Just One Thing: A New Year's Demand

It’s the New Year! And I wish I had some resolutions I could believe in. Believe that I could, with some renewed determination that somehow escapes me every other month, achieve and then become a better person. Happier maybe. More successful perhaps. Or just nicer.

But I don’t. The annual optimism has, for whatever reason - perhaps another winter of COVID uncertainty, perhaps the exhaustion of a year with a new-born baby, perhaps something else sapping at my idealism - not turned up..

So, what am I left with?

Good enough: that sounds a little more promising.

If I can just be good enough. As a dad especially. That has to be there. But also a husband, colleague, friend and a counsellor.¹ I might even be able to summon some energy to be a good enough member of my family.

But the unburdening aspirational realism of ‘good enough’ perhaps masks something deeper. Its simplicity can deceive us. After all, why do we jump so quickly each year to resolutions?

‘Why won’t you be with me?’

The simplicity of embracing good enough reminds me of the simplicity in my still very young boys’ demands. You see, I’ve noticed that they only really demand one thing of me.

They don’t really care whether if I skilfully teach them, instruct them, provide toys or outings, feed them healthy meals or whatever else it is I think I should be doing. They don’t care if I’m better or worse than other parents, or even what other parents think. They don’t really care what we do or talk about or play.

All they want is for me to be there. Doing, talking, resting and playing with them.

When I am able to sit for more prolonged periods, present, engaged, then they are often very settled. Happy. They smile, laugh, explore, play. When I’m not, for whatever reason, then they play up. They do strange things, they lash out, they become reckless, they become silly: the young child’s crude language for, ‘Why won’t you be with me?’.²

Why can it be so difficult to do something so simple as to be there with them? Why do I jump to aspirations of being a more perfect father, rather than the dad and person that I am?

‘Where were you?’

Kubler-Ross, in On Death And Dying, gently spelt out five stages of grief. For now, we could think of them as emotions we go to before we feel the pain of grief as it is; or layers that we insulate the pain of our grief with, so that its heat isn’t felt directly.

Firstly there’s denial, the denial that was easier than acknowledging the pain we’ve inflicted or was inflicted on us: the denial often of our original caregivers. ‘What are you upset for?’, ‘Stop being so silly!’, ‘Come on, let’s do this instead.’ Then there’s anger. The rage of a disappointed, abandoned toddler still stoked today by present disappointments. But these are easier than the pain of grief: we remain pretty invulnerable.³

There is also the layer of bargaining: ‘If I do this or that, or I become this or that, or am not this or that, then can I have you back again?’ These this and that’s become habitual and instinctive ways of living, unconsciously defining our reactions, lifestyle, careers and relationships⁴. Now these often end up in punitive, deep-rotted self-blame: ‘I’m not good, clever, pretty, quiet, successful, adequate, manly or loveable enough’. But even this deep-rooted shame is easier. We still retain some control rather than the fearful powerlessness and pain of the other’s absence.

If these strategies fail, or, perhaps, when they fail or leave us exhausted, then we might enter the layer of depression. This is the place of disillusionment, where the futility of the bargaining is known, and we experience a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. Here, at least, we are starting to approach the grief. Here, at last, perhaps it can stop being about us and what we’re doing or not doing, are or aren’t. Perhaps this is even our body’s way of leading us beyond such impossible responsibility. Yet, it is still a protective layer. The hopelessness still can seem easier than the final stage: acceptance.

Accepting sounds so nice, doesn’t it? But acceptance means feeling the raw pain of abandonment as it is, without trying to change or skip over it. It means accepting its painfulness and our powerlessness over it. Accepting what the other could or couldn’t, did or didn’t do; that this happened but that it was about them. It means holding the child in their unrestrained, visceral, confused, raging hurt with our big, adult body, trusting that it will be OK in the end.

Being good enough

I suspect that how we were helped (or otherwise) to negotiate these insulating layers gets baked into us. The peculiarities of how we learned to deny and avoid, our propensities for anger and depression, the bargaining strategies we found most success in - and our capacity to accept and embrace our own pain and emotion - all get set in us. They become part of our make-up and define our shape in the world.

And they can all get in the way of me being good enough.

Being good enough, for me, means exactly what my boys demand of me: the simplicity of being present and engaged as I am.

Unfortunately, I get stuck in all the layers of feeling anything but grief. These mean I can become aloof, indifferent, distracted, trying to move on, solve, distract, considering other things more important or urgent. Perhaps, the magic of a new year’s resolution is, in many ways, preferable: an escape, another bargaining strategy that I can prefer to believe might just work this time and release me.

The simplicity of being good enough is found in the simplicity of being present. Yet the difficulty of this is found in the difficulty of holding the grief of abandonment. Of course, this one thing will be impossible. I won’t manage it all the time. I will disappoint others. I will disappoint myself. But these become opportunities to hold my own disappointment at the root of my being even as I embrace the other's pain in their own disappointment. And to the extent that I can return to, feel and hold my own grief, to that extent I meet the simplest, yet perhaps most difficult and fundamental, demand on my life: to be there.

1. Louis Cozolino’s (2004) The Making of a Therapist. New York :W.W. Norton compassionately and realistically applies Winnicott’s unburdening phrase ‘good enough mother’ to therapists. C.f. The Good Enough Therapist - Hamdani Psychiatry .

2. A language or means of communication we can all revert to in our own adult ways!

3. Many (e.g. James Hawes (2020) The Secret Life of Men, Robert Bly (2001) Iron John, and Steven Biddulph’s (2018) Raising Boys in the 21st Century) have described how the lifestyle norms for men in the twentieth century meant that many dads were largely physically and emotionally absent from their children, having a large impact on the maturing of boys in particular. Equally, the invulnerability of denial and anger make them go-to responses for those trained in a form of masculinity.

4. Person-centred theory may call these ‘conditions of worth’ (Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. London: Constable.). CBT might call them ‘rules for living’ (Frank Wills (2014) Skills in CBT. London:Sage).

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