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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist, often suggests books to her clients that may be an accompaniment to aspects of their treatment journey in couples counseling or individual counseling. One such recommendation to clients exploring existential themes has been EINSTEINS DREAMS by Alan Lightman. Below is a review of Lightman’s novel.

IMAGINING TIME

In the novel entitled EINSTEINS DREAMS, Alan Lightman challenges the reader with the possibilities within each of us for imagining time, existence, and relativity. Thirty dated vignettes describe notions of time imagined during young Einstein’s dream states. These entries are introduced by a prologue wherein the reader meets Einstein at precisely six ten a.m. at the patent office in Berne, Switzerland, his place of employment. It is on this morning in late June of 1905 that the protagonist submits his electrifying paper on the Special Theory of Relativity to a typist. The novel spans only three hours, ending when the typist arrives at the office. Sandwiched between are the thirty dreams and three interludes that predate the prologue and epilogue, during which time Einstein obsessed on his theory and dreamed of myriad temporal worlds through the prismatic lens of human experience. It is fitting that LIghtman uses Einstein as a vehicle through which to paint the existential dilemmas and joys of human existence, and the reader-clinician who has a systemic orientation may draw many parallels between the imaginary worlds and exigencies of real life within individual and family life cycles of development.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity ushered in an era that challenged linear ways of viewing the universe in many disciplines, not the least of which was psychology. Einstein shattered previous thought when he proved that time is not an absolute. What he discovered was that if you sat on a train that is either stationery or moving at a constant speed and look at another passing train without viewing the landscape, you will not be able to ascertain which train is moving and which train is at rest; you can only say that each train moves past the other at a certain relative speed. Similarly, in the psychological world of relativistic (circular) causality, no reality exists in a vacuum, but rather depends on the interconnectedness of people and events as they move through time. A second for one person may feel different than a second for another, and the view that one person sees may be quite different from that seen by another. The idea that distance and time are not absolute and depend on the motion of the observer is akin to the idea that members of a family can only be viewed in their roles in relation to one another, to the times that precede them generationally, to the times in which they live, and to the individual and shared goals they may have for the future. In addition to the fact that the normative and non-normative changes within the normal family life cycle have a circular causality, there is also a constant dialectic action and a holistic reality, wherein the family is greater than the sum total of all its members. Culturally-directed timetables, familial, intergenerational interpretation of those timeframes, and individual developmental rhythms shape the personalities, behavior, thoughts, and outcomes of people, families, and nations. Indeed, various issues cogent to the clinician in the field of marriage and family therapy must be considered against the backdrop of time.

Subjective time is dramatically different from the mechanical time upon which most societies base their members’ lives. To spend a month on a surfboard on the island of Tavarua in the Fiji Islands might seem like a shorter month than to spend a month awaiting results of a biopsy. A jetlagged individual can attest to the relativity of temporal perception. Such a dichotomy is a dialectical phenomenon that exists in our lives continuously and is described as a literal fantasy in young Einstein’s entry dated 24 April 1905 (“There are two times, mechanical and body”). To analyze the meanings of subjective and objective time is to realize the impact of time on human behavior: the rewards, consequences, limitations, possibilities, attitudes, values, belief systems, and lifestyles. And, as in the novel, everything is connected and relative to other variables, not the least of which is human reactions to the passage of time. Some worlds in the novel are bustling and chock full of action; in others, there is little that happens. In most of Lightman’s imagined worlds, the concept of linear continuity, which defines our sense of time, does not exist. What is common to all the worlds in EINSTEIN’S DREAMS is that the characters’ lives are defined by the limits the nature of time places on what is possible.

In fragmented time, relationships cannot develop. In backwards time, life demands a loss of achievement and knowledge. In fact, in a world where one dies to be born, the conventional birth mother would be seen not as the giver of life, but as the taker of life. It is interesting to consider, for example, how this might change attachment or object relations theory. The child would avoid the primary caregiver and avoid attachment to her as the woman who would signal the end of life.Death would not be the dreaded villain, but the welcomed friend. The thought of “life after death” would be looked upon with horror.

