Saturday, February 6, 2010

'Being Toward Death'

The Self Psychology Study Group of the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc. had its usual 'waging of dialogue' when it discussed, yesterday, the final chapters in Robert Stolorow's book "Trauma and Human Existence." Stolorow emphasized two points: that emotional life is context embedded; and that emotional trauma is constitutive of human existence. In the discussion, Peter Rudnytsky highlighted "the tension between a 'relational' view of trauma, which emphasizes the context-dependency that makes some experiences traumatic but not others, and an 'ontological' view, which posits that there is something inherently traumatic in human existence and our 'being-toward' death." Peter noted that "Stolorow says something close to this in his last chapter," and also noted that he wished [Stolorow] had brought it out in the previous chapter, where Peter thought that Stolorow's "presentation of Heidegger accepted too uncritically the premise that death is an essentially non-relational phenomenon."

Because of the finitude of human existence and the finitude of emotional connections with others, I thought Stolorow intimates that we should 'be with' each other in grief: he writes: we are "deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common[italics, his] finitude," that is, we have a "kinship-in-finitude,' or what Vogel called "brothers and sisters in the same dark"[ness].

I think many of us know this to be so. After 9/11, we, for a moment, thought we might be just a little kinder to one another, for life is precarious as well as precious. We were shaken from our everyday denial of (a turning away from?) death. And in moments of crisis, trauma, or loss, it is the lucky who find a "relational home" with family and friends. Stolorow writes, "Loss can be an emotional trauma for which it is especially difficult to find a relational home." William Upshaw pointed out yesterday how the psychotherapeutic relationship allows a relational home -- for sorrow and grief and loss, and for authenticity.

Stolorow's phrase "authentic being toward death" led me to consider that authenticity is a dialogue, a dialectic if you will, and that one cannot be authentic 'toward death' without also being so toward life, holding in tension this unpredictable but certain looming reality of death alongside the reaching for, the deeply living of, life. Stolorow quotes Critchley: "death and finitude are fundamentally relational." For me, when I contemplate my own death, I think of how it will affect those loved ones left behind, and I assure them now that my life is, has been, full, and so they need not worry on my account. As for those I have loved and lost, while part of me is diminished, that loss is held in tension with the gratitude of what that love brought to my life.

Lycia Alexander-Guerra

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