Monthly Archives: May 2020

Self isolation and the ‘death-orientated society’

Thomas Merton had early experiences of death as both his parents died – his mother when he was six and his father when Merton was nearly 16. Looking back Merton writes that he ‘never doubted the fact that his father’s soul, or his mother’s, were immortal’, but as a child and adolescent he did not experience the comfort that religion can offer. When his brother John Paul died years later it was different as Merton’s faith allowed him to give this some meaning and to see death as no longer a wall, but rather a door to a homecoming, an act of complete liberation into a new mode of being.

As a monk Thomas Merton was taught how to live and how to die; he saw living solitude as a way of preparing for this. In December 1964 he writes, ‘How often in the last years I have thought of death. It has been present to me and I have “understood” it, and known that I must die. Yet last night, only for a moment, in passing, and so to speak without grimness or drama I monetarily experienced the fact that I, this self, will soon simply not exist. A flash of the “not-thereness of being dead”.’ This insight Merton thought was a real fruit of his increasing opportunity for solitude in the hermitage. Living in solitude was a way of preparing for death and influenced by further reading Merton saw death as a critical point of growth or ‘transition to a new mode of being, to maturity and to fruitfulness’. Eternal life is pure reality in the ‘hidden ground of love’ that is God.

In ‘Love and Living’ Merton wrote about the ‘death-orientated society’ where ‘the fear of death becomes so powerful that it results in a flat refusal of life … the empty power of death creeps into everything and sickens everything …Thus we live as if death were always ready to exercise this inescapable power over us. Death is life afraid to love and trust itself because it is so obsessed with its own contingency and its own ending … in seeking to convince themselves of their own power to survive, men seek to destroy others who are weaker than themselves … In the society of men who are exclusively intent on their own pleasure and survival, even though it has no meaning, just because they are convinced that their life ought to be interminable, death begins to play a very important part … obsession with power and wealth inevitably means obsession with death … in a death-orientated society, even though it may seem very dynamic and powerful, death becomes the end of life in the sense of its goal, and this is made at least symbolically evident by the fact that money, machines, bombs, etc., are all regarded as more important than living people.’

Once again Merton’s prophetic voice speaks to our contemporary age…

Self-isolation and the fear of annihilation

Donald Winnicott observing a baby

When the external environment that gives us a sense of our place in the world is radically changed, and there is talk about who is ‘disposable’ and who is particularly vulnerable to dying from coronavirus then not only is mortality brought to mind, but also a fear of annihilation.

Shortly before Donald Winnicott died in 1971, he wrote his paper on ‘The fear of breakdown’ which was published in 1974. The idea he put forward is that fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced. He saw it as a fear ‘of the original agony’ that led the person to develop various defences to avoid the experience. In other words the breakdown that is so feared has already been, but is still being carried around in the unconscious, because, at the time that it happened, the ego was too immature to encompass what was happening and integrate it. This general fear of breaking down can be specifically linked to a fear of death. As Winnicott writes this is a very common fear, and one absorbed in the religious teachings about an after-life – but if you fear death then the promise of an after-life gives no relief.

Instead, as Winnicott understands it, the person is compelled to look for death, and again this is the death that happened, but was not able to be experienced that is being looked for. When the poet John Keats was ‘half in love with easeful death’, he was, says Winnicott, longing for the relief that would come if he could ‘remember’ having died, but to do that he must experience death in the present. One solution that people consider is suicide, in other words sending the body to the death that has already happened to the psyche – but that is a despairing gesture.

‘Death, looked at in this way as something that happened to the patient but which the patient was not mature enough to experience, has the meaning of annihilation.’ The death that happened was a failure in the baby’s early infancy in his or her ‘facilitating environment’, perhaps a serious impingement in the baby’s sense of continuity of being.

To get this original experience of annihilation into ‘the past tense’, it has to be experienced and absorbed into the present time and so understood.  As Winnicott says, if we can accept this strange truth that what is not yet experienced did nevertheless happen in the past, then the way is open for the agony to be released, and the present life to be fully lived (despite the virus) and to be open to whatever may come.

Self isolation and the capacity to be alone

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the capacity to be alone as one of the signs of emotional maturity. He is looking at this in a positive way rather than the fear of being on one’s own or being in a withdrawn and depressed state. He is not talking about actually being alone – as he points out you might be in solitary confinement, or as currently for some on your own in lockdown and yet not be able to be alone. Then, if you are actually on your own and without the emotional capacity to really bear it, there is great suffering.

Winnicott understood from his work with small children – he was also a paediatrician – that the capacity comes from having had the experience of being alone as an infant and small child, but, in the presence of another. Here is the paradox ‘the experience of being alone while someone else is present’. He sees this as a rather special type of relationship where the child is there and the mother or mother substitute is reliably present, even if at that moment represented by the pram, or a cot, or even the general atmosphere of the environment… so the implication is that the presence of each is important to the other, and this experience has become internalised in the child. Maturity and the capacity to be alone imply that ‘the individual has had the chance through good-enough mothering to build up a belief in a benign environment’. In other words there is the gradual building up of a safe internal environment within which the individual can discover their own personal life.

So, when the person has not had this good-enough early upbringing, the alternative is that the false self is built up with reactions to what is happening outside – the external stimuli and that can become very uncertain and anxiety making. Winnicott doesn’t discuss it but I can see here how a personal faith and relationship with God can gradually repair a damaged capacity to be alone that never got fully established, and, so, over time, how an internal world can be built on the repetition of good-enough experiences in the presence of the Divine – perhaps especially so through meditation and a deepening of the sense of the Other.  Here God becomes the M/Other and a benign environment built on trust and faith.

Self isolation and less noise

Carl Jung wrote to a colleague in September 1957 about why we surround ourselves with so much noise. Outside for us now there is less noise from traffic and so more space to listen to the birdsong, the wind and silence. Inside we may still be filling our lives with noise – so Jung explores why we do this. He describes constant noise as contributing to nervous stress, and this depletes what Jung calls our vital substance. He is talking about the radio and television and ‘technological gadgetry’ and now we can add all of social media. With so much coming at us from outside we are then less tuned to what is happening inside us – this Jung calls ‘the degenerative symptom of urban civilisation’. Jung thinks that inside us we are deeply afraid – he lists water pollution, radioactivity overpopulation and we can add climate emergency – all of which has led to a widespread though not generally conscious fear which loves noise because it stops the fear being heard. ‘Noise is welcome because it drowns the inner instinctive warning. Fear seeks noisy company and pandemonium to scare away the demons.’ Noise is like crowds it gives a feeling of security; it protects us from painful reflections and scatters our anxious dreams. Interestingly in social distancing and self-isolation we lose the crowd as well as the outside noise.

Jung in his letter goes on to discuss how most people are afraid of silence – ‘deathly silence’ is a telling phrase as silence strikes us as uncanny. Why? Jung’s response is ‘the real fear is what might come up from one’s own depths- all the things that have been held at bay by noise.’

‘Modern noise is an integral component of modern “civilization”, which is predominantly extraverted and abhors all inwardness. It is an evil with deep roots … and all goes together with the spiritual disorientation of our time’.

Jung sees that destruction is the ‘unconscious goal of the collective unconscious at the present time’ – this statement seems prophetic given where we are today, ‘it uses every means to contrive an attenuated and inconspicuous form of genocide.’ Jung apologizes for his pessimism but feels his knowledge of the ‘dark side of human existence’ has led him to such conclusions, and it balances those who are always giving optimistic forecasts.