Existential GPS

You Will Be Visited By Three Spirits

 

An Existential Yuletide Greeting
by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they the shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge. A word synonymous with images of a bitter, elderly man concerned more with greed than humanity; a cultural archetype of someone wanting nothing further to do with his species and one who has no use for words like “compassion” or “care.” Yet, on closer examination, Scrooge’s story reveals some remarkable insights for our modern times. There are facets to his narrative that are ostensibly universal, a playful commentary on the mores of the time, but he is more relevant today than ever.

On its surface, Dickens’ Victorian yarn can be simply read as “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.” However, there is much at stake for us in this tale. And so, it is in the spirit of the season, and in this brief blog format, I assert to you that Charles Dickens’ seminal 1843 work A Christmas Carol remains one of the finest examples of existential psychotherapy ever written (albeit in fictional form). The tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge opens a time and space for self-reflection for those who want to examine life in a meaningful and in-depth fashion. This is not about instant transformation for the client, positive psychology to sooth the therapist’s fears, or worse, wishful thinking from both parties. It is an existential crisis that is illuminated by one of the key tenets of psychotherapy – fear of death.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

We all know the story, so it is here that I wish to briefly highlight the other side of Scrooge. No one arrives at a certain age without a back story and Scrooge’s history is one filled with disappointment and neglect. He is an ignored and isolated child abandoned even at Christmas. Scrooge knows pain all too well at an early age, and the world and its inhabitants are not to be trusted. People, above all, should be shunned. They are to be feared as they need and require emotional attachment and engagement. These qualities are easily dismissed by a young man whose growing trust in currency and greed will eclipse his life for years.

In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge exemplifies one of the central canons of existential depression and anxiety, that one has always been this way, and one always will be. There is a loss of agency and caustic determinism quickly fills in this void. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points at the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that life can be written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t. The specter’s message is powerful; an opportunity for Scrooge to see what life on earth would be like after his death. Scrooge observes his own forgotten corpse as his peers minimize his demise. He watches in horror as strangers quickly sell his belongings, while mocking his death with no regard or mercy. In death, he can no longer be an agent of change. He is a spectator to a cruel and vicious world he created.  Yet all Three Spirits show him that he was and is agent of change as long as he is alive. It is through an encounter with one’s mortality that a fuller life may occur – to know death is to know life. Scrooge accepts the significance of death, so that he may live his final months and years embraced in the richness of his relationships with others.

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Illustration by Harry Furniss

Death anxiety is real; despite those in modern psychology who often relegate the subject of death to the closet of “let’s not go there unless we have to” (even by some seasoned practitioners who should know better). In short, beware the therapist who professes that the exploration of death anxiety is not particularly helpful in therapy. Yes, therapists can spend far too much time focusing on one area while neglecting another. It happens. Not every therapist is well-rounded enough to create a new therapy for each of her or his clients. However, that shouldn’t allow for a wave of “positivity” to sweep us away from Otto Rank’s maxim, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.” Exploration of death and dying serves as a profound catalyst toward some remarkable life changes. It is the confluence of both past, present and future; an investigation of life by way of an awareness and acknowledgement of our finite time here on Earth. In this way, we are all a reflection of Dicken’s vision.

Thus, A Christmas Carol calls us to embrace some definitive questions, “How would the world be different if I were to die today?” and “Do I ever have a true sense of how many lives I’ve touched?” Scrooge’s story may, in fact, provide the answers. Our relationships with others are so intrinsic that our absence creates an entirely different existence – a ghostly existential vacuum, if you will.

In the Victorian era, people saw ghosts and had premonitions. It was a system of supernatural beliefs that was not uncommon. Freud came along and said that this was the result of repressed memories. The dead were reduced to misleading or damaged recollections that resulted in certain beliefs and behaviors. Ghosts haunted the mind, not the house. Yet, there is something within Scrooge’s narrative that calls to us, pushes us beyond cause and effect, beyond determinism, and reminds us that we can be responsible and compassionate with our life choices and that no person is indeed an island.

