Monday, July 14, 2008

Theory of Mind IV: An Anecdote of Forgiveness

Last night I realized that I intended to give short shrift to the unconscious as I continued writing, as it has been overblown, I think, by personality theorists, especially Freud, despite the fact that I used it in my analogy as the roots of the tree of consciousness. After touching upon forgiveness, I later prayed to be able to forgive my first wife wholly for all the damage she'd done me.

When I finally left her I was depressed, but that was not the reason for leaving. Our marriage had been over for years. My leaving was only a punctuation mark, but to do so I had to stuff a wealth of feelings down; I couldn't deal with them, I felt as if I had failed God and myself and my children not to stick it out. But it was a matter of survival; I feared that if I stayed with her any longer I would be in danger of suicide, truly.

We went to marriage counseling three times, and the last two times were a joke, as it was clear that she either had no desire to change or was incapable of it. Our therapist agreed with me (in a private session) that she was "blind," not necessarily malign, simply incapable of the kind of insight required for change.

Why do I bring this up? Because in my desire to forgive I underestimated the unconscious, for this very morning I had a dream about living with my first wife. It was my first day of psychiatric residency and there were lectures and orientation. I had my eye on Lara Flynn Boyle, playing a fellow psychiatric resident in my dream, and felt that she returned my feelings. The two of us decided to go get a cup of coffee and skip an hour of class, but in the dream I had to return home first. I felt hollow and ambivalent about starting my residency; it seemed as if there were no foundation beneath me, I had severe doubts about my choice that first day of residency--in my dream only, of course.

When I stopped by my house it became clear that my first wife was not with me on my journey. It was unspoken that she rather objected to my not being a "real doctor," and wished I'd become a surgeon or something more generally admired. This is likely my own projection on her. Yet I felt the acute absence of her support; she was only tagging along with my career because she hoped to receive the benefits of being "a doctor's wife," not because she was invested in my growth as a partner. I realized this with a sense of emptiness and despair. She subsequently became suspicious of my date for coffee and recalled instances when I had paid the other resident too much attention; we got in a verbal fight and I stormed off to secure the car keys to our two vehicles, thinking I would not let her take the Mercedes, when I finally gave up and decided to simply let her have it; I would keep the old convertible, a nice symbol of freedom in the dream. Meanwhile I was irritated by missing the coffee date with Lara Flynn, while my first wife was filled with wrath about my affections, unconsummated, toward this other resident.

In the dream, or rather nightmare, I knew that the marriage had blown up, but what really frightened me was the feeling of being lost in my residency, that I had made a bad choice--a poor fit for my gut, though I couldn't really know my gut in my emotional state. I woke up disturbed and sought out Kathleen, who was busy and leaving for work, though I got to tell her an abbreviated version of the nightmare.

Isn't it like the self to play a trick on us in this way? In consciously seeking an attitude of forgiveness toward my first wife, my dreams plunged me into a situation where the unconscious had to be re-enacted, where my buried feelings of hopelessness toward the situation had to be remembered if I was to truly forgive her. I will not list her sins against me; I know I broke her heart and disappointed her future expectations of being a doctor's wife, but we were never on the same page spiritually or intellectually, only sexually. And the unexpected child, and the planned child that soon followed in two years, bound us further in parenting, although she was little use as a parent after the children were out of diapers, unsure of how to train them, taking a laissez-faire attitude towards child rearing.

To return to history, before marriage I was infatuated with my first wife for six months. The infatuation died. I plunged into an extended depression and married her out of guilt. Why a woman would go through with a marriage to a man who could not express love due to his undiagnosed depression, I don't know. She was likely in love with the idea of marriage to a doctor more than with me. But I can't judge her on this, as I don't truly know her feelings for me. I was marrying her because in a manic high I thought God had spoken to me to marry her, long before I was diagnosed, so I willed myself while depressed to follow through with it because I feared to buck "God's will" but more feared, I suppose, facing my true self and real feelings, which were nevertheless not available to me at that stage of personal development.

Say that the marriage was doomed from the start, though it teetered on for thirteen years.

