I’ve been meaning to write something about forgetting for a while, but I keep on forgetting AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Of all of the hippy, wishy-washy, jumper-wearing things I’ve done this year while training to be a counsellor, getting in touch with my inner child has to come pretty high up the list. I’d like to say that was my inner child taking over the beginning of this post, but he was never that funny – he preferred working through maths problems and burning things.
In a therapy session recently my counsellor took the wooliness a step further and suggested I might want to make contact with my inner teenager. Masturbation jokes, and a naturally cynical queasiness around notions of inner/outer aside, it was enlightening. I’d written off my inner teenager’s concerns with authenticity as gauche, his creativity as derivative, and his emotional intensity as self-indulgent. Actually, he had quite a lot going for him.
What I like most about him is how automatically he forgot things that were harmful to him. He didn’t dwell on crap, or get taken up in self-destructive cycles of self-undermining thought, because he was never aware of them in the first place. Sometimes his lack of awareness went too far – the protective mechanism censored too much, making him at times callous or ignorant. But his life had an immediacy and a naturalness which I envy.
Little Freddy Nietzsche said it’s our ability to forget that sets us apart from the animals – our ability to be selective in what we learn from and what we ignore. Where animals learn ‘lessons’ from obscure stimuli which will never be repeated, humans, he reckoned, don’t. We’re selective, and instinctively so (unless you’re a little baby with a metal bar being struck behind your head). Nietzsche also said “Beware the golden trellacework”, though, so I guess you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Freud stole the idea (of forgetting, not ornamental gardenware) and invented a complex machinery to explain the processes of forgetting what we actually know, and although he recommended unearthing some of the more pernicious unknown-knowns, he thought we could never properly integrate in an open and fully conscious way that which drives us. CBT and Buddhism do the same thing with varying degrees of explicitness, instructing us to unknow and ignore that which is not useful, and thereby to become more effective or at-peace.
This is all well and good so far, Phil, but when are you going to slag off therapy?
Because along came your man Charlie Rogers, and pretended to be above all of this human-bashing, holding that the more you come into contact with what you’ve ignored/forgotten/suppressed the better and purer you’ll become. Very much the last gasp of the enlightenment belief in emancipation through truth, Carl wrote his case-history from the viewpoint of the victor, attributing all advances in therapy to a closer contact with emotional truths. And of course, clients will often say that they feel they’ve uncovered something fundamental and true about themselves and that this is why they feel better (especially if we’ve been using language of depth and essence and authenticity in our non-directive reflections). Carl was sure this was the case because humans are just good, innit. God told him so.
A better story, which occurred to me when I was listening to this podcat, is that maybe what happens in all therapy, including person-centred, truth-centred therapy, is that we learn to forget things that are not helpful.
//www.radiolab.org/widgets/ondemand_player/radiolab/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F91618%2F (I thought this would embed as a nice little player thing, but it didn’t. Sorry.)
It occurred to me that although the person centred therapist focusses on what new truth (lie) is discovered, maybe what’s doing the real work is the old lies (truths) that are forgotten. To be fair to Carl he did notice that it’s in lifting the burden of previous truths that helped his clients feel free. It’s just a shame that he went the step further in claiming that they were getting closer to the truth.
Nietszche said (every time I write “Nietzsche said” I hear my voice as a snitching inner child – “Miss! Miss! Nietzsche said that women are slow and stupid!”) that the stronger we are the more we are able to realise the truth, which is that it’s all lies, or something. He definitely said something (“Fraulein! Fraulein! Phil is pretending to know more about Nietzsche than he actually does!”). Look, my point is that it doesn’t matter so much that truth-discovery might be a lie – it might be a really good way to free people of other lies.
(Incidentally, every time I write Carl, I picture this guy (not safe for your work):
Anyway, I like very much my teenager’s ability to live instinctively, forgetting or ignoring that which it benefited him to ignore or forget. In Nietzsche’s terms, he was a bit of an ubermensch. The problem with the ubermenschen, of course, is that they’re twats, and the model for the Nazi’s blue-eyed beasts. It’s great as a period to go through, and I’ve enjoyed getting back in touch with the lad, but it’s not a way to live. Plus, I got old and insecure (I… grew up?) and don’t have the instinctive faith I used to. Which is a good thing – it would be very easy, from a position of privilege, to go through life ignoring – for example – the way that society is set up to benefit me. This would be an instinctive area to cultivate ignorance, but it would be wrong. Nietzsche never had to put up with the exigencies of reality and friendship and love because he never had any of those things. He had his pure strong truths precisely because he couldn’t handle messy, involved ones.
So, I’ve come to a new accord with counselling/therapy – for me it’s a way to sift through the lies and have new stories imposed or negotiated upon the old ones. There’s no underlying truth to discover, but there are a hell of a lot of things to forget – it’s the selection process that counts. But if it’s all lies, and if your therapist has a great deal of influence over what you will come to see as discountable and forgettable, how do you choose a therapist or a school? How do you pass over that power? The choice of can no longer be based on the ontological security of underlying truth, the epistemological certainty of a correct method of assessing it, or even on the pragmatic raft of data (as it’s super-equivocal). The choice, for me, is an ethical one: which is right? With whom, and how, should I create a new set of lies to impose on the last, less ‘right’ bunch?
PS. I just came across this, another npr podcats which won’t embed nicely: http://www.npr.org/player/embed/375928124/375928444. It gets therapy wrong, of course, but nicely illustrates how futile it is to argue away thoughts/feelings/beliefs/memories, and how letting go is the more dishonest (from an enlightenment, truth=progress=purity=right perspective) but effective approach.