Be well, and remember to keep the spirit of this season in your heart today and throughout the year.

In good health,
Don

Photos courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/furniss/xmas.html#cc

The Accidental Existentialist Issue 5
eTalkTherapy

The Accidental Existentialist Issue 5

The Accidental Existentialist Issue 5. Photo by Alexander Stanishev at UnsplashRead the Winter 2018/19 edition of The Accidental Existentialist, eTalkTherapy‘s quarterly online magazine now or download the PDF to read later. In this issue you will find great articles and new works by Point Park University journalism student Derek Malush, mental health professionals Támara Hill, Morgan Roberts, and Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk. Leave a comment to let us know what you think – Enjoy!

The winter sunset looms. The darkness gathers quickly, and the cold winds blow, but there kindles inside us a hopeful side to the long winter months. A flame remains in spite of its obscured existence. So here is my challenge to you, Dear Reader, stoke the flame.
May you head into the New Year believing you can make it a great year. Most  importantly, may you head into 2019 with a plan.

Great things in life seldom happen without resolve, energy and a creative spirit. The good stuff is the result of vision, strategy, hard work, and patience.

There’s some truth to what naysayers spout about resolutions, but the concept of resolutions is a good one. Used well and with good intent, they can provide the focus needed to turn goals into that ever elusive “new normal.”

We all have answers to what we want out of life. The problem is that we ask ourselves the wrong questions. Instead of asking “How?” or “Why?” try “When?” or “Where?”
Many people who’ve lost weight were rarely successful on the first or second try. Yet, they persevered.

If a goal is worth dreaming, it’s worth relentless effort and passion. Perseverance and resolve are key. Little in life is accomplished without them. So rather than abandon your New Year’s resolutions, add this one: “I resolve to keep my New Year’s resolutions.” Create a life worth living. Navigate those uncharted waters and stop being your own worst critic. Commitment counts. Remind yourself frequently of what you hope to achieve, and pursue it with urgency. Life is indeed short, with no guarantees. When does it start for you?

Have a Healthy and Happy New Year.

Peace,
Don

In this issue:


King. Me.
by Derek Malush

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Life is habitually referred to as a game. Numerous pieces, various rules, and the board on which we play is the ground we tread on.

Take chess for example. An intellectual’s game, which entails limitless hours of
practice to mature one’s strategy. I often amused the thought of chess as just
being an old person’s game. That when you see chess being played, it is, as
sappy indie films tell us, usually two older folks trying to out-duel one another
using their ripened wit and arduous tactics as if the rusted gates had just
dropped down on the beach of Normandy…Read more


Managing Family During the Holidays: 5 Roles to Avoid
by Támara Hill, MS, NCC, CCTP, LPC, Owner at Anchored Child & Family Counseling

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How do you plan to spend the holiday this year? Are you dreading the family gatherings? If so, you are not alone.

Research suggests that the holidays are often a time of intense grief and feelings of loss, existential discomfort (discussed below), revisiting of traumatic experiences, overwhelm with materialism and commercialism, and the dispiriting conversations around the table…Read more


Midterm Elections 2018: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
by Morgan Roberts, MSPC

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2018 saw a historic midterm election. Though, let us be honest, every election is historic. It shapes our government for years, and possibly generations. I am looking at you, Senate, for confirming known-assaulter Brett Kavanaugh.

However, what we saw was a glimmer of hope, the realities of a rigged system, and you know, white people just being themselves. You are probably reading this, hinting at my personal bias here…Read more


Navigating the Holidays & Associated Emotions with Awareness
by Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk, MSPC

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During the holiday season, images of a crisp snow covered lane, with the view into the frosted window of a warm and cozy home, the scene of a blazing fire, a long decorative table filled with scrumptious holiday delights, and loved one’s surrounding the table brings feelings of dissonance for many. The holidays absolutely have the potential to bring feelings of intimate experiences filled with belonging, exhilaration, sharing, and gathering with loved ones.

