Subjectivity & Truth, & the Moon.

“Subjectivity is truth.” ~Soren Kierkegaard

     Probably one of the least understood quotes of Kierkegaard. The most common interpretation is that all truth is relative. However, this goes directly against what Kierkegaard was trying to say. What it means is that people can only know what they know. Seems redundant, but it’s true. Brian Regan actually makes a joke about this that may illuminate the point I’m hoping to make.
     There have been times when I was discussing my frustrations, hurt, or experience with someone. That someone then takes it upon themselves to trivialize my experience as “less than” because their experience was so much worse, greater, or better than mine. I believe Regan references how often this happens when people are talking about getting their wisdom teeth removed. See the video below after the jump. Somehow, everyone feels some compulsion to one-up the previous story. These often start with phrases like: “You think that’s bad?” and “Well, you haven’t experienced…”. While I’m all for good natured fish stories, there are some areas that are sacred.
     My daughter, at three years old, was nearly certain that the world would implode because she wasn’t going to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner last night. Initially, I thought about how silly and petty her frustration was. Then, I remembered; in her subjective world, tomorrow is not a real thing! Time doesn’t work for a three year old the same as it does for adults. I still remember being about five and my mom telling me dinner would be ready in three hours and me thinking, “three hours? That’s it! I’m a goner and she doesn’t even care! She’s not even sweating and she’s talking to a dead man. A dead man that’s dead because she wouldn’t feed him!” This left me in a bit of a bind because my daughter needs to understand that when the family eats, she eats. We don’t make her special food. Life doesn’t work like that. On the other hand, should I risk minimizing her experience of stress by saying there are starving children in Africa?
     Just because someone else had it worse, doesn’t mean whatever your current experience isn’t the worst for you. This is where Brian Regan points out how difficult it could be to have a friendship with someone who’s walked on the moon. I mean, what story could you possibly have that would top, “I walked on the moon!”? None. There isn’t one!
     We must allow others to experience their pain as they are experiencing it and attempt to see it from their view. Entering into their experience, their subjectivity, may require us to set aside out own judgments about the severity of their story and identify with this: This may be the worst they have ever experienced. It doesn’t matter if we’ve walked on the emotional equivalent of the moon and see their struggle as a triffle. What matters is that it matters to them. And that’s all it should take to matter to us.

(c) Nathan D. Croy. 2013

“Never the twain shall meet.”

     I heard an article on NPR about the change in courting behaviors in youth. The piece ended with with a quote that gave me pause. The author said, “For me one of the most moving comments I heard over and over and over from 18 to 25 year olds was ‘We’re the most connected generation in history, and yet we are the worst at real love’.” The people of my generation are desperately longing for something real, yet they are constantly inundated with the means to distract themselves from their own longing. It’s as if they are separated from themselves and their own desires. Now, it would seem, the children of my generation are being isolated from themselves and others via electronic communication that lacks authenticity. More than that, it lacks risk.
     In Works of Love, Kierkegaard defined Love as an infinite debt to another willingly taken on (2009, p. 172). An infinite debt like that also requires infinite risk. The “other” will always have the option and the ability to leave me. If I attempt to take that freedom away, either through abuse or manipulation, in order to assuage my own fear of abandonment, then I am clearly acting out of selfishness instead of Love. Please, click on this link and listen to the report. How do you think we can bridge the gap between the seemingly unavoidable inauthenticity that arises when technological interactions usurp genuine face-to-face interactions? Is this any different than writing love letters? Is it the technology/means in and of itself, or is it the way it is being employed?

(c) Nathan D. Croy

Mediocre Expectations

     Kierkegaard, in Works of Love (2009, p. 246) writes that “The eternal does not even understand, it divorces itself as vanity the cleverness which speaks only about the extent to which one’s expectation has been fulfilled but does not at all consider just what the expectation was. In eternity everyone will be compelled to understand that it is not the result which determines honour and shame, but the expectation itself. Therefore, in eternity it is precisely the unloving one, who perhaps was proved right in what he [frivolously], enviously, hatefully expected for the other person, who will be put to shame — although his expectation was fulfilled”. Expectations matter. But what may be even more important than our expectation is an awareness of them and then being able to act on them authentically; genuinely.
     I remember reading a case about a man who desperately wanted a divorce, but was unable to ask his wife for one for multiple reasons. Instead, he began verbally and emotionally abusing her. It started a little at a time with passive aggressive comments about her cooking, her weight, or how long it took her to get ready. These escalated into more direct comments about who she was a person, how she was a failure, and could never make anyone happy. This went on for several months, nearly a year, before, she had an affair and left eventually left him.
     After the divorce he found himself in therapy trying to make sense of why he wasn’t happy. After several months, the therapist asked, if he could remarry his ex-wife, would he?  After thinking about it, he said no. The therapist then asked, “so, what’s the problem?” The client looked up and said, “the problem is, she left me and I was supposed to leave her.”
     These things may seem like technicalities or hair splitting, but they matter because they expose intent. If this man had been authentic and asked his wife for a divorce there would have been fighting, but there was plenty of that anyway. What he would have retained is the knowledge that he was honest; i.e., genuine because his intent was congruent with his act. And who knows, maybe a marriage could’ve been saved because both parties would know something was wrong. With his passive aggressive and inauthentic actions, his wife, and his self, were merely fighting shadows. Inauthenticity produces anxiety that takes an excessive amount of time to abate. Authenticity may produce discomfort and fear, but not anxiety. Discomfort and fear may give way to acceptance and courage. If anxiety as the byproduct of inauthentic actions, it merely conceives more anxiety.


