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Dr. James Hollis Headshot

No Prisons More Confining

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The French surrealist poet, Guillame de Apollinaire once wrote that "Memory is a hunting horn whose sound dies out along the wind." What do we remember, and why, and how does what we do not remember play out in our daily choices, if at all? These are the questions which therapists deal with every day. The strange fact is that we do not do "crazy" things. We do "logical" things, based on the emotional premises we are serving at the time, many of which are unconscious.

It seems the greatest affront to our notions of ourselves as sane, rational beings -- doing what we are doing for very good reasons -- that much of our behavior derives from unconscious sources. The problem of the unconscious is, of course, that it is unconscious. We only begin to surmise its presence and its large role in the conduct of our lives when we are obliged to look at the patterns of our life and their consequences. Oh, those consequences.... Still, if we are honest, we have to admit that we are the only ones present in that long running soap opera we call our lives. So, it stands to reason again, that we bear some accountability for how it turns out. This makes it so hard to blame our parents, our society, or someone, anyone, else.

What we remember plays a role, for sure, in the conduct of our lives. Our most common response to what we remember is to repeat its message, whether intentionally or not. Or, secondly, we try to run away from the compelling power of that message. ("I will be anything but my Father; I will not repeat my Mother's life, and so on.") Or we work out an unconscious treatment plan for the power of that message: we spend a life of distraction-- which our banal culture seems created to assist; we anesthetize our inner suffering; or if we are really troubled, we spend our life seeking to solve these problems we see in others. (This has given rise to many therapists' careers, including perhaps my own).

But what we do not remember plays an even larger role in our lives. As Shakespeare noted in Twelfth Night, no prisons are more confining than those we know not we are in. So, what I do not know plays a large role in my choices, and affects not only my life but yours as well. When we get right down to it, even though the ego thinks it is in charge, or at least serves as the prime minister, it is only one among many in that parliament of voices. In 19th century England, no small measure of moving toward greater voter suffrage in the Reform Bill of 1832 involved cleaning up the so-called "rotten boroughs." A rotten borough was a parliamentary district in which few if any citizens still resided, but it suited the leadership to maintain a voting member of that entity so as to control the national assembly. Having once visited Old Sarum, and seeing there only a medieval ruin, I was surprised later to learn that Old Sarum held a vote for many decades. Who was using that vote, and in service to what agenda, was very dubious, indeed.

Generally, the Prime Minister of the psyche, the Ego, believes it is in control, but many of our rotten boroughs retain their vote and are not shy about exercising their prerogative. So, the Ego sets off in one direction but our life ends up in another place, with casualties along the way. How did that happen? Until we begin to look at our lives as the concrete expression of the "voting members" within, we will never be able to recover a measure of consciousness, nor will our lives begin to look something like what we intended.

As I look at our national discourse, I do not see consciousness at all, but various individuals, caught in complexes, expressing their anxieties, their projections, their neuroses. The more they bray, the more anxious they are, the more driven they are. Fortunately, our Constitutional leaders anticipated that the worst among us might rise to cry the loudest, and so they built in the checks and balances which are meant to correct excesses. Still, we daily see the effort to game that balance, load the deck, tilt the table, and it seems to be working.

But how much consciousness, and courage, it requires to bring anyone of us to confess our deepest anxieties. The conservatives are afraid of change, and the liberals are afraid that things won't change. Which of them is right? The essence of history serves both positions. History is about change, and also about recurrence. The real question is whether either group can rise to the larger issue of containing their anxiety in service to the common good.

I recall as a child how I took three things seriously: my parents, the life model of Jesus, and the American experiment. The first remains internalized with me as a set of admonitions, instructions, constrictions, and agendas, some playing out in enlarging ways, and some not. The second remains for me an ethical call, to live my life as fully as that itinerant Jewish rabbi lived his, in service to the summons of the transcendent. But the third remains most problematic. I could not understand how people would look down on my best friend, an African-American, who was superior to me in all respects, but who went finally to live in Austria where he would be accepted for the fine soul he truly is. The American experiment is still the hope of the world, and it is still a disturbing notion to many of our citizens.

If Apollinaire was right, memory fades along the wind, and what we do not remember plays an ever larger role in our lives. We are all called to this American experiment: that free people can govern themselves, that we are one community and must help each other through this difficult time, and that at the end of the day or the decade, we may yet prove the envy of the world because we overcame the narrow prejudices which limited our ancestors.