For many, however, there are increases in stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness, difficulties with grieving and loss, conflict, and contemplation…Read more


Do you have an idea for an article or would you like to contribute to our magazine?

This is your opportunity to submit educational and informative content that promotes growth in all aspects of mental health issues from an existential or humanistic perspective. Upon publication of your article, you will receive a $25 stipend.

Submit your queries at eTalkTherapy.com/submit.

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Everyday Therapy

Part 3: The Essentials of Developing Quality Relationships

by Mandi C. Dalicandro-Turk, MSPC

A Series of Articles: 3 of 6 – How to Increase Healthy Communication

Have you ever experienced someone in life that you connect with and enjoy talking with immensely- on all levels of communication? There are feelings of mutual understanding, it feels natural, safe, supportive, and you find that you’re able to share more and more facets of your being with another human.  It’s a wonderful experience- one of value. Someone that knows the deeper meaning to your life events and experiences, that’s there for you, that you’re there for, makes you laugh, and you’re able to give to genuinely.

The Desire to Connect

Communication stimulates and engages on a cognitive level. It’s important to consider that the desire to connect as a human is natural. Consider how many people you meet within a week, a month, and a year.  How often do you connect in a deep and meaningful level? Many times, clients indicate the level of difficulty in communicating with others and developing deep and meaningful relationships.  An individual’s innate desire to connect taps into one’s internal strength reserves to  work through fears and evoke increases in vulnerability with the goals of moving forward towards healthier communication; which brings the associated benefits of developing satisfying long-term relationships.

Appreciation and Value

In addition, it’s vital to appreciate the individuals you’ve developed strong communication with. Ask the difficult question- do you appreciate and value the relationship(s) you currently have? To assist with your decision, reflect on how each individual relationship has shifted and developed over time.  Consider what expectations you have of the relationship and whether you’re able to give back in similar manners.

Additionally, ask- are you feeling consistently frustrated? This is a difficult environment to engage in. Consider whether or not you are stuck in a cycle of unrealistic expectations. If so, honest reflection in regards to how realistic it is for the relationship to change over time and/or whether or not the relationship will be a beneficial experience long-term is vital.  At times, there is internal work an individual will benefit from in a therapeutic relationship to assist with developing realistic expectations and building awareness of the complexity and differences.

When Life Becomes Significantly Difficult- and it will

Life, at times, becomes stressful, difficult, and perplexing. Healthy communication doesn’t necessarily mean that there is void of conflict or disagreement; especially during stress, grieving, and difficult times.  Consider how individuals engage during the good times and during more difficult times.  This is where having developed a sense of value and appreciation for having strong communicative relationships is beneficial.  During difficult times, many relationships suffer and eventually break down or cease completely.  Most times, with pain, confusion, and many unanswered questions. The more time that passes without directly addressing the issues that break down the relationship, the more difficult it is to return to a sense of balance and satisfaction.  However, there are ways to minimize the damage and pain. With healthy communication, individuals will have a higher probability of increasing the strength and connection through difficult times, which develops a stronger connection, reinforces trust, and commitment.

Strong Connections

At times, a person engages in a relationship built over years with a strong connection. The relationship has deeper meaning, higher investment, and is much more difficult to cease. Moreover, if the relationship is a healthy one, it’s critical to understand the gift of this type of connection throughout life. Consider romantic relationships, family members, friends, professional connections, and/or connections on social media.  It’s important to reflect on how comprehensive and significant this list is. Ask yourself- how many individuals do you feel intimately connected with? Even with the numerous individuals you engage with, there is only a segment that encompasses what individuals innately desire- mutually healthy, strong, consistent, intimate, and beneficial relationships where growth, change, vulnerability, love, and communication are supported and desirable for each person.

Note: Article: 3 of 6 discussed the benefits of increasing healthy communication. Article: 4 of 6 will discuss ways to increase healthy communication as part of developing and reinforcing long-term relationships. Furthermore, Article 4 of 6 focuses on the messages you received in life, how others perceive your communication, proactive listening, humor, trust and safety, compromise, and the risks of being open. The two articles in the series partner with one another to encompass a wider range of elements regarding communication.

