Beware of Therapy Past Mid-life: Reflections on Reading “The Sense of an Ending”

“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Satchel Paige’s words suggest that life should be lived “full steam ahead,” not weighed down by regular retrospection. Most people take the advice to heart, at least to some extent, even if having never read it or heard it.

And, past age 60, my experience as a therapist suggests that such reconsideration of one’s own history becomes less and less likely. Unless tragedy strikes, a senior citizen who is a therapy virgin is not likely to seek the counselor’s services. No, the story that we tell ourselves about our life usually becomes fixed and — one must say it — self-serving, so that one does not become overwhelmed by remorse and the things that “should have” (or should not have) been done: the failed persistence, poor choices, and chances not taken; the damage done to others, including our children, our lovers, and our friends.

It is as if our old brain knows what our young brain couldn’t imagine: that there will come a time when there is not enough of a future to redeem the past.

We are, most of us, pretty well rationalized.

Yet this is what Julian Barnes’s prize-winning book The Sense of an Ending is about: the reflection upon and reevaluation of a life of 60-some years, by the author of that life, Barnes’s fictional narrator Tony Webster. And, if you are inclined to such self-analysis or even the common speculation about why people in your life do what they do, you might just find it the best work of fiction that you’ve read in a long time.

On the face of it, the story appears to be a simple one: a tale about pre-college friends including Tony, and his relationship with his first serious girlfriend; then losing touch with all those people, one of whom suffers tragedy. Finally, a jump of 40 years and the reinterpretation of that tragedy and those relationships, as well as his second-thoughts about himself. All of this occurs because of an apparently inexplicable event that disrupts Webster’s “peaceable” way of being.

Until that new monkey-wrench is thrown into the works, Tony thought he’d “wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” Somehow he’d trod a course that set aside youthful ambitions and hope for excitement, settling for things (and women) that were predictable and straight-lined. Eventually, he will realize that “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.”

What he must now face — the way in which long-ago actions have continued to have consequences — is the mystery that Tony (and the reader along with him) will soon come to know.

The book raises a number of issues:

  • How much can you trust your own memory?
  • How much of your memory is selective and comforting?
  • How much are you responsible for what happens to you in your life?
  • How much are your actions responsible for what happens to others?
  • Past what point is self-reflection destructive or, to paraphrase a Jack Nicholson character, “Can you handle the truth?” assuming that it is knowable?
  • How much damage to others do even the most careful of us cause?
  • Is it possible to be completely honest with oneself?

Most of the time one does want to — need to — think that “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The world would be too scary otherwise.

A simple example illustrates the complexity here:

In graduate school a friend requested me to help his girlfriend move some things from one apartment to another. Although I owned a car, I took the rapid transit and got off at the wrong subway stop, one station away from where I should have been. I didn’t realize until I walked a bit that it was in a terrible neighborhood. In the event, I arrived at my destination safely on foot.

But instead, you could have read this story on the next day’s front page:

Northwestern Graduate Student Murdered Near Cabrini-Green Housing Project

That no one did has always seemed to me a matter of pure luck.

What if I hadn’t been so lucky? Others would ask themselves, how did this happen? Doubtless, my friend would have found out; his girlfriend, too. Would they have felt guilty? Neither intended to set the chain of events in motion, yet both were a part of that chain.

As Tony Webster would say, “There is accumulation.” One thing leads to another.

Why didn’t I drive? Even I can no longer answer this question; I simply have no recollection of how I came to the decision to take the subway. Was it to save money? Was it because I thought it would be difficult to find parking? Was my car in the repair shop?

And why didn’t I walk back to the subway stop soon after I got off the train, the better to go to the next station? Shouldn’t I have been more aware of my surroundings and a little more terrified? Was I too cheap to pay another fare? And if I was, to what extent was that based on how I’d been raised, lessons learned at home about the dearness of the dollar? And if that is so, do my parents have some responsibility in the chain of events?

The example I’ve just given you might seem a bit silly, but I assure you that Barnes’s protagonist confronts a set of events that are much more compelling, involving real events and relationship complications, not things that didn’t happen, as in my illustration. But in both instances, one can ask oneself many questions: Why did I do that? What if I’d not done that? What if I’d done something different?

On the answers to these questions — really, on the actions themselves — lives can depend; at least the quality of a life.

The Sense of an Ending reminded me a bit of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. In each novel the author gives you enough information to put you in the position of an important character in the book, forcing you to live with the same incomplete knowledge that the character has of how things will end up. In Barnes’s work, this will likely cause you to want to reread the book, just as Tony Webster attempts to reread his life through letters and photos, the incomplete testimony of others, and his own imperfect and self-justifying memory. But at 163 pages, the rereading is just as engrossing as the first read-through (for me, just one day earlier).

If you believe that, in Kafka’s words, “a book should be an ax to break the frozen sea within us,” then know that this is such a book.

All of us are, or could be, like Tony or Lot’s wife, from the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is the nephew of Abraham in the biblical Book of Genesis. Lot and his wife are permitted to leave before God’s destruction of the two famously iniquitous cities, but there is a catch. They are instructed by angels not to look back. When Lot’s wife does, she is turned into a pillar of salt.

Yet we must look back, mustn’t we? At least some of the time? Isn’t that how we learn? As a therapist, I would certainly say so.

But the biblical rejoinder comes to mind from Ecclesiastes 1:18:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Or in the words of Tony at the book’s end:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.


The positive aspect of looking back can be found here: The Handwriting on the Wall.

The two images are photos of Hamo Thornycroft’s sculpture Lot’s Wife. The first is the work of Yair Haklai. The second is the uploaded photo of Donald Macauley by Amada 44. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.