     “Sangry” is a made up word to describe someone who is sad and angry at the same time. It often strikes me as an odd combination because anger is a motivating emotion, designed to get people to act. Sadness usually leads to isolation, quietness, and lack of energy. They seem so antithetical we may miss one emotion due to the other. Working with foster children, I am often reminded that, in children, depression usually manifests as anger. As I work with adults, I wonder how often anger may manifest as sadness.
     Kierkegaard, in his journals, writes about how incongruence can often be overlooked by others: “I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself” (Journal entry, 1836). There is a great deal of talk in therapy circles about “primary” vs “secondary” emotions. While I do believe emotions may be ordinal and even causal (“First I felt ___, then I felt ___”), but the labels of primary and secondary have often been interpreted to mean that one emotion is more “real” than another emotion. This may be a disservice to emotions. This can be traced back to Freud’s quote that “anger turned inward is depression”. This view of depression, while not comprehensive, may not be entirely wrong. The problem begins to arise when therapists try to treat one emotion over another in order to relieve both.
     A prime example of this is present in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). I was lucky enough to speak briefly with Susan Johnson, the progenitor of the theory, at an EFT conference in San Diego. Within the EFT forums there are lively debates about the “secondary” or “primary” nature of anger. Susan Johnson stated she believed it was a primary emotion and cited a case she worked on where a husband had been unfaithful in the marriage and several sessions were spent allowing her to appropriately vent her anger. When I asked her what experience they dealt with next, she said, “The wife’s pain at being hurt and abandoned by her husband”.
     In wrestling with this question about which emotions come first, second, third, or fiftieth, I think I’ve come to one conclusion: it doesn’t matter. Rollo May describes the solution this way: “…if I ask, “what is shame?” nine out of ten answers will deal with why shame develops, and say nothing whatever about what shame is. We tend to assume that if we have a causal explanation or if we describe how things develop, then we have described the thing itself. This is an error. The phenomenologists hold that we must cut through the tendency in the West to believe we understand things if we only know their causes, and to find out and describe instead what the thing is as a phenomenon — the experience, as it is given to us, in its “givenness.” As a therapist, I find that both I and my students get into interminable binds trying to figure out the cause-and-effect pattern of the patient’s shame, for example. But if we ask, “what is he trying to say by his blushing? What is the experience in its immediate givenness?” we find ourselves not only freed from the vicious circle [of trying to know] but often able to offer a sudden illumination of what the shame is all about. The phenomenological approach not only adds richness and a liveness to the data, but also makes patterns of behavior accessible which were previously a foreign language” (Psychology and the Human Dilemma, 1996, pp. 88-89).
     May goes on to clarify that this does not mean causes don’t exist or are not important, only that they do not completely define the outcome. That, perhaps in diagnosing or treatment planning, categorizing emotions as primary or secondary may be beneficial. However, as we are experiencing a person, perhaps it would be best to experience their anger, their joy, their sadness, as it is. If I were to become better at this, how much more like would I be to see the true source: the person experiencing the emotions? Ultimately, that is the issue. A person may be sad, angry, or sad and angry, but they are still a person and that fact must not be missed. Staying present and with the current emotion is mandatory if we are to remain present with the person feeling those emotions. We may reflect, interpret, and ask, but, in the moment, it does little good to understand a cause at the loss of the source.

Living or Lived?

     Are you living life, or is life living you? What I mean is this: are you an active participant or a passive bystander? When you look back on the life you’ve been given, the time you’ve had, will you say you spent each moment intentionally, or did your seconds silently turn into years and before you knew it, life was gone?
      Kierkegaard wrote about a coin he received as change that had been passed around so many times the face had been worn off. He looked at this and realized the risk people take when they seek to be accepted rather than seeking to be their authentic self.
      Finding yourself, defining yourself, is not terribly difficult. When it becomes truly difficult is after you’ve found or rediscovered yourself. At that point you have something to lose, you have a reason to be held accountable, and you risk being hurt. But anything less is to ensure you will never truly be in relationship, you will never truly live your life, and your happiness will be a fleeting emotion dependent upon others and external factors.