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In Search of the Good Life

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Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), French phenomenological philosopher and Talmudic commentator, is regarded as perhaps the greatest ethical philosopher of our time. While Levinas enjoys prominence in the philosophical and scholarly community, especially in Europe, there are few if any books or articles written that take Levinas's extremely difficult to understand, if not obtuse, philosophy and apply it to the everyday lives of real people struggling to give greater meaning and purpose, especially ethical meaning, to their personal lives. This book attempts to fill in the large gap in the Levinas literature, mainly through using a Levinasian-inspired, ethically-infused psychoanalytic approach.

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Chapter One: “I’m just wild about Harry!” A psychoanalyst reflects on his relationship with his dog

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“It really explains why we can love an animal … with such extraordinary intensity; affection without ambivalence, the simplicity of a life free from the almost unbearable conflict of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself … Often when stroking Jo-fi [Freud’s dog] I have caught myself humming a melody which, unmusical as I am, I can’t help recognizing as the aria from Don Giovanni: ‘a bond of friendship unites us both’”

Sigmund Freud

Like Freud, and, for that matter, like any devoted dog owner you happen to meet on the street or in the park, I love my dog. “He is my best friend,” I often say to people. Harry, a one-year-old Cocker Spaniel, was a “rescue” dog, a code word for a pup that was given up by his owner and either left on the street or given to a dogs’ home. In Harry’s case, he was abused and abandoned, a stray found on the Brooklyn side of the Belt Parkway, starving, filthy with fleas and tics, and very frightened. According to the foster lady, Shirley, a remarkable woman from whom I obtained Harry and whose life mission is to rescue Cocker Spaniels from certain death on the street and find them a good home, Harry was a sweet dog, though a traumatized one. When we first met Harry in her Queens, New York home, he was still very skinny and fearful, with long floppy ears and sad eyes. Nevertheless, within a few minutes it was clear that both my wife and I, a child and adult psychoanalyst, respectively, felt a summoning call from Harry: “Help me, love me, take good care of me.”

 

Chapter Two: Victory through vegetables:Victory through vegetables: self-mastery through a vegetarian way of life self-mastery through a vegetarian way of life

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“The odd thing about being a vegetarian is not that the things that happen to other people don’t happen to me— they all do—but they happen differently: pain is different, pleasure different, fever different, cold different, and even love different”

George Bernard Shaw

While Shaw was being humorous in his letter to Ellen Terry, he was also making an observation that rings true to this psychoanalyst. For some time now, having treated a few analysands who were vegetarians, I have been wondering to myself what makes such people tick, those who live a “vegetarian way of life”. By a vegetarian way of life, I mean those individuals, like Pythagoras, Tolstoy, Shelley, Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, to name a few famous vegetarians, who have, to varying degrees, an almost visceral contempt for what they view as the unnecessary killing of animals, who are greatly concerned about animal welfare, earth ecology, and maintaining good physical health. Such lacto-vegetarians (see below) are often associated with progressive social thought, though there have been a few infamous exceptions like Adolph Hitler and Richard Wagner (an unrepentant anti-Semite).

 

Chapter Three: Long night’s journey into day:Long night’s journey into day: on tending to a dying motheron tending to a dying mother

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“I acknowledge the cold truth of her death for perhaps the first time. She is really gone, forever out of reach, and I have become my own judge”

Sheila Ballantyne

I“ want my momma, I want my momma,” said a tearful Darell, aged nine, at our first psychotherapy session following the premature death of his mother from breast cancer. These pained words kept returning to my mind following the recent death of my eighty-nine-year-old mother from liver cancer. For Darell, in a simple, heartfelt, and poignant manner that perhaps only a child can express, conveyed what it felt like to be bereft of a mother, even to an adult son, one who is happily married with children, is established in his career as a psychoanalyst, and is settled in a comfortable lifestyle. Indeed, the death of a mother or, for that matter, a father or surrogate parent (though, in both cases, not exactly in the same way), often cuts deeply into one’s being in an unprecedented and unpredictable manner. It radically disrupts that which one takes to be normal and normative, especially in terms of how one understands oneself and relates to others, particularly those one is close to. The sense of abandonment, the feeling of vulnerability, the idea of one’s own mortality, the sense of the triviality, if not absurdity, of one’s everyday life, are some of the well-known feelings associated with the loss of a loved one, especially of a parent, and even more so with the second parent who dies. In a word, one becomes inescapably aware that one is an “orphan,” and this self-understanding is strangely, deeply troubling.

