How do we take in all aspects of who we are, if this is even desirable, to become whole? While there are common factors, we each have our own, unique reality. However, there appear to be common factors — self-compassion, the presence of safe, loving others, the need for resilience and persistent self-regard, a tolerance for and eventual appreciation of gradual and uncertain progress, and so on.

The pursuit of an idealized state of wholeness is an elusive, if even attainable, poorly controlled experiment. Is it a will o' the-wisp, and if one arrives, a Pyrrhic victory? Or is the destination the journey, one we eventually look back on with fondness and pride?

Hope is dangerous and false hope is misguided at best and, at its worst, malign — making truth a dubious medicine at best. Take truth in carefully titrated doses, with a trustworthy mind as a container and guide — and wait to see what the response is before taking another swig.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Lewis Aron, a beloved teacher who generously shared his disciplined and inexorable thinking, nimble and brilliant mind, and tremendous heart with countless others. He left us too soon; he gave us so much.


1. The other can be any caregiver. In psychoanalysis, traditionally the presumed original mind required to deal with disturbing thoughts and restore them in a developmentally-appropriate form is, for the young child, a "good enough" (not perfect) mother as Donald Winnicott suggested, or later in life a therapist or similar other. Attachment theory supports this perspective. Parents don't have to be perfect. The just have to "get it right" the majority of the time. For a resilient child, the percentage will be lower. For a vulnerable child, the parents have to be a better fit and get it right more of the time.

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