Friday, March 21, 2008

On Choosing to Fall from a Tree

This is a story that in some ways is a metaphor that illuminates a process of mind that characterizes all of us. I tell it because it is both interesting and instructive.

The Fall

Some forty or more years ago, I was in the process of building a fledgling practice of psychoanalysis and still learning from its founder, Sigmund Freud. With four children and a wife to support, and the expense of living in New York City with both apartment and office to finance, we were barely able to get by. Despite this, when the kids’ summer vacation arrived, Martha and I decided we would take two months as a family to be together. But how to do it with little or no money? The answer of course was to go camping, and this we did for many years. One of the places we enjoyed most was Maine, and we found a small campground on Islesboro Island in Penobscot Bay. We made friends with the family that owned the campground and returned there often.

One year, however, rain and fog seemed to be present continuously for the two months we were there. But we discovered that if we took the ferry to the mainland, the sun was often shining there whereas fog covered the outer islands. Thus we decided to spend more time on the mainland. Martha would take the kids to the playground in Belfast or did the grocery shopping while I explored the dusty tax records in the county courthouse, looking for land, the taxes for which had not been paid for some time. If the taxes were in arrears for an extended period—(I forget the length of time)—the land reverted to the town that was due the taxes.

To my joy I discovered what appeared to be twenty acres, half of a forty-acre island, just off Islesboro, the taxes for which had not been paid in a very long time. The quit-claim deeds of many relatives turned out to be a complex matter, but in essence, the town of Islesboro owned most of that twenty acres (one person had paid on their ‘undivided portion,’ and they agreed to sell). I approached the town fathers and asked when they would put up their newly acquired land for auction bid (they did not know they owned it). An auction of such land was required by law. The result was that my bid was the highest, and with a loan from a bank, I bought it.

During the following winter, with some more borrowed money, I had a tent platform constructed on the highest point of land on a cove.

All this was a significant event for me, since I owned nothing at that point. I was still making car payments. So when we arrived at our newly-acquired island (no one lived on the other half so in phantasy we chose to believe we had it all), I was quite happy. Martha was pleased, and the kids ran about exploring the woods and the littoral.

As I put up the tent on the newly built platform, I thought how lovely it would be to sit there at sunset in front of the tent drinking coffee as the sun went down behind the Camden Hills. But as I turned around to the west to face them, I saw only a huge spruce limb blocking the view. After a brief moment of disappointment, I was relieved by the thought that, young and strong as I was, climbing that tree and cutting off that view-blocking limb would be no trouble at all. So I took my woodsaw, climbed the tree and happily began sawing away.

While halfway through the spruce bough, I distinctly heard a voice in my head say: “NOW YOU ARE ABOUT TO FALL.” And instantly I did so. My muscles went limp, I lost my foothold and my grip and down I plunged, nearly fifteen feet, landing especially hard on my right ankle. It swelled up like a balloon and I was sure it was broken. Fortunately, instead, it turned out to be a very severe sprain (severe enough to immobilize me for the next seven weeks). My vacation plans were severely truncated; all I could do was sit as patiently as possible and contemplate what on earth that voice was all about.

And so I did. Fortunately, what was instantly clear to me was that the cause of this ‘accident’ was all in my mind. My mind was the source of my behavior; not my body; not some outside incident or external force. I had no one ‘out there’ to blame; instead, I saw its cause was but a very strange decision in my own mind. (All this was before I knew anything about the metaphysics of A Course in Miracles—indeed, in fact before the book was scribed.) But I did know about the writings of Freud, which I was studying at the time. In fact, I had brought some of them along for ‘summer reading,’ and I turned to them for some explanation of this strange episode.

I considered Freud’s “death instinct,” as he called it, but at that time found it to be too abstract an explanation. But then I came upon a paper he had written with the Victorian title, “The Negative Therapeutic Reaction.” In it he described his observation of a frequent phenomenon that occurred during the course of his “talking cures,” as he called them. What he observed was this pattern:

A patient would enter treatment with specific symptoms and, as the therapy progressed, sometimes the frequency and/or severity of the symptoms decreased and the patient was therefore happily relieved. However, there came a point when the symptoms returned, sometimes with a swift vengeance, returning far worse than they were at the beginning of the treatment. And if the patient did not quit in disgust, but continued the therapy, the same gradual improvement would be repeated, again reaching the same plateau, then precipitately dropping with the symptoms’ return. Freud called the point of symptom reversal ‘the negative therapeutic reaction.’ Basically, I suppose another term to describe this phenomenon would be ‘the fear of happiness.’

Certainly, I was most happy with my life at the moment I decided to fall. Certainly it was in fact an illusion that I owned either the new platform or the island acreage—(the bank owned them both)—but I was certainly happy in my delusion. My wife was humming contentedly as she put away the groceries, and the children’s excitement of discovery pleased me greatly. Could it be I was experiencing the same thing as Freud’s patients? At the time it seemed to be the best possible solution to that nagging question, “Where did that voice come from?”

So I decided to make a life study of that question, seeking its answer primarily in myself, but also in the data I collected from the patients I worked with. I looked for evidence of this ‘fear of happiness’ and I found it. Now I am aware that our eyes see what they want to see and our ears hear what they want to hear. Nevertheless, I have since found this idea to be true for everyone I’ve been privileged to know with some intimacy. It seems we all have it. A Course in Miracles calls this part of the mind the Ego, and one of its most potent passages is:

“The ego is, therefore, particularly likely to attack you when you act lovingly, because it has evaluated you as unloving and you are going against its judgment. The ego will attack your motives as soon as they become clearly out of accord with its perception of you. This is when it will shift abruptly from suspiciousness to viciousness, since its uncertainty is increased.”

(Text, Ch 9, Section VII, paragraph 4)

This quote, I believe, explains my choice to listen to that voice in my head—and explains that voice. For I had for many years, that one included, believed I was unloving. But as I proceeded to cut through that limb, I had a newfound joy in the moment—a joy of providing in some small way for the happiness of my wife and four children. It was the closest

I had come to daring to think I might be expressing love for both myself and them. Thus, the fall. I have since determined to make a correction when I hear the ego’s voice and see that voice as “the great deceiver,” and do what I can to deprive it of its pretence to power. To the extent that I have been successful in that endeavor, my contentment and serenity have in direct ratio increased.

Copyright 2007 Frank West

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