 

Chapter Four: On reading a sacred book:On reading a sacred book: the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and its significance for psychoanalysis the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and its significance for psychoanalysis

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“Yes, I perceived that this, too, is chasing after wind. For the more wisdom, the more grief, and increasing one’s knowledge means increasing one’s pain”

Ecclesiastes

This chapter explores one of the most profound, subversive, and beautiful books in the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes, known as Koheleth (“member of the assembly”) in Hebrew. The author of Ecclesiastes does not present a consistently thought-out system or logical structure in his reflections; rather, in his brief talks, parables, maxims, and proverbs we are presented with a series of free associations on the meaning of existence, the good that people can achieve in life, and the problems inherent in attaining or creating an enduring sense of personal happiness. Specifically, Ecclesiastes contains the melancholy, sceptical, ironic, and rationalist reflections of a philosopher–poet at the sunset of his life rather than a straightforward, unambivalent, pious affirmation of faith and the virtues of living an exacting religious life. Not only does Ecclesiastes strongly question some of the core beliefs in Jewish tradition and its world-view, but, most importantly for this chapter, he raises many profound questions about human experience and the course of life, which have been of concern to most serious thinkers for thousands of years and, more recently, to psychoanalysts and others in the so-called mental health professions.

 

Chapter Five: “Guard your tongue”: on the psychological meaning of gossip

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“One who speaks or listens to gossip deserves to be thrown to the dogs”

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, “The Chofetz Chaim”

In Jewish tradition, and, for that matter, all great world religions (Marcus, 2003), speaking and listening to gossip is regarded as a terrible sin—“God does not accept the prayers of one who speaks gossip,” it says in the Zohar. (Christianity and Islam, for example, are very hard on those who utter and listen to gossip, rumour, and slander. In the Christian Bible we read, “Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God …” [Romans 1: 29–30]. Likewise in Islam, where we read, “Is there anything that topples people on their faces—or he said on their noses into Hellfire other than the jests of their tongues?” [Forty Hadith of An-Nawawi 29]. Quotations from eastern religions that condemn gossip are of a similar nature.) Yet, the fact is that gossip permeates all communities, including the psychoanalytic one. Indeed, as anthropologists and sociologists have noted, gossip has its social significance largely due to its “universality and contemporaneity” (Stewart & Strathern, 2004, p. 200); “One finds gossip to be universal in both time and social space, occurring always and everywhere” (Heilman, 1973, p. 161). Gossip is one of the key modes of communication, underlying people’s proclivity for mentally constructing the world they believe in (Stewart & Strathern, 2004, p. 51). In this sense, gossip is also deeply psychological, in that it expresses unconscious wishes, anxieties, needs, and fantasies. Equally important, gossip has a number of important social functions for a community, contributing to the unity, the harmony of opinion, interest, and feeling of a group (Gluckman, 1963), and it allows individuals to seek out their own benefits and self-serving interests within a group context (Paine, 1967). Gossip, sociologically defined, at least in the rudimentary sense, as “information of a more personal nature than rumor; often false, distorted, or blatantly untrue” (Henslin, 1995, p. 695), always occurs behind the gossipee’s back and is usually tinged with hostility of some kind. Such easy and unconstrained talk, most often between two people who are friends (or a single “incestuous” group), however, is not always malicious; sometimes gossip is largely positive in intent and consequence, such as when one Freudian analyst tells another Freudian analyst that a colleague who just gave a lecture is “very classical in his approach, psychoanalysis at its best”. In this context, the analyst’s praise of his colleague is a way of reinforcing the morality of the group, that to be classical in theoretical outlook is a good thing. Moreover, this form of gossip, like most gossip, brings the conversing analysts emotionally closer to each other as they share and affirm their common values and sentiments. Indeed, what can be denoted as “good” or “benign” gossip promotes a feeling of what Alfred Adler called “gemeinschaftsgefühl”, that is, a feeling of community.