Although she came along with me to Los Angeles, Texas and Michigan in my educational journey, she did not do it as a true partner but because it was convenient to be supported, in addition to hoping for the future as a doctor's wife. When I did fall in love with a phlebotomist, also married, in my internship year, somehow it came out, though I never even kissed the woman except to say good-bye when I broke off the affaire de couer. After that my first wife never forgave me for a straying heart; it would have been no worse if my body had strayed. And of course, I got no strokes for avoiding physical entanglement; the disloyalty of the heart was unforgivable, even though we both should have seen it as a symptom of a failed marriage, which we did not.

In hindsight I liked to say that my first wife was not a "helpmate" but a "lead weight." I should have left her long before I did, but I couldn't bear to be separated from my daughters. If I had left earlier I would have spared myself a world of pain. When you don't want to come home from work because the house is a mess and all you can look forward to is an earful of complaints, something is definitely wrong with your marriage. (And did I mention she never worked after her first pregnancy?)

After I finally left her on December 4th, 1988, we had a discussion on the beach, where she said to me with frozen calculation: "You ARE my Social Security." She was determined to squeeze her golden goose as hard as she could, and squeeze she did, until ultimately, while I was living in Mexico, she took all my savings and left me penniless and homeless through legal finagling in my absence and showed not the least regret.

Such things are hard to forgive, especially when the party that injured you shows no repentance. In my previous post I talked about the psychic richness that forgiveness entails, as opposed to lucky avoidance of hurt. And now I am faced with the prospect of a very difficult forgiveness, one that goes deep to the root of my unconscious, one that is unresolved at its core twenty years later. I know it is unresolved because on occasion I will make an offhand remark to one of my daughters about their white trash bitch of a mother, full well knowing I shouldn't for their sake. Besides, who she is today I don't know; I only know her as she was to me. If I am ever to forgive her I must let go of the past and approach her with a clean slate, no matter how she treats me, to be free of this burden I now feel in the wake of my prayer for forgiveness and the dream that emotional memory spurred in me.

How is this to be done? It makes for a good example of synthesis. How can emotional memory be healed? How can you forgive someone who neither asks for forgiveness nor understands her part in your sorrow? How do you forgive the blind? It's not as if she's said to me, "I'm sorry for being a bitch and taking all your money under false legal pretenses, I'm sorry for being a poor housekeeper and mother, I'm sorry I didn't support your quest to be a Christian psychiatrist, I didn't do the best I could, please forgive me." No, it's more likely that whatever she got out of me after the separation and divorce she endorses with gleeful, petty triumph. This is the woman I have known, in any case.

As for the biblical standard, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother if he repents, 70? "If he repents," Jesus replied, "70 times seven." Yet for the benefit of psychic economy, for the health of its unconscious roots, it is best to forgive even those who do not repent, else they maintain a hold on us at a deep level. Thus unilateral forgiveness is part of a healthy mental toilette. Otherwise you cannot forget, as my dream proves.

In beginning this exploration of the mind, forgiving my ex-wife was not on my agenda at all. But in attempting a psychic change, namely true forgiveness, I find everything in play, and my will cannot simply will the fact of forgiveness without some working through of the psyche, the synthesizer of the self. So where do I begin?

In this regard there are two approaches, one I already alluded to, namely "working through." But working through requires a vivid re-hashing of the painful past until acceptance is reached, which forgiveness can use as a launching pad. The other approach (not that there are only two) is to commit an auto de fe: Commit oneself to forgiveness in the conscious mind without benefit of a feeling of forgiveness, and watch the suggestion flow from the branches down to the root, so that the root is no longer infected. So instead of coaxing the root to yield, so to speak, use a top-down "pesticide"--in this case a conscious commitment--to direct the unconscious to fill out the measure of forgiveness.

Nevertheless, before a commitment of the will can have a salutary effect, confession must take place. At some level I hate my former wife. I despise her. I have no respect for her on earth or in heaven. Although we had some good times early in our marriage, I soon realized she would never be a true partner but a dependent impediment. Everything to do with the externals of a life seemed to fall on me, from insurance policies and doctor's visits to the preference my daughters had for me shampooing their hair because I carefully avoided getting any soap in their eyes. She was happy to leave most responsibilities to me and avoid all that she could. Her excuse? "I'm just not good at that"--"that" being anything I could and would do for the sake of the family.

