Monday, August 16, 2010

All Unhappy People

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy memorably in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina. He may have been wrong. It's the unhappy who are, in general, quite common and ordinary, the happy rare and uncommon.

In "My Life in Therapy" by Diana Merkin, the author discloses a tidbit about Freud that I had never heard before and struck me with the simplicity of a classic truth:
Therapy, as Freud himself made clear, is never about finding a cure for what ails you. Its aim, despite the lyrical moniker it is known by (“the talking cure” was not actually Freud’s phrase but rather that of Dr. Josef Breuer’s patient Bertha Pappenheim, whom Freud wrote about as Anna O.), was always more modest. Freud described it as an effort to convert “hysterical misery” into “common unhappiness,” which suggests a rather minimalist framework against which to judge progress.
Common unhappiness. I haven't spent nearly a tenth of the fortune or time the author devoted to psychiatrists, but I am just as convinced that therapists are a colossal waste of time, not to mention money. It may not be their fault.

Maybe the problem is that there is a common unhappiness that, like the common cold, cannot be cured.

Most of us are in some respects garden variety neurotics. We have the hangnails of mental illness. Our parents were not perfect—nor did we understand them perfectly as children. Our spouses fail us—just about as much as we fail them. We are afraid of the dark, of being alone, of being poor—and of living alone and poor in a dark room, most of all. We suffer the wouldacouldashouldas of life.

Our mental hangnails are, to be sure, elaborately shaped, worthy of an exhibit at one of the more bizarre of modern art galleries. But they are still hangnails.

Most of our families are not “dysfunctional.”

Most of us are all fed, clothed, housed, schooled, eventually employed for some of our lives. Sure some are fed and clothed better, schooled in name schools and end up with corner offices overlooking a famous avenue. But the rest of us muddle through just fine.

Families exist mainly to help us muddle through, regardless of the members emotional quirks.

So, perhaps, Tolstoy bears rewriting. All people are alike in their common unhappiness; a few are happy, for a while. All happy families don't stay that way; all unhappy families, welcome to the club.

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