Tuesday, May 04, 2010


I posted recently on the Palestinian narrative of events, virtually unchanged from 1961 to the present, and its catalogue of resentments.

Yesterday I spoke with a patient who had a list in the same style: he had agreed to come out of the house voluntarily…he had told the police where the guns were hidden…he had agreed to start outpatient treatment Monday morning…he hadn’t done anything to hurt himself…

All of these statements were true in some sense. The problem with them was the information left out of the narrative. He had left the house voluntarily after an hour of standoff with the police. He had said he would go to treatment and then gotten evasive about it. He had threatened suicide several times in the past day, though he hadn’t done anything. But there was no breaking through into his tight circle of reasoning - he kept going angrily round and round, complaining that no one was listening to him.

In pop psychology they used to refer to “tapes” running in your head, though that was often more in the sense of old information you had originally acquired from others spinning endlessly. But the resentments above are more like vinyl records that have been scratched: grooves are skipped, the same grooves at every playing, wearing deeper and deeper into the material. Other metaphors are a gravitational model of a black hole that draws everything into it. Vivid, but I don’t think accurate.

But it is not only resentment that operates this way, but many other emotions as well – and not just for pathological people, but for all human beings.

Let me hesitate over that. I see it happening in groups outside myself, I see it happening in individuals outside myself, and I find it within myself as well. From this I concluded that it is a human universal. That may not be so. I may think more like a pathological person than a normal person; it may only occur in some percentage of the normal population; I might be equating two different mechanisms, etc. But I suspect I got it right the first time. This is how resentment works, as well as depression, affection, and joy. Emotions collect events from memory. When you experience emotion x, all the other times you experienced x are potentiated in memory. They light up, so to speak, so that the events associated are in the first harvest of memory.

The other events in memory, though they may be naturally associated by time or subject matter, don’t light up. They exist on the skipped grooves. Bringing those associated resentments to mind is self-reinforcing; they light up even hotter next time. Eventually, as the George MacDonald character explained in Lewis’s The Great Divorce, one ceases to be a person grumbling and becomes only a grumble, going on of its own accord endlessly.

One corrective is to stand outside oneself and look specifically for data that might be missing. This is where the word “confession” keeps its usual meaning only by invoking the older meaning. We see what is true and declare the truth about ourselves. Confession is not merely apologizing, it is self-honesty.

1 comment:

(another) Jonathan said...

Perhaps successful people develop their own ways of getting missing data. Confession might be one way. Another way might be to develop the ability to listen to other people. If someone close to you surprises you with a concern about something you are doing, this may be a warning that you are overdoing or overlooking something and should reevaluate your actions. Dysfunctional people, for various reasons, may lack the ability to get such information.