dr.K's tiips

Closure and other unhelpful memes

Definition of Meme: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes. — Richard Dawkins

In my time as unit chief at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, I sat in many team meetings. Those were comprised of different disciplines typically present on a psychiatric in-patient unit. One day in discussing a certain patient on the team I asked a colleague how she intended to go about treating him. Her answer, given with firm certitude, was: “We have to strengthen his ego”.  I looked around me, earnest intelligent faces of dedicated professionals, all beamed with a certain satisfaction: We have a strategy for this patient! I could not help myself: “and how do you suggest we go about strengthening his ego? I asked half facetiously. I am still waiting for the answer.

I view the use of memes as an expression of mental laziness akin to driving the 4 blocks to the dry cleaners. We slip each other words that describe whole concepts, unexamined and painfully inaccurate. “Strengthening the Ego” “Love”,” hate”, “happiness”, “overreaction”, “too much”,  “not enough” and so many others – some hip, some lame but all products of the “thinking in a nutshell” mentality.  We package dried essence of complex notions into convenient and easy to swallow capsules.  We say words to describe particular emotions without context (Next time you are angry, stop and think at what or with whom before you say it.  You’d be surprised how discovering a context – however superficial –  can help in dealing with your unpleasant feelings.)

Granted, in everyday parlance we are not concerned that our conversant might miss the depth and breadth of our connotations. Listening to random conversations, or watching TV makes it easy to assume that most people simply don’t care what weight their words carry, have nothing special to say, or both:  so the vagueness of their statements is not an obstacle to most discussions.  In fact, those who labor to make themselves clear and precise are often seen as pretentious or tiresome bores.

An area where the lazy use of vague memes is unacceptable is in the medical and psychiatric dialogue. Therapeutic conversation cannot be based on vagueness. The internist would ask you where does it hurt, and the psychiatrist would ask you what do you mean by the expression/word you just used. Whereas most people can pinpoint a pain to a certain area, one discovers that in psychiatry the situation is completely different. Even when pressed, most people identify the “good” reason rather than the “real” reason for their emotional pain. I do not suggest that people are intentionally obfuscating how they truly feel, or why, from their psychiatrists. We have emulated memes to such an extent, that we use them even in our private of privates, even in our inner world. You may be tormented for a long time by a certain meme of a concept that can be proven false and needlessly injurious, and be freed from it in one or two sessions.

The word “closure” is one of my pet peeves. Its basic definition is: “an often comforting or satisfying sense of finality.”  The meme’s connotation, especially in romantic disappointment, goes something like this: understanding the relationship, why and what went wrong, and what happened around the breakup (before during and after).  However, the meme does not say who gives the sense of closure.  And many feel they need to “get closure” from the ex-romantic partner.  That of course is a catch 22 since as long as you feel you need closure from someone, especially from an ex romantic partner, you cannot really “get closure”.  Instead of cutting this painful branch of your life, you continue to need the person who hurt you, if only for “a closure”.   When you actually stop and think about what is a closure, why do you need it and who should grant it, the burden of “waiting for a closure” becomes vastly more manageable.

To paraphrase Socrates “The unexamined meme is not worth keeping”.  We so often find ourselves ensnared by murky nebulous concepts.  Take happiness:  Most people, certainly the younger, aspire to be happy.  Yet it is very difficult to be (or feel) happy and very easy to become sad or unhappy. Further, it is difficult to overcome unhappiness and very easy to lose happiness.  We are clearly not “wired for happiness”.  And yet happiness is always on top of our wishes and aspirations.   We have chosen the most elusive and unreliable sentiments as our most urgently desirable ambition.  What a terrible mistake.  How many people have spent years of their life, feeling robbed of something that was never theirs (or any other person’s) to have.  Progressively bitter, disappointed and farther away from the beguiling shores of unattainable illusion.

Another unhelpful meme is unconditional love. The term love, once a mythical meme, is surprisingly insipid in its contemporary everyday use: “I love Iced coffee”, “I love my yoga teacher” etc.  It now mostly means “I feel good about it” – when “it” is something that you like and wish to continue to associate with. But what about someone you believe you are supposed to love in a stronger more consistent way, for example your romantic partner?  Often, we feel that our love needs to be unconditional, through thick and thin. Simply put, unconditional love means that there are few conditions that can compromise your love for a certain person. This of course is not possible: our love waxes and wanes as life supplies an endless stream of conditions that interfere with our love to someone or something.  We can love someone and then feel resentment, and annoyance, and fondness, and tenderness and rage all in the span of a few hours and often intermingled into a jumble of feelings.  In fact, the closer the person the more complex the feeling and the less chance for having any sort of “unconditional” emotions.  And yet many people spend periods of terror realizing they resent their spouse or failing to feel “steady love”.  Feeling resentment toward a person you are supposed to love is scary: “Is the relationship deteriorating? “.  Perhaps, but not for having unsteady, “conditional” love.  In fact, love for another person should be conditional.  If it isn’t conditional, you are in trouble for allowing your feelings for another person become independent from who they are and what they do. The more your feelings reflect the reality of your relationship, the better chance they have to grow and prosper.

Which bring me to another unhelpful meme – ruinous in fact-  the notion of “being in love”. In my line of work, I often attend hearings in family court.  Many people who are getting divorced and feel mostly resentment and acrimony towards their spouse, tell me the reason they got married was “falling in love” with each other. While my impressions are limited by scope and geography, I think it is safe to assume that most unarranged marriages were fueled by being in love with the future spouse. Now bitter and mistaken they wonder what were they thinking to marry that person. When pressed, most answer that “he” or “she” was different at the beginning. So they fell in love with someone who was different and indeed people change over the years. But is it possible that you were in love with someone who mutated into a totally different person? Is it possible that the person you initially thought was worthy of choosing as a life partner morphed into someone you now despise and cannot wait to break away from? Perhaps. But it is also possible that it was you who changed.  You fell in love with someone which means your emotional “high” stood in the way of your rational appraisal – you were as fit to make a decision as someone who is drunk or high on cocaine.