Lightman is himself an example of the dialectical nature of existence. He is a distinguished physicist and professor of creative writing at MIT, seemingly paradoxical interests. Similarly, Eisnstein discovers a theory about the outside world, even though he is a loner who lives primarily in an inner world. Indeed, EINSTEIN’S DREAMS is less a reflection of many worlds and more a reflection of all the lenses through which an individual could view his own world.

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s couples counseling practice, visit her website at www.cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often suggests books to her clients that might lead them toward making deeper meaning of their own life experiences. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, which covers existential themes, is reviewed below.,

“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.” -Morrie Schwartz

The symbiotic nature of the mentoring relationship through time and space is beautifully depicted in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. Indeed, the term “mentor” is eponymous with a character in the Odyssey, who advises Telemachus, and pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is especially instructive for the student of marriage and family therapy studies to read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE as if he were assessing both men from the psychosocial, contextual, and lifespan perspectives. From each of these vantage points, the careful reader will not only internalize Morrie’s lessons, but also become aware of changes in both men as a result of their interaction over time and space. Thus, observing both intrapersonal and interpersonal movement as well as changes one or both men make in their larger environments is cogent to the student of systems. In an effective manner, this remarkable bestseller serves as a kind of adjunct text for individual and family life cycle development students, for it will demonstrate to the budding clinician the notion that everything is connected and must, therefore, be interpreted in a contextual manner, and that when change occurs within one person, change will also become apparent in all whom he/she touches. In a Virgina Satir-like manner, the reader will be taken on a peak experience, the emotional learning experience, the real stuff of learning…the kind of teaching mold from which Morrie Schwartz emerged: the Confluent Educational Movement of the Sixties.

Clearly, Morrie, the former Brandeis, sociology professor of 37-year-old Mitch Albom, is not an ordinary man. He is an extraordinary man whom we meet as he faces his own slow but steady death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease; he is inspirational, because he exemplifies the apex of emotional maturity. It is with a sense of concomitant awe and recognition of developmental stages completed in a timely fashion that we watch him transition into this final life stage, exhibiting a joie de vivre to the end.

On the other hand, Mitch, consistent with his pattern of disconnectedness and negative feelings over his previous life cycle stages, has lost touch with his beloved professor since he graduated in ’79, despite his intention to always keep in touch. It is not surprising that he did not follow through, for in letting important relationships like the one he enjoyed with Schwartz go, we realize that he is merely following a familiar pattern of letting go all that is important to the heart. So, as might be expected, he has also lost touch with his old friend, his wife, and, ultimately, with the essence of his own personhood. In the fast-track culture in which he lives, a culture which is more egocentric and self-serving than those of other times, Mitch shows how his emotional maturity has been retarded by the interplay between family of origin issues and the materialistic values of his generation. His drive to succeed in the business world at the expense of his sense of connectedness to others suggests both a fear of intimacy and an abiding external locus of control (defining his worth in terms of society’s definition of success).

The question of individual differences in native-born resiliency should also be compared and contrasted. Morrie, who had a childhood colored by the loss of his mother, and impoverished further by a cold, distant father, apparently overcame even these attachment challenges, as can be inferred by his admirable responses to his final developmental tasks–end stage intimacy outcomes are positive and, this, in large part, results in an integrity of the life review. It is clear that Morrie displays an emotional maturity impressive to any lay person or to any clinician. Probably not lagging seriously in prior developmental milestones despite non-normative changes in earlier life, the clinician might have to consider biological, individual variants. This humanistic professor, product of the idealistic Sixties, well represents Steve Wolin’s Challenge Model of Resiliency (1991). No Damage Model was Schwartz, but rather a stellar example of initiative, humor, creativity, healthy relationship attachments, independence, insight, and morality.

Albom, a successful sportswriter and unsuccessful spouse, is lurched back in time when he mindlessly but serendipitously sees an ailing Morrie beamed into his living room from his television, which is tuned into Ted Koppel’s Nightline. He is transfixed as he hears how Morrie intends to ‘teach’ his last course to a nationally televised audience: a course on how to live even while dying. The dialectic of teaching others how to live while in the midst of facing death and even enjoying one’s last days when physical handicaps demand a return to the dependency of childhood is difficult at best (especially if one can smile despite needing someone else to ‘wipe my own ass”).