 

Chapter Six: The life and soul of good parenting:The life and soul of good parenting: on wanting, having, and raising childrenon wanting, having, and raising children

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“Children begin by loving their parents. As they grow older they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them”

Oscar Wilde

To be honest, I had always had at least a tinge of envy of Felix, my fifty-two-year-old colleague. He was single, though living with a wonderful forty-year-old woman, nurturing, smart, good-looking, and an accomplished lawyer. The two of them seemed to have a nearly perfect life, a solid relationship, fulfilling careers, and the exciting social and cultural life common to many well-off people living on the upper west side of Manhattan. When I heard from Felix that, even with his stable, bountiful, and satisfying life, he and his partner decided to have a child, I was dumbfounded. Why on earth would they want to upset their enviable lives and have a child, I thought to myself? How could disturbed sleep, dirty nappies, scary illnesses, temper tantrums, and the more or less chronic worry about a child’s well-being, be more appealing than their current settled lives?

 

Chapter Seven: On feeling altogether miserable:On feeling altogether miserable: getting help through psychotherapygetting help through psychotherapy

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“But my life now, my whole life, independently of anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no longer meaningless as it was before, but has a positive meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it”

Leo Tolstoy

There is a certain truth to Frank Sinatra’s pithy remark—“I’m for anything that can get you through the night, be it prayer, tranquillizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels.” Sinatra was correctly putting his finger on something that most of us know by the time we are adults: that life can be frustrating and harsh, if not painful, much of the time; at least that is the sense that some of us have when we let ourselves honestly reflect on the matter. “Man’s existential condition,” says one philosopher, “means suffering, doubt, struggles with the world and within oneself” (Peli, 1984, p. 18). As is common knowledge, learning how to quietly endure a degree of pain is a sign of maturity, and sometimes it is a great catalyst for life, that is, for living life better. Sinatra was also insinuating a deeper point; he was noting that when one is feeling miserable, one wants to feel better fast, which often leads us to do just about anything to make the distress go away. However, for some people, prayer, a tranquillizer, or a bottle of Jack Daniels or its equivalent, will not do the trick, at least not in a sustained way, and these wise and courageous (and sometimes desperate) people decide that it is time to get some professional help. Often, the helper is a psychotherapist, someone who is trained to assist the person to feel better and get on with his or her life in a more productive way.

 

Chapter Eight: All you need is love:All you need is love: on the difficulties of sustaining an adult-to-adult love relationshipon the difficulties of sustaining an adult-to-adult love relationship

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“How alike are the groans of love to those of the dying”

Malcolm Lowry

One day, while I was walking to my office on Queens Boulevard, two images caught my attention. The first was a young, capped man who was walking with his girlfriend while they were engaged in lively discussion. He was holding an umbrella over her head while he got wet, if not soaked. The second image was another young man in a nasty argument with his girlfriend, culminating in his calling her a “fuckin’ cunt”, while she told him “fuck you, it’s over, asshole”. These two images, reflections of Eros (the “love instinct”) and Thanatos (the “death instinct”), made me wonder about the fragile, ambivalent, and transient nature of love. That is, about “the multiple affective currents, simultaneously copresent and alternating” (Eigen, 2007, p. 747) that comprise this befuddling, at times hair-raising, but always summoning experience that we call love.

Levinas, more than most modern philosophers, has written perceptively about love, conceived as responsibility for the Other before oneself. While his altruistically-sounding descriptions are inspired and inspiring, they do not adequately take up the problems that such “for the Other” loving entails on an everyday, “real-life” basis. For most of us, it is hard enough to live according to the commandment “to love thy neighbour [i.e., significant other] as thy self”. To love our significant other more than we love ourselves, to put her needs and desires before our own, let alone in a sustained manner, seems like an impossible challenge. Certainly, most of us can remember times when we acted altruistically, but such moments tend to be the exception rather than the rule. That every major religious tradition makes selfless love its ideal, the personification of what is best, most divine, is indicative of the difficulties of achieving such a mode of relatedness.

 

Chapter Nine: Looking for God in all the right places:Looking for God in all the right places: on developing an “adult” religious outlookon developing an “adult” religious outlook

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“If I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value … one particular experience presents itself to me … I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world … It is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In a certain sense, we are all spiritual wanderers, that is, we are all on a journey of self-discovery in one form or another. For some, like Freud, such a journey leads to a mainly secular conclusion; for others, like Levinas, the voyage of self-discovery leads to a mainly religious outlook, though not necessarily one that is correlated with institutional religion or familiar notions of spirituality. That being said, the inner journey and its conclusion is usually not so straightforward, but has many swings and roundabouts. For example, although Freud was an atheist, he did acknowledge, especially as he got older, the positive value of monotheistic religion, Judaism in particular. According to Edmund-son, author of The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, Freud believed that

 

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