Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Ruined House: A Metaphor

When I was 18, I went to therapy for about six months. Almost the first thing I explained to my counselor was that I didn't intend for this to be "a lifetime project." I wanted to get in and get out. I had gathered that some people spent years in therapy (although at that time I don't believe I knew anyone who actually had) and to me that seemed like a bad idea. Since then I've become more confirmed in my belief that lots of talking does not actually help. Some people get very adept at talking about their emotions and their traumas--analysing themselves--and they genuinely feel bad. But talking is no substitute for actually doing the work.

The time that I spent talking to my therapist was only the tip of the iceberg. Outside of our sessions I spent hours thinking and remembering and feeling my feelings. That was the real work. Having a professional person to talk to was also vitally important. But I was doing the work myself. And it took years . . . much, much longer than six months.

Just today I realized what it is like, this work.

Imagine a house that's been gutted by fire: not completely destroyed. But there's a lot of structural damage, and all the furniture and belongings that were in the house have been charred and water-soaked, reduced to rubbish and sludge. Or perhaps the house was struck by an earthquake, or bombed.

In any case, therapy is the task of clearing out all the junk. It's hard work. It's sad work. And when it's over, you don't have much to show for it: only the ruins of a house. (It's almost exasperating.) Now the work of rebuilding begins . . . and maybe the house is so damaged that you have to tear it all down and start over.

It is possible to do. One does make progress, slowly. (One of the odd things about it is that you can make progress without even being aware of it. You just keep slogging along, and one day you lift your head and notice that the house is actually looking quite nice.) Of course, houses require a lot of upkeep. There's always something that needs to be worked on, and perhaps the carpentry will never be quite finished. I've never owned an actual house--it seems like a daunting prospect, on top of all the work that this imaginary house requires.

The very strangest thing about this house, the self, is that even though this metaphor of building the house is so useful, it's wrong in one important respect: the house builds itself. Each one of our houses has hidden rooms, passageways, staircases, sometimes entire floors that we can discover one day and announce "I had no idea that was there!" Where do these rooms come from, when we are quite certain that the house was at one point almost completely destroyed? Were they there all the time? Maybe.

Some parts of the house we need to build for ourselves, I think. Or at least decorate. We need to know what's there, and where it is, so that we're not constantly bumping into the furniture. But these unexpected rooms . . . personally I rather enjoy them. After spending so much time clearing away the rubbish and having to worry about the whole thing falling down, it's nice to explore some rooms that are, in my opinion at least, well-furnished and clean. My compliments to the decorator.

No comments: