About suffering they were never wrong the old masters
For all of us working as therapists, or psychoanalysts, traumatic wounds will become part of our daily bread but how do we make a distinction between the premature or untimely and even tragic but private death of a loved one, even more unthinkable the death of a child, or in the case of one of my clients a mutual suicide pact carried out by her parents, chronic physical pain, or a kitchen catching fire and the home being demolished in the night due to faulty wiring, and traumatic and epic tragedy? I revert to the Shakespearian academe, which makes a distinction between heroic, or epic and domestic tragedy, whereby the former extends beyond the private tragedy of an individual to a societal disaster that invokes external authorities, control, judgment and punishment.
William Blake wrote a complex poem of doggerel rhymes, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in which he also managed to encapsulate the expected, and even desirable trajectory of human life. Who, I ask myself would want a life of unremitting blandness?
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.2
In these simple lines I find comfort and often use them to share and demonstrate to my patients the inevitable course of a psychologically healthy life, which will meet and recover from both joy and woe. I fantasize having them laser projected onto my consulting room wall. As another poet, WH Auden tells us – albeit in more complex form – most human suffering tends to be private rather than epic and takes place unreported in the media while other members of the community continue, unknowing about their small tasks.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
Blake, W. (1988). ‘Auguries of Innocence’, in The Complete Prose and Poetical Works of William Blake, Ed. Erdman, D.V., Random House: London ↩