“On Transience” (“On Change”)


Every now and then in a therapy session, I will pull down a book from my shelf and read a few lines that I think might be helpful to a client. Such was the case a few days ago. I read from the book, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (1998), written by Dr. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and professor of psychology at New York University. My client suggested that I share it in a blog, along with a few of my personal comments. Dr. Epstein’s text is reproduced below in regular print, while my comments are in italics.


“In a short, masterful, and little discussed paper written in 1915 called ‘On Transience,’ Freud….(recounted) a summer walk that he took through a ‘smiling countryside’ with a ‘taciturn’ friend and a ‘young but already famous poet.’ Freud described how his friends were unable to smile back at the beauty that surrounded them. They could admire the sights he observed, but they could not ‘feel’.  They were locked into their own minds, unwilling or unable to surrender to the beauty surrounding them….(T)hey were unconsciously guarding themselves against engagement with something that might disappoint them.

‘The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind,’ wrote Freud at the beginning of this essay. ‘The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted.’ Either we get depressed when confronted with impermanence, suggested Freud, or we devalue what we see and push it away.”

I was unaware of this essay by Freud, but it certainly begins to illustrate the automaticity (versus mindfulness) with which we often live life. Faced with the inevitability and rapidity of change (transience), we automatically (mindlessly) distance ourselves from disappointment and hurt by anesthetizing ourselves through either depression, or avoidance behaviors (for example, compulsive/addictive behaviors, relationship hopping, etc.). Epstein continues.

“Only by cultivating a mind that does neither…can transience become enlightening…; that it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and ourselves.”

Epstein’s words “it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects” reminds me of one of my earlier blogs: “Hold On Loosely (But Don’t Let Go).” In that blog, I quoted the lyrics of the southern rock group ’38 Special: “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you hold too tightly, you’re going to lose control…” The anxiety of change–especially when it’s unpleasant–often compels us to either tighten our grip on things, people, and outcomes, or let them go altogether. Clinically speaking, tightening our grip tends toward enmeshment and rigidity, while letting go tends toward disengagement, even chaos. Instead, holding loosely without letting go preserves a third way of which Freud and Epstein speak. Back to the text.

“Freud sought to return his friends to a more intimate and immediate experience of the moment. ‘It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it….A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely.’ Yet Freud’s exhortations did not move his friends. He was unable to open their senses to the beauty surrounding them. Their hearts remained closed, their minds stubbornly disconnected from their bodies, their avoidance of transience overshadowing their sights, smells, and perceptions.

Why, asked Freud, do we prevent the flow in moments such as these? Why do we hold ourselves back from contact? Why do we hold ourselves so aloof? His friends’ disengagement on their summer walk obviously had all kind of reverberations. Would they not hold themselves back from love just as they were holding themselves back from nature?

In Freud’s discussion of his two friends’ hard-heartedness, he had the realization that they were trying to fend off an inevitable mourning. In their obsessional way, they were isolating themselves and refusing to be touched….To one degree or another, we are all, like his friends, in a state of abbreviated, or interrupted, mourning. Acutely aware of our own transience, we alternate between an aching despondency and a rebellion against the facts. We cling to our loved ones, or remove ourselves from them, rather than loving them in all of their vulnerability. In so doing we distance ourselves from a grief that is an inevitable component of affection. Using our best obsessional defenses to keep this mourning at bay, we pay a price in how isolated and cut off we can feel.

By pushing away the painful aspect of experience, Freud observed, his friends were isolating themselves from their own capacity for love….(The truth is) everything is always changing. When we take loved objects into our (lives) with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief. The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.”

I see it all the time with clients in therapy. Heck, I see it often in my own life; the avoidance of disappointment and hurt. And, why not? No one–including me–likes to hurt! Except…when our tendency to suppress and deny keeps life on auto-pilot.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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