Midlife Disenchantment




Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. Frank Zappa

The German language contains clever words and phrases to describe complex subject matter. For example, weltanschauung basically means “world view.” From the long-winded pronunciation side of the Saxon-influenced spectrum, the German word for fire insurance, just in case you really need to know, is feuerversicherung. In keeping tradition with the Deutsches Wörterbuch, my favorite German word used to describe world weariness is weltschmerz. Weltshmerz, according to English translation, refers to apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. In more complicated terms, weltshmerz describes the existential dilemma and lugubrious predicament between what the philosopher David Hume described as the is and the ought. Whatever ought to be the case is usually brought down to the prosaic level of what actually is the case, and the subsequent realization can result in frustrated resignation or despair (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to improve conditions anyway).

An English word of dubious origin that has become a popular neologism is protopia. Protopia is a word I’m rather fond of because it squares the circle between the concepts of utopia and dystopia. Protopia essentially means a state of being that is better today than yesterday. The unrealistic fantasy of utopia and the devastating contemplation of dystopia are usurped by a proactive model for realistic social progress built on daily increments (cue the “one day at a time” trope). Whether this improvement is social, economic, or ethical; gradual remediation starts with acknowledging how things currently are while incorporating human ingenuity to implement the best that our scientific advances and educational disciplines have to offer. For example, if universal human suffering can be reduced by a marginal fraction, it would be senseless and morally insane not to endorse that equation. Likewise, instead of advancing technologically faster than we can evolve psychologically, perhaps a minor shift in priorities could result in the crucial difference between what is sustainable and what is inevitably annihilative. Sometimes only a modicum of adjustment in existing social structures is necessary to create a windfall of improvement.

To be honest, it’s often tempting to bathe in the cascades of nihilism and disavow all promising trajectories for human civilization, but some of us still enjoy drinking our coffee in the morning, and there should be nothing in principle to prevent us from developing a better brew.

Reversing Rigidity

Neither separateness nor union is the goal of the therapeutic process, but rather the exhortation of the endless and often painful undulation between them. — Walter Kempler

Many philosophical, political, and ethical topics are conveniently bifurcated, buffered, or dismissed simply because of the psychological implications involved when addressing the fact that most situations in life require a willingness to challenge comforting intuitions, biased assumptions, and developmentally imbedded preconceptions.

Walter Kempler, the American psychiatrist who worked closely with Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt therapy), noticed an indispensable continuity within experiential and existential modes of ontological awareness that was pivotal to the outcomes of long-term emotional equanimity. Kempler focused on the importance of accepting disappointment, challenging intuitions, confronting obscurity, and developing a capacity for compromise and resilience in the face of uncertainty. From an existentialist viewpoint, an inability to cope with impermanence predominates when a denial of change persists. Likewise, experience sculpts perception and the type of experience often measures an individual’s ability to emotionally process and reflect on life events in a healthy, congruous manner. Ideally, a regulatory flexibility should occur that enables one to adapt to change while realistically assessing and differentiating actual threats to survival from situational inconveniences. “Oriented to an exploration of the resistances to experience” was Kempler’s philosophical position, and realistic compromise is the necessary ingredient to facilitate life transitions.

Similarly, a parallel analogy of this conceptual framework can be demonstrated in modern theoretical physics. For centuries cosmologists adhered to an Aristotelian model in which distinct realms of existence were defined by the idea that the earth was the orbital center for all celestial bodies. In the seventeenth century, this antiquated model of astronomy (otherwise known as the geocentric model) was replaced by a less rigid cosmological system known as the Newtonian model. Eventually, as the scientific community learned about general relativity, the expansion of the universe, and the counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics, a very open-structured system known as the relational model acquired preeminence. The relational model, simply put, describes how the principle of perpetual fluctuation in the cosmos dictates that no point is any more significant than any other point in a spectrum of physical “relationships.” No longer are we saddled with a static hierarchy of definitive boundaries. The universe is unconstrained by stationary layers and the random particle relationships result in an infinite recombination during the interchangeable dance of mass and energy.

So what does this have to do with psychotherapy? An acknowledgment of the human need for safety, comfort, and security cannot be dismissed; however, in a world where change is inevitable, the ability to acquiesce to shifting parameters in the social landscape becomes a vital coping skill. Life is ephemeral and relationships between family members, friends, lovers, co-workers, and strangers involve complicated forms of exchange that require malleability, openness, and the willingness to reduce unrealistic expectations while relinquishing the desire for control. Humans encounter a plethora of goals, drives, beliefs, and ideas on the platform of daily interaction; more importantly, navigating this myriad of experiential diversity requires a mindset capable of eschewing simplistic black and white thinking. However, this does not mean that all positions or beliefs are relative. Clearly, many inquiries do have right and wrong answers based on objective methodologies that produce reliable and verifiable results, but our approach should include the realization that relationships and communication are based on process rather than destination (for example, field theory strategy in Gestalt therapy recognizes structures and relationships as dynamic rather than fixed).

Being “okay with the gray” is another way to think about reducing the black and white hues of cognition to enhance emotional and behavioral regulation, improve interpersonal effectiveness, and increase our level of distress tolerance when dealing with life’s acute or chronic adjustments. No matter how much impassioned momentum or emotional dividends we have acquired from certainty, reversing rigidity is a developmental process worth experiencing.