Morrie’s palpable enthusiasm to Mitch’s return to his life is illustrative of Morrie’s ability to enhance and enrich his own growth and development through connection. His manner of finding the positive in perceiving transitional challenges, thus reframing what might have once seemed overwhelming, buoys his journey, for it is all about the ability to live in the moment and in so doing, achieving a kind of freedom which subsequently empowers him to creatively move through and onward to the next milestone task in his life cycle.

Indeed, Morrie delights in the prospect of teaching Mitch one final class: in it, he sees his opportunity to generate wisdom while completing an important task during the last life cycle stage, a life review. Through Mitch, Morrie will also re-connect with a piece of his past, tasks which are generative and are consistent with what is important to do during the eighth life stage.

Thus, in what will prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership, the young man and the old man agree to meet every Tuesday for fourteen weeks. Through deeply affecting dialogue, Morrie offers consummate love, liberally spiced with humor, aphorism, examples, reminiscences, and philosophy. Schwartz personifies successful completion of the developmental tsks of Eriksen’s seventh and eighth age life stages.

Conversely, through Mitch, the training clinician sees what it looks like to not age well…what it looks like when a man has experienced significant failure in negotiating the earlier developmental tasks of adulthood. Morrie offers a picture of intimacy instead of isolation, of generativity instead of stagnation and of ego integrity instead of despair. On the other hand, in listening to Morrie, Mitch, who feels an intensified awareness of his years of isolation and angst of emptiness, is in increasing pain and paralyzed to move forward. He can now admit his drive toward materialistic acquisition has been tragically misplaced over many years. As the sole audience for Morrie when he completed his life review, Mitch became empowered to reframe his own notion of what it meant to live and be a success.

The astute, psychologically-minded reader could handily identify points at which Albom hit developmental lags, just as Albom identified them himself as he listened to Morrie’s review of his own rich life course. Albom effectively illustrates how individuals are agents of change in one another, and then how profoundly individuals affects one another from differing generations, historical contexts, cultures and life experiences intersecting.

As a result of what had synchronistically become a highly successful theraputic alliance, Mitch begins to question his values and reorder his priorities. Most impressive to the training clinician is the fact that Morrie has moved him forward in his individual development, evidenced by his initiative in reconnecting with his brother, suffering from the same disease, from whom he had been estranged for many years. Morrie is able to go ever so ‘…gently into that good night’ (rather than railing against death, as Dylan Thomas exhorted his father to do)after completing his life review, taking joy from his own initiative in getting on Nightline, teaching a former student their mutually, most memorable class, his involvement in a book project, and organizing his own living tribute memorial.

From a holistic perspective, we see in these two men an example of the systemic concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teacher and student are profoundly changed by and through one another. Teacher is empowered toward a more joyous letting go of mortality intersecting with his memories of his past history.

Though not free of stressors, he sees it as a life well-lived, exemplified and capped by his ability to be of benefit by connecting with a younger individual.

Conversely, instead of feeling the joys of intimacy through ties to mate, work, and larger society, Mitch suffered an emptiness borne of his compulsive need to define his success in material terms, not serving his healthy development. Mitch is a man whose psychosocial development got ‘stuck’ somewhere in time. Morrie models generativity when most people would allow the physical stagnation to spread to emotional anguish and/or stagnation, thus cutting off their life force energy in spite of the fact that they are still blessed with life.