A metaphor I used for our failed relationship was of two people in a canoe in which only one rowed, and only on one side. Obviously the canoe would then go in circles.

Right now the memory of my first wife, the mother of my children, feels like a toothache. Forgive the pun, but do I really need a root canal to fix it? In my schema of the human mind the will is central, though the considerations that lead to an act of will are legion. Will listing my ex-wife's good qualities help prepare me for feelings of forgiveness? I can list them. When young I thought her beautiful and sexy. She was a good mother to children under three, after which the lack of discipline in her family of origin ill-prepared her to guide the children, for which she can hardly be blamed. She liked to laugh and party; she had a good singing voice; she loved our children despite her very limited capacity to instruct them. Other good qualities include her tolerance for deviance; she made a wide range of friends because she could engage others without any initial judgment. And my infatuation with her began because she was the first person in my young adulthood who was comfortable with emotion, and in confessing hers freely (she wore her soul on her sleeve), I was liberated to tell mine for the first time, including some things I had been loathe to share as a young Christian. In relations she was always willing and I should be thankful for that, especially considering I was married at the age of 19, the peak of sexual drive. And marriage was not of no advantage to me; I desperately wanted to move out of the house where my belligerent father held court in his cups while never attending to his bipolar disease. Why I didn't think about moving out alone, I don't know. I didn't need a woman at that point in my life. I absolutely blame myself for not having had the courage to be myself, but how could I know that my internal processes and major decisions, even the decision to become a doctor, were rooted in manic psychosis?

Ah, the twists of the mind. After entertaining the auto de fe of the will I find myself working through instead.

We were two young, idealistic Christians, both virgins, who believed in our union at an idealistic level, thinking faith would solve all, lacking sufficient knowledge of ourselves to walk away from what I wrongly believed God had ordained. If God exists and he is good, he would never have endorsed the marriage. But since we have free will, and I suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, we were helpless to avoid our plans for the future, while I was under the mistaken impression that she could change. And as for the untimely birth of our first child just before we moved to Texas for medical school, that was my fault. It's a long story, but briefly, on the weekend before she was to have a laparoscopy for endometriosis, I told her she didn't need the diaphragm since her uterus would be scraped clean on Monday in any case. But no one told Rachel that, and she must have hid out in a fallopian tube and found a scrap of endometrium in which to implant. She was truly our miracle baby, the same baby we lost last year at the age of 29.

So where am I in this exploration of the unconscious, brought on by a desire to forgive while musing last night, followed by a nightmare from the roots of my unpropitiated unconscious? How far must I go to initiate forgiveness as a process?

I can accept the fear and loathing my ex eventually produced in me, feelings I buried even while married in order to survive. Near the end I could no longer compartmentalize; even being around my ex-wife was torture, because she was living proof of my failure to myself, my inability to recognize who I was and act accordingly. I had to leave her for my mental health, as I said. Now the true test that I have forgiven her is if I can act in a genuinely humane and friendly fashion toward her, never bad-mouthing her in front of my kids or others. I can do that, by force of will, but I can only do it genuinely if I have attended to my roots, which made such an impression in my nightmare. Thus it is a three-pronged approach: I must accept my painful emotional memories of living with her; I must consciously will myself to forgive; and I must trust my will to act accordingly, and grant permission to my buried feelings to do as they wish, knowing they cannot ultimately harm me, only contribute to my healing. As I and my ex have a mutual interest in gaining visitation rights to our grandson, Jacob, perhaps a telephone call about strategies for grandparents' rights would be just the thing to float as a trial balloon. And this is the final fruit of synthesis and forgiveness: action in the real world.

To be continued...


  1. Anonymous4:09 PM PDT

    "Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?

  2. I think my beam was on bright display. I do not pretend to see the speck in my first wife's eye; I can only hope to remove my log.

    If I told the whole story there would be much more than a speck to consider.


  3. Anonymous6:19 PM PDT

    Then get to working on your log, and quit focusing on the other's speck size. (I know the whole story.)


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