Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
–W.H. Auden, 1940
Limitations. That’s not a word that most of us like to consider. Especially if we are used to being an authority figure, someone in control, independent, pro-active and successful. Yet, sooner or later, we shall all bump into that wall in some form or another: a concrete barrier called health, a stone wall labeled children, a blockade brought on by misfortune, deceit, or crime. Over the years, most of us become conditioned to an electrically charged, invisible fence that marks the borders of our potentiality, and as long as we don’t dare get too close, we believe that we are safe, free, and empowered. Living in America , this is especially significant. It is in our DNA to see open vistas and unlimited horizons, even as we congregate in self-made corrals for safety. After all, if we don’t go to the edge, we are free to believe it does not exist and that there are no limits.
So what happens when, as clinicians or pastors, we meet the clients who are stuck at a roadblock that is just in front of an entrance ramp that could finally lead them down a new road towards a new beginning, and instead of staying on course, following the detours that could lead them in a new direction, they quit? Or worse, they don’t just give up and sit still on the side of the road. No. All too often, they choose to sit in the path of oncoming traffic, under the guise or delusion of hitchhiking? We get slammed. We run right into our limitations as therapists, and get pinned in by our own existential fear of seeing the other’s future unfold because we know all too well their history and life patterns: The battered wife who returns to her abusive husband; the addict who quits rehab, the suicidal person who ends treatment.
What else do we feel in those moments? Dread.
Dread is the inescapable awareness of an outcome that is beyond our own control to prevent yet is inevitable in its onslaught. It differs from horror in that horror stems from those events which are beyond belief—outside the realm of normal expectation. 9/11 was horrific. Watching the Challenger explode was horrific. Everything goes along normally until some cataclysmic or evil event happens. But dread is different. Dread is expected. Dread is when we know that something awful is about to happened, and we are helpless to stop it.
The ancient Greeks understood the power of dread. One can not avoid it in the plays of Sophocles. Oedipus is the anti-hero of the genre spawning children who, also, inherit his doomed fate. For the ancient audiences who gathered at daybreak, they would encounter dread and experience catharsis. If Kings, Queens, and Princesses could not be spared outcomes that they had no control over, then it was comforting, by comparison, for ordinary Spartans and Thebans to deal with their own small burdens. Dread was normalized in a world where faith was a belief in inescapable fate. For Oedipus, Creon, Jocasta, and, even, Antigone…their fate was pre-destined, and no attempt to outwit it, however well intentioned, could thwart it. For the audiences, fully aware of the tales in advance, knowing that the characters’ attempts to seize control of their lives would not work, they learned that dread is an inescapable emotion that must be accepted and acquiesced to. In other words, dread was the emotion that underscored their relationship between the Gods and man. Dread was the precursor emotion that led to accepting humanity’s limitations, and, thus, their own limitations, too.
How different it is for us, today! Especially for those who espouse a more Christian perspective, for the element of free will in relation to a higher being is an essential element in our approach to life. Nowhere can the comparisons be more on display than in the films of Hitchcock. Unlike Sophocles, Hitchcock’s characters are not larger than life Kings and Queens. They are us. The innkeeper, businessman, doctor, or mother. Ordinary people going about ordinary lives who stumble upon some truth that is about to lead to destruction. The genius of Hitchcock was that, although he, too, created characters who realized that they were helpless to change an inevitable, negative outcome, (e.g., The Man who Knew Too Much); nevertheless, he gave them the ability to act, or attempt to act, to thwart it. And, in true Hollywood style, it would work.
In other words, dread was the emotion that the audience felt long before the characters did, but as soon as the characters’ experienced their own self awareness of that dread manifesting, they did not give up. They did not accept fate. They did not acquiesce to destiny. In fact, right to the edge, they attempted to change the outcome, and they succeeded—not with superhuman intelligence or godlike effort but with sheer will power using simple, human touches: a high note, a melody, and a song.
This is catharsis with a twist of hope! This is a paradigm shift that says to humanity, yes, there are limitations, but if one perseveres and keeps struggling, one can change the outcome of one’s life—despite the odds of succeeding. In other words, fate is not a predestined fixed outcome by God; rather, it is a fluid, dynamic process that is determined by the choices each of us makes, even if it comes at the last possible moment.
Herein is the significance for us as clinicians with those clients who confound us. In the midst of experiencing our limitations as therapists, we can bring into it the awareness that the inevitable does not necessarily have to happen. That the dread we may be feeling may be averted at any moment—even if we never get to see it. We may like to think of ourselves as the director, but in reality, we are, merely, the audience to the dramas of our clients, and it is they who, as the actors in their own life stories, can change their roles at any moment to write a new and unexpected ending—or a whole new script! Limitations? Meet the new screenwriter, Free Will. The sequel is called Hope.
© copyright 2010 by Lucia Seyranyan. All rights reserved.