I recently reread All Quiet on the Western Front in a class I take. The group consists of bright, well-read folks. Thoughtful to a fault.
I say that because, to me, the better you are with words, the more likely you will try to use them to explain experiences beyond description. Yet psychotherapy is about the fullness and meaning of those incidents and one person’s effort to convey them to another.
Even the name of the novel we completed shows how communication can fail. The translation from the German is wrong.
Erich Maria Remarque entitled this tale of World War I awfulness, Nichts Neu im Westen. I grasp enough Deutsch to tell you it means, Nothing New in the West.
“Nothing new” — just a few more deaths, more pointless battles over a space of — say — one hundred yards, traded between sides, over and again.
But what I’ve written here is insufficient and that is my point. The meat of the book, as moving as it is, attempts to describe trench warfare, death piled on meaningless death; heroism and stupidity and the loss of hope. Because I read “All Quiet,” I might now know something about war, but I do not know war.
In the seminar we struggled to understand. My noncombatant friends and I squandered many words attempting to think through something having little to do with thought. We were all touched by the story, sure. This wasn’t enough.
A wartime example might help, though still fail to achieve understanding. My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.
On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.
Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.
A movie might help, perhaps the opening of Saving Private Ryan, however much falling short.
What can we impart of joy? The birth of a child, sex, whatever is your happiest memory? Those without children won’t comprehend. The solitary who never made love “in love” can’t enter the realm of the incommunicable. Poor creatures holding only gray memories of a rocky life might find their best day difficult to recall as a pulsing, radiant thing.
Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.
Healers can’t get inside of you. They listen to the inflections, depend on the definitions they hope you share. Add your eyes, the ache in your voice, and body language. No wonder you are frustrated at times. No wonder they are frustrated at times. Nor am I including the secrets you’ve not told or the knowledge of yourself you don’t possess.
There are people in our lives — if you are like me — about whom you will learn more some time after not seeing them. I’m talking of a forest and trees phenomenon. We need to be close-up to make out some things. The rest takes form at a distance. Such perception is of little use to the departed, but the one who stumbles upon a new depth of insight is enlarged in a way I also cannot describe.
Trust me — “trust me about this” — is now a phrase that might mean a bit more to you. Perhaps you won’t be quick to trust the expression anymore. Remember, too, I’m using words to communicate; words you are encouraged to rely upon less.
Asking questions of the speaker might help him explain himself to you.
We are desperate. We wish to be understood. Do you have more than a faint sense of me, precise and perceptive in detail? To most of you I am black letters against white space on a phone or computer; perhaps a recorded voice on the Internet or a photo. In any shared real life you’d witness moments of irritation, disappointment, weariness, self-assertion, laughter and more.
No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.
Perhaps my tendency to answer questions truthfully is too rare a quality. Those who desire tender acceptance have no chance without frankness. Thus, I try to be frank.
Here is another consideration. Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.
We enter relationships and conversations as if all of us — every one — wore a hair piece. An observer might detect it, but still does not perceive what is underneath.
Science fiction of the Star Trek universe offers a non-conversational way of fathoming the other: the Vulcan mind meld. Here is a completeness of intimacy to the most terrifying degree imaginable: sharing every thought, every feeling, every recollection. Imagine the holder of a pitcher pouring them into you.
I learned the unreliability of language at home. I had one honest parent and another who couldn’t bear too much truth. Therein resided the equivalent of a university education. My nature was more attuned to the former.
Forty-years after his return from the European zone of combat, I asked my dad what he recalled of his reunion with my mom. A first phone call from New York stood out. The man I loved wept reliving the moment.
Did I understand? Well, I partook of his retelling, and that was more than sufficient. If we are sympathetic witnesses to such inwardness, the two of us become closer. Patients and doctors, parents and children, friends and lovers. We don’t need to fathom everything.
I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear.
The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.
The first painting is called City Landscape — 1955, by Joan Mitchell. It is followed by Georgia O’Keefe’s White Shell with Red. Both come from the Art Institute of Chicago.