Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rear View Mirror

The temperature had jumped from -2F to +52, and a couple of feet of snow were rapidly melting as I drove through puddles and mist on Saturday morning errands.  A glance in the rear view mirror showed that the rear window was completely fogged, so I turned on the rear window defroster.  My car has a heavy duty rear window defroster, so I was surprised when nothing happened after a few minutes.  I wondered if the defroster was broken, or if the fog was on the outside of the window rather than the inside (although shouldn't the defroster clear that too?).  I opened the front windows a bit; perhaps air flow might clear the rear window.  Then I saw a clearing view out of a corner of the rear window.  But that was puzzling, because the clarity should have spread out from the defroster strips.  What was happening?

Then, as I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the clarity in the rear window spread, I realized that the fog wasn't on the rear window at all; it was on the rear view mirror with which I had been looking at the rear window.  

Surely, this is a "teachable moment!"

The shift of perspective--when I realized that what I took to be one situation, a befogged rear window, was really another, a befogged rear view mirror--shows brain at work in an unusually clear way.  Our perception of reality is in fact an interpretive construction that is part of the work of the brain.  The "Aha!" moment was the recognition of a shift in perception; this can often happen in humor, too.  This experience was especially valuable because it duplicates, in a low key and inconsequential way, what can happen in very much more consequential situations.  

There's a famous Welsh tale about Gelert, the faithful hound.  Prince Llewelyn heard the dog snarling in his infant son's nursery, rushed in to find the dog covered in blood and the infant nowhere in sight, and drew his sword and killed Gelert...only to discover, when he looked around again, his infant son alive and well in a corner of the room, surrounded by the remains of a wolf which had attacked it, and which Gelert the loyal hound had attacked and killed, saving the baby.  The same theme shows up in a Sufi story about a soldier who returns home after many years to see his wife walking hand in hand with a younger man.  He resolves to kill them for infidelity, but pauses, recalling the advice about pausing before acting impulsively that he'd begrudgingly purchased from a Sufi teacher years before.  Then he overhears his wife say, "We'll go to the harbor again tomorrow, my son, to see if your father has returned."  The story, as told by Idries Shah, has more context:  the soldier, many years before, paid the Sufi for a couple of pieces of progressively more expensive advice and then balked at the third, which would have saved him many years of suffering and deprivation.  So there's a theme about the value of advice here too, and whether we perceive the value, and more.  (I can't recall the book that story is in, and will be grateful to a reader who can tell me!)  

This theme--at its most basic, that things are not necessarily as they seem to be, and that perceptual mistakes can be very consequential when we commit ourselves to action--turns up so often in stories from different cultures and traditions that it must be part of the human inheritance of literature that shows us how the mind works. But that inheritance of literature itself is subject to befogging over time, as the folkloric elements come to predominate over the psychological and instructional ones.  Like my rear view mirror, the psychological content within the literature becomes befogged periodically and needs to be clarified if it is to become available again.    

Another insight has to do with how we understand ourselves and our lives.  Each of us has a narrative about who we are and where we have come from that is central to our sense of identity.  It provides us with some measure of inner stability and cohesion as we go about our lives, often buffeted by the impacts of events.  We look back, even as we go forward, and our understanding of where we have come from shapes our perception of where we are.  Sharing that narrative with others is part of becoming closer with them, and sharing particularly private episodes of our narrative is a sign of increasing trust and intimacy.  Yet the narrative, which we weave as we go forward in our lives, often incorporates perceptual mistakes, which can come from a number of factors:  lack of information, wrong information, mistaken beliefs, allegiances that shape what we see and how we see it.  

A large part of psychotherapy, at least as I and my psychodynamically oriented colleagues do it, is about understanding the patient's current situation and challenges in the context of the developmental history that has brought her to this point.  In order to do that, we have to reflect together on the patient's narrative of who she is and how she came to be who she is.  And in that process of mutual reflection on her (or his) narrative, we often discover the psychological equivalent of "fog on the rear view mirror."  Psychotherapy, then, when it works as it should, is to some extent the equivalent of "opening the windows so the fresh air can clear the fog."    
This brings us to two reasons that prevent people from coming in for therapy when they need it, and that prevent them from benefitting once they've begun.  First, they don't understand, at a deep enough level to make a difference, that part of their problems in living comes not from what has happened to them per se but from how they have perceived what has happened to them.  Helping people to understand this at a deep enough level to make a difference is a very important goal of therapy.  The second reason is that they are so attached to their narrative of who they are and how they became that way that they have confused it with their own innermost self, so they can't step aside from it to do the reconstruction necessary to bring their narratives more into alignment with reality.  Our innermost self, as psychiatrist Arthur Deikman points out in The Observing Self, is awareness; and with awareness, we can revise, re-view, reconstruct our narratives about who we are and where we have come from.  

We just have to have a clearer rear view mirror to look into.