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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

On Feeling Rather Than Thinking

One of the great impediments to understanding bits of our lives properly is our overly-ready assumption that we already do so. It’s easy to carry around with us, and exchange with others, surface intellectual descriptions of key painful events that leave the marrow of our emotions behind. We may say that we remember — for example — that we ‘didn’t get on too well’ with our father, that our mother was ‘slightly neglectful’ or that going to boarding school was ‘a bit sad.’

Vincent Van Gogh, River Bank in Springtime, 1887

It could — on this basis — sound as if we surely have a solid enough grip on events. But these compressed stories are precisely the sort of ready-made, affectless accounts that stand in the way of connecting properly and viscerally with what happened to us and therefore of knowing ourselves adequately; if we can put it in a paradoxical form, our memories are what allow us to forget. Our day to day accounts may bear as much resemblance to the vivid truth of our lives as a postcard from Naxos does to a month-long journey around the Aegean. 

If this matters, it’s because only on the basis of proper immersion in past fears, sadnesses, rages and losses can we ever recover from certain disorders that develop when difficult events have grown immobilised within us. To be liberated from the past, we need to mourn it and for this to occur, we need to get in touch with what it actually felt like; we need to sense, in a way we may not have done for decades, the pain of our sister being preferred to us or of the devastation of being maltreated in the study on a Saturday morning. 

The difference between felt and lifeless memories could be compared to the difference between a mediocre and a great painting of spring. Both will show us an identifiable place and time of year, but only the great painter will properly seize, from among millions of possible elements, the few that really render the moment charming, interesting, sad or tender. In one case, we know about spring, in the other, we finally feel it.

This may seem like a narrow aesthetic consideration, but it goes to the core of what we need to do to get over many psychological complaints. We cannot continue to fly high over the past in our jet plane while high-handedly refusing to re-experience the territory we are crossing. We need to land our craft, get out and walk, inch by painful inch, through the swampy reality of the past. We need to lie down, perhaps on a couch, maybe with music, close our eyes, and endure things on foot. Only when we have returned afresh to our suffering and known it in our bones will it ever promise to leave us alone.

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