When the grounds for marriage is “being in love” you risk marrying someone different from the flesh and blood person. How different depends on how skilled you are in lying to yourself.  Those who are masterful in it often end up having bad life. They married someone who is not who they fantasied, and use self lies to convince themselves to do nothing about it.  If you are lucky, that momentary lapse of reason would turn out a winning gamble. Of course, much is dependent on ongoing mutual growth as a couple. But it is still a gamble, an impulse buy that turns out to be disastrous for many stuck in living together. Once so much in love with each other, they relate to each other as two disdainful inmates stuck together in one prison cell.

Spend some time amidst toddlers. They are full of wonderment, original and quirky thinking and idiosyncratic use of language. But they cannot collaborate beyond parallel play, without a standard use of language. Verbal communication transformed us, weak primates, into effective coherent groups, capable at first of hunting down huge prey and eventually of taking over the world. No wonder we believe there is power in numbers, hence submit ourselves to linguistic common denominator: we make use of convenient memes to communicate efficiently even if what we say is sloppy, inaccurate approximation of what we could have said. If you pondered at 10 what is the meaning of the word love and how it is related to how you feel, you realize that pondering the subtle hues of a concept works for you only if it is new. Sooner than later every new concept no matter how exciting falls into the homogenizing machine and becomes a nebulous meme. But what about your conversations with yourself?  Why communicate with yourself according to the lowest common verbal denominator?  After all you have a denominator of one with yourself. There is no reason for mediocracy in your own inner dialogue while you are the only one who can truly understand you without words. In a way, the use of preverbal communication, the one you had before you learned language, is actually preferable. The words, and especially the unexamined concepts are often the source of unnecessary pain. You pace relentlessly in your mind’s inner prison, unwittingly manufacturing causes for disappointments, feeling robbed of what has never been yours, and growing increasingly bitter at the unfairness of your life. That unhelpful way of living is actually a choice:  much like choosing active life style over sedentary ones, learning something new over passively absorbing the bombardment of inane drivel we get from media sources, you can choose to define your own concepts to yourself, in any way you want to. If you choose to continue to use unexamined memes in your own inner world don’t be surprised to find out that you are not “happy”, that being “in love” was a mistaken premise for tying the knot, that you cannot “get closure” from others, that you can achieve no “success” and so on.  Common denominator works for physical things: most people would agree about what makes something first class and why it is better than second class. Most people react with wonderment to a beautiful sunset, or colorful butterflies, or the scent of flowering jasmine. Colorful is better for us than gray, cool breeze better than hot humidity: there are so many concepts we can agree about without having to explain.  But there is no universal love, or happiness, or success, or resolution, etc.  those are truly in the eyes of the beholder.  You are the beholder of your life: you are in charge of chronicling and giving meaning to your feelings, your beliefs and your thoughts.

Consider: you rarely meet a “soulmate”, someone who knows how you feel, what you believe and what you are thinking. This is not a common experience. Rather, we mostly suffice with approximation, recognizing that we cannot be fully understood by the others, no matter how much we want them to. We want so much to be understood that we barter the infant preverbal subtlety for a tired, conceptual uniformity.

Is it a problem?  Not really. As species, we committed to our type of language, one that is meant to convey complex concepts in a terse direct way. Saying “The space shuttle exploded two minutes after take-off” brings the listeners up to speed about a special situation, without lingering on the numerous issues revolving this event. Most feel very uncomfortable with saying nothing. People who follow a vow of silence are seen with curious awe as if they were extraterrestrial. We want to know what is going on, we want to tell what is going on, we are constantly talking to each other. For myself, I prefer to ponder relevant concepts in the privacy of my inner world. I don’t need language, words for my inner dialogue. I can understand myself without words: much like my dreams do not obey any known physical laws, my inner dialogue does not follow any linguistic structure. Why should I adopt unexamined concepts to animate the way I think about my own life?

Practicing medicine and especially psychiatry, has taught me not to assume on behalf of my patients. I also do not suggest to anyone what to think or what to feel. But I can suggest how to think about certain concepts. I suggest how to think about something the way a yoga teacher suggest how to hold a posture in a more efficient way. Next time that you feel bitter or disappointed at the way your life has become, promise yourself to spend some time thinking about the terms you are using to evaluate your successes and failures, your relationship with others, and most of all your relationship with yourself.  Remind yourself every day: 1. that this is your only life, 2. that you are destined to live it as yourself, 3. that you bear the outcome of your decisions and 4. that you are free to define yourself to yourself in any way you want provided you do not expect the others to agree with you.

Forgetting those four simple principles may result in you pretending that this is not your only life, that you can live them as someone else, that your decisions and choices have little bearing on you, and the most self-crushing: defining yourself by the opinions of others. Sadly, many people abandon the reality of their life for some beguiling but unreal alternatives. Those who live fake life becomes increasingly bitter: “this is not the life I was supposed to have”. Well of course it isn’t! you chose to live a life different from the one you were supposed to have. It is never too late to live your life as you and nobody else.  You will be amazed at how natural it would feel to be you.

” You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist”.  Friedrich Nietzsche


© 2019 The Institute of Integrative Psychiatry. All Rights Reserved.