The metaphor that comes to me about my work is that of being a doula for bringing new ways of being into the world.
When you’re giving birth, it’s really useful to be supported by someone who understands the pain, who gets it that despite having predictable stages, the experience ranges enormously from person to person. Someone who has also experienced the contractions that are fundamental to this process and who’s able to remind you to—for god’s sake—keep breathing.
We know what the best outcome is giving birth, but what about this coaching thing? What’s trying to happen here? Well, my fascination has always been with the growth of the psyche from adolescence through adulthood and into maturity. So I think, wherever we are in this process, what we’re aimed at is the birth of something I refer to as a post-tragic personality.
I use that word because I think tragedy is the pivotal experience of maturity. Life is simply woven through with loss. When we’re unable to be with, or even tolerate the existence of loss, one could say our personality is centered at a pre-tragic station.
Now, from an adolescent, pre-tragic point of view, in the good life the boat doesn’t go down in a storm. We don’t have to give up the idea of having things our way. And nobody we love should have to die—at least not before we do. Whatever tragedies do exist out there, we seek to protect ourselves from them by denying they’ll happen and our focus is on making our lives perfect.
Yet at some point, despite our best effort, tragedy will break through the perfection. And when it strikes, the image we’ve had of ourselves as competent or resilient or as the architects of our own lives is simply destroyed. Everything is subsumed in loss and it’s often paralyzing. This is the tragic station of personality.
In my own case, my younger sister was schizophrenic, a hoarder, and unable to tolerate very much in the way of contact with other people. Jeanne would only leave her apartment if my mother took her out for groceries or the occasional lunch.
It’s now nearly 10 years since her death, and I bring her up because after my mother could no longer do those things for her, they fell to me. And I wasn’t happy about it. I told myself it simply wasn’t fair that I now had to be my sister’s parent.
One could say that I was captured in a mood of resentment. But it’s closer to the truth to say I was terrified to feel the raw tragedy of my sister’s achingly narrow life. I didn’t want to experience my own helplessness in the face of it and, you might say, the guilt I felt for my comparative privilege in the face of her suffering.
Whenever our identity is centered in a pre-tragic personality like mine was, we insist that the bad thing hasn’t happened or isn’t happening or isn’t going to happen. At least to us. But we can only sustain this by pretending that large parts of life don’t actually exist.
We see this all around us: after a pandemic we say to ourselves “Thank god it didn’t get me,” but we seek to go back to ‘normal’. Climate change isn’t really happening, or maybe it won’t be that bad, or there’s hope that we’ll be saved. Ironically, our usual vision of being saved has to do with doing more of what brought us here to begin with. And we comfort ourselves with the thought that, in the end, everything will work out.
But when tragedy happens, these illusions of childhood get stripped away. There’s recognition that the very nature of life is tragic. The terrible thing most definitely happens. And while this experience is more coherent than pre-tragic fantasy, the trap in the tragic is that we can be stuck in its shock, immobilized, or burned up in its fire.
Now, there is a way beyond the tragic, but it’s not by putting out the fire. It’s learning how to let the fire burn what it’s there to burn. To live with tragedy, and what it causes us to feel. Because this fire also serves to transform the psyche, by annealing it with the experience of loss. The way of maturity isn’t about living a perfect life, it’s about being with and transcending tragedy, from within, and living, consciously, toward our death.
When we’re stationed in the post-tragic, we aren’t passive. We don’t wait for safety in order to love. We love because there’s no such thing as safety from life.
Let me add another observation. In our time, we believe democracy is about consensus and getting everyone to act the same way. But in fact, democracy is a way to contend with opposition and create the circumstances for that opposition to become co-operative. And it really only works with a post-tragic consciousness.
Because it’s not about winning. It has to do with losing and what we do with loss. It’s not about demanding conformity in a time of enormous complexity but learning to live with that complexity, engaging in co-operative opposition and accepting loss as an essential part of the human condition.
I’ll leave it there. And while I don’t know whether this may inspire you to reach out to me, I can tell you this: I do know how to breathe.