In conclusion, communication is vital to each individual experiencing the relationship and to the relationship as a whole. Communication is complex, it involves investment and work to develop a level of vulnerability through tapping into strengths and reducing fears.  Developing quality relationships with healthy communication patterns is vital to mental health, connection, enjoyment, and well-being. Communication increases the capacity for relationships to be mutually satisfying and full of support, caring, positive interactions, and veering well during difficult times. COMING SOON: Article 4 of 6 in the series.

Learn, grow, & enjoy,
Mandi

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Existential GPS

Shadows in the Attic

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

Fear is one of the most potent human emotions. Primitive yet effective, it alerted us (and still does) to the presence of danger and was essential in keeping our species on the planet. Our emotional evolution with all its intellectual trappings of modern sophistication has done little to smother the reach and intensity of fear. Reduce it all we want, try to explain it away, yet we still feel compelled to whistle while passing by the dark, cerebral cemetery of unknowns. From the shadowy cavities of our minds fear creeps in two ways – emotional and biochemical. The emotional response is highly individualized, while the biochemical response is universal.

The emotional response to fear is very personalized. Fear does involve some of the same chemical responses in our brains that positive emotions like happiness do, so feeling fear under certain circumstances can be seen as enjoyable, like watching scary movies or going to a “haunted” attraction. Those who get physical pleasure from the release of adrenaline into the body by thriving on extreme sports and other fear-inducing situations would be another example of the complexity to understanding how fear works. While there are others who have a negative reaction to fear, and they avoid fear-inducing situations at all costs. Depending on the individual and the situation, fear may be perceived as either a positive or negative experience.

Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It’s been with us since , well, for as long as we have had the ability to survive as a species. When faced with a perceived threat, our bodies respond in highly specific ways. Reactions to fear may include increased heart rate and higher that usual adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert and “on guard.” This physical response is also known as a “fight or flight” response, in which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.  Adrenaline as well as the stress hormone cortisol begins pumping through your body at a very high rate. This occurs so that you can react quickly to danger or a perceived threat. If you are someone who is an excessive worrier or you experience sustained fear because of your health, death of a loved one, divorce, etc., then the “fight or flight” reaction releases an overwhelming amount of cortisol into your brain, resulting in sustained worry and potentially clinical anxiety. Fear can, in fact, alter your brain’s wiring, as well as your impulse control.  There are, however, ways to counter this physical reaction. Drinking lots of cold water helps flush the adrenaline and cortisol from your system. Deep breathing exercises are another way to help slow down this process, and of course physical activity and exercise are crucial to decreasing these chemicals in your body to a much more manageable and comfortable level.

Fear is incredibly complex. Some fears could be the result of frightening experiences or even trauma, while others may actually represent a fear of something else a little less obvious, such as loss of control or meaning in life or anxiety over death and dying. Fear in and of itself is not rational. It operates at the opposite end of that spectrum and can often run up against logic or “common sense,” which in turn may cause feelings of guilt or elevated levels of anxiety.

Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. For example: find the light switch in the dark room and all is seemingly well. Exposure reduces both the emotional fear response and the resulting biochemical reaction. Conversely, this leads adrenaline junkies to seek out the extreme – ever new and bigger thrills. Exposure forms the basis of many phobia treatments, which depend on slowly minimizing the fear response by making it feel familiar and eventually extinguishing it altogether.

However, if you are faced with a serious threat or a dangerous situation, then fear is appropriate.  It’s knowing how to manage your fear, so that it doesn’t paralyze you from living your life and from participating or engaging with others in a meaningful fashion.

The solution is to understand your situation and your fears. Therapy or counseling from a licensed professional can help if your fears become too large for you to manage on your own.

To be continued… Part 4 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.

