Posts Tagged ‘existential psychology’

I’ve been musing on the notion of eternity.  What it means, and more specifically what it means to me.  Probably not the best idea to ponder on a dreary day still held in winter’s frigid grip, but I can’t seem to let go.  I understand that “eternity is now” and that this is very different from everlasting.  And I understand that when we let our minds wander out of “just this, here now,” into thoughts about the future or about the past, we lose connection with eternity.  The same thing happens when we get distracted by the tick-tick-tick of the passage of time because eternity is beyond time.

Eternity is what you experience when you get so lost in the moment, doing whatever it is that you’re doing that time disappears.  I’ve felt this on the racquetball court when I was so focussed on making a shot that everything else faded away and on the mountain when I felt awe from the view.  I’ve felt it in the garden as I tended the vegetables, and on really stellar writing days when chords and lyrics flowed like I had tapped into some song stream.  And I felt it with my Mom, when, for example, we used to douse ourselves in a variety of perfume at Dillards, and when we entertained people with our stories, each of us weaving in details to get the best reaction from our audience.  These moments are harder to find with her now because it’s hard not to get distracted by what I’ve lost or what I’m soon to be losing.

And I wonder how eternity relates to mortality, and how that relates to my mom.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers, “I’ve lost a lot of friends, as well as my parents.  A realization that has come to me very, very keenly, however, that I haven’t lost them.  That moment when I was with them has an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me.  What it gave me then is still with me, and there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that.” [282]

This strikes me as yet another of Alzheimer’s cruel paradoxes.

On one hand, having Alzheimer’s means that a lot of your past and ability to worry about the future is wiped away.  Being here now should be easier, but it’s not.  Without the context of all the stuff you learned in the past, now can be quite hellish.  I think that in order to really be in the now, you have to feel safe.  And safety is somewhat a learned experience.  Overtime, you experience something and nothing bad happens, you  feel safe.  But what happens when you can’t really remember that nothing bad happens?  I think about how frightened Mom is in the shower and how she can’t tolerate being damp, perhaps because for her, it’s like the experience suspected spies or terrorists have when their captures employ waterboarding.  They don’t know that they will actually through the ordeal of water torture.  They feel themselves drowning and their body screams, “Oh Shit!  I’m dying!  Do something.”  And they are powerless in that moment to do anything.

And it seems to me that much of Mom’s life is like this.  Anything out of the ordinary, or anything she can’t remember isfrightening.  I wonder how many times a day she feels the terror of not knowing where she is or who she’s with.  And I also get the sense that for her, being alone is terrifying — that without a familiar other there, she feels like she will surely die.  Who can be present with all that vigilance?

The other piece that disturbs me is the notion that being with someone has an everlasting quality — that idea that what being with someone then lives on in you so that there is something transcendent of mortality.  But what happens when Alzheimers wipes those moments away….   Does the essence, the transcendence still remain?



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Yesterday, my memory crashed on the word mylar. The word popped into my head and I had no idea what it was or why I was thinking about it.  Last week I couldn’t remember Victor Frankl.  I had to look both of them up on the internet.  Mylar, it turns out, is a sort of polyester film.  I still don’t have a clue as to why it popped into my head.   Victor Frankl is a different story.  I was mapping out a lecture on philosophy* at the gym and was trying to explain Existentialism in a way that would grab my students’ attention.  With so much focus on death and meaning, Existentialism isn’t the most cheerful philosophical position, but Victor Frankl’s psychological theory brings Existentialism into perspective, especially when explained through his experience in the Nazi death camp.  I could lay out the basic elements of his psychological theory, but his name eluded me.  I finally had to look up the title of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning on the internet to retrieve his name.

A few years ago, memory gaps like this seemed insignificant.  They were frustrating but short lived.  I would think about Joseph Gusfield’s work on the temperance movement (he wrote Symbolic Crusade:  Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement) but couldn’t retrieve his name from my memory bank on the spot.  A few moments or hours later, I’d remember Joseph Gusfield and life would go on.

That was before it really sunk in that my mother had Alzheimer’s.  Now, I freak out when I forget things like mylar, Victor Frankl and Joseph Gusfield because I think it might be a sign that I am developing Alzheimer’s like my mother did.  I know that adult children whose mothers have Alzheimer’s have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s themselves.  And there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive research on how to avoid or prevent getting Alzheimer’s (other than dying young – before the plaques and tangles form in the brain – not a desirable “cure” in my book).  I know that it’s silly, but I try to keep the memory loss at bay by looking up the words and names that I can’t remember and repeat them over and over.  Sometimes it feels like my life depends on being able to remember Victor Frankl and the other things that slip my mind.

I remember how depressed Mom became when she got the results of her psychological evaluation.  Her father had had dementia and she had seen how it affected him.  By the end, he was sort of like the living dead.  She saw the future she was headed for and there was no comfort to be found.  My memory lapses give me a similar glimpse into my future and I am terrified.  I am afraid that someday, like her, I won’t be able to remember things and will be frightened because I don’t know where I am, frustrated because none of my clothes fit anymore and depressed because I have no motivation to do anything but sit around and nap.

*By day, I’m a college professor.

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