Existential GPS

Holding Darkness Within

A brief tour inside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

by Don Laird, NCC, LPC, DCC

The psychological difference between horror and terror as a literary or cinematic device is that both serve their own unique function as a vehicle to elicit powerful feelings ranging from dread to revulsion. Terror is typically described as a feeling of fear, suspense and anticipation that precedes a frightening experience. It is the build toward some awful reveal. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that one experiences following a visually frightening or shocking experience. It is the result of a dreadful realization or the experience of something deeply unpleasant.

the-haunting-julie-harris-1963
Publicity still for The Haunting, MGM 1963

Yet, unpleasantness occurs in many forms. It manifests both individually and culturally and is mostly universal by its very definition. In short, we can recognize it and feel it both intellectually and intuitively. Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, a misfit? Ever wanted something new, but were fearful of what others might think about you? Are there times when you feel the world doesn’t quite get you? So, unless you are void of human emotion or connection, the answer should have been yes to all three questions.

Welcome to the haunted world of author Shirley Jackson and, in particular, her fifth novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Whether you are a student of literature or psychology, or you just have a morbid curiosity for all the shadowy things that linger at the top of your psyche’s staircase, then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should read. Author Stephen King has praised it as one of the most important horror novels of the twentieth century. I would add that it is also a novel that reveals the intricate and subtle ways in which mental illness manifests, ebbing and flowing like the shadows and sounds within Hill House.

On the surface, the story of Hill House seems fairly pedestrian. A group of individuals participate in a paranormal study at an alleged haunted mansion (back in the day when those sorts of studies could still be sponsored by a university). Dr. John Montague, a professor and investigator of all things supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a withdrawn and timid young woman who resents having lived as a recluse caring for her invalid mother; Theodora, a bohemian, performer and artist (It is implied that Theo is a lesbian, but indirectly so because this is still 1959); and Luke Sanderson, the young heir to Hill House and resident playboy.

The novel, intentionally guarded in its prose, explores the supernatural while finding common ground with psychology. It takes on each of these subjects with equal amounts of care and skepticism while never fully arriving at any conclusion or endorsement of either. Unseen forces hammer on doors and ceilings, mysterious and pleading messages for the main character, Eleanor Vance, are written on walls, and the ghostly laughter and cries of children are heard in the night. If you want a good scare, Hill House won’t disappoint.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Top that for an opening paragraph to any novel. Indeed, this sets the tone for what Hill House is and how it will expose the reader to the haunted and fragile psyche of Eleanor. Hill House is indeed the fifth character in this novel; an eighty-year-old mansion, “born bad,” in a location that is never specified built by a long-deceased and cruel millionaire named Hugh Crain (painted on the ceiling of his only child’s dreary nursery are the words “Suffer the Little Children.”)

Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” This description is not only how Jackson presents Hill House to the reader, but how the character of Eleanor moves through her life, guarded and lonely. Things are not as they seem within the walls of Hill House and they are certainly not well beneath the outwardly modest walls of Eleanor, either. Still waters do indeed run deep, and dark.

Terror, not horror, is on the menu at Jackson’s café macabre, and she masterfully knows which ingredients will pack the most punch. Told in the tradition of a Gothic horror novel, Hill House, has been made into two feature films (the original 1963 version directed by Robert Wise is a faithful and absolutely splendid adaptation of Jackson’s ghost story – see it – now), and is the basis of an upcoming television series on Netflix. Jackson’s tale relies solely on terror rather than horror to elicit emotion in the characters and the reader; manipulating the relationships between the characters’ psyches and the mysterious events in the house, while leaving the reader to determine what may have really happened inside the “wood and stone of Hill House” as well as what occurred in the mind of Eleanor.

With Eleanor, Jackson offers the reader a female character who embodies depth, dimension and mystery. Psychologically wounded by her fear of loneliness, fear of others, fear of self, and a fear of the unknown, Eleanor is at once recognizable and common, yet Jackson keeps her slightly detached, slightly off, so that we understand the metaphor being presented to us as we simultaneously walk the lonely corridors and rooms of her psyche and of Hill House.

As Jackson wrote, “Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within…And whatever walked there, walked alone.”

To be continued… Part 2 of a 5-week series on eTalkTherapy’s psychology of fear.