The importance of connectedness between generations, within families, extended families, communities, career netweorks, agape friends, and between hearts and heads is repeatedly driven home throughout this spiritual book. With each metaphorical example, the reader is charged and changed. Circular causality is on bold parade as Morrie’s empending death marches toward finality before millions, and it is Mitch who, at the same time as his demise, seems to be reborn. Rippling further outward, Morrie’s exemplary way of dying is portrayed to a nation of television viewers, also affected, by witnessing Morrie’s inspirational approach up close and personal. Most saliently, Morrie offers himself to Mitch as an opportunity to develop intimacy with another human being, perhaps the crowning human achievement and one that has eluded the younger man until his professor’s death. Thus, old and young men goad one another toward increasing their respective levels of emotional connection in facing death by and through

one another. By comparing and contrasting where each of these men are when we meet them in terms of their lifespan stage and how each of them subsequently handles the respective tasks that their chronological age suggests, the student can see how feedback loops compliment the completion of milestones within a specific context.

It is difficult to say who got more out of the Tuesday meetings: Mitch or Morrie. Is there an irony to the fact that when people are dying, the living seem more able to hear what they have to say? Should an individual’s ability to reverse developmental emotional retardation as a result of their vertical communication with another be questioned? Did Mitch, in fact, change enough to donate a portion of the proceeds from his bestseller to Lou Gehrig’s Disease research” The circular causality of human interaction and the dialectic that it is possible to find joyous tranformation on the other side of painful transition, even unto death, is part and parcel of the beauty in this little book.

At the close of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Morrie tells the story of a wise, little wave reminding another frightened little wave that he is ‘not part of a wave, [but]part of an ocean.’ Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom are testament to Katherine Kubler-Ross’ assertion that ‘…one of the most productive avenues of growth is found through the study and experience of death…individuals who have been fortunate enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of the experience. Indeed it is patently clear that human beings do have the capacity to utilize an interpersonal relationship positively and move themselves forward, especially if the context is right. Morrie’s life–and death–reflect a man whose ego identity thrived as a result of the composite power and cumulative wisdom of most of his life choices. As Eriksen asserts, ‘Those who can accept [death]accept the whole [more than the sum total] of their own lives and those who get to such a point of maturity find that death loses its sting.

Morrie tells Mitch that “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy…able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people.” Poignantly, at the end of the book, Mitch resumes a relationship with his ailing brother, Steve, thus exhibiting hope and promise that intimacy will no longer elude him, even after Morrie is gone. And at the beginning of the book, Mitch describes Morrie as “…a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds.” It is a certainty that Mitch Albom would echo the idea that big heroes can reside in small places.

Dr. Cunningham is a relationship counseling expert. She practices couples counseling, marriage counseling and treats relationships issues of all types in San Diego, CA. She offers evening hours and a complimentary telephone consultation. You may reach her at 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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Dr. Barbara Cunningham, licensed marriage and family therapist,  is a proponent of bibliotherapy and believes that little children adjusting to big changes can benefit from a bibliotherapeutic approach. Talking about sensitive topics is difficult for all of us, and and children are no exception. Whether in play or through the magic of an imaginative and beautifully illustrated narrative, children seem to be able to approach their grief and frustration if psychotherapists provide them with an avenue to go from the outside (story) to the inward emotions and thoughts. What follows is Dr. Cunningham’s review of a great example of this sort of book:

THE SEA CAT DREAMS, by J. R. Poulter, is a beautifully written tale that helps children consider the nature of change. The power of this narrative is in its subtlety. A cat is born on a farm, winds up hidden in a bag of a salty sailor, gets taken from his home to remain with the departing sailor, and after a time at sea, “meows the sailor’s eulogy.” The cat is given to his widow and serves as a comfort to her. At each age and stage of the cat’s life, past times are remembered with the nostalgia that only comes from memory.

Humans are the only species aware of their own impermanence. It may be with the first observation of a falling, dead leaf that a child has a blossoming notion, though dim, of this fact of mortality. However, for the child who comes up close and personal with mortality at a younger age, whether because of the death of a pet or a relative,this book can open a healing dialogue.

With beautiful illustrations and lyrical content, clinicians who treat children coping with change (and change is the one consistent fact of any life course) will want to keep this book on their bookshelf. In THE SEA CAT DREAMS, J.R. Poulter writes metaphorically about the unexpected twists and turns that can occur in life. This little book is a valuable resource for youngsters struggling with difficult changes or who are just adjusting to normal changes, like a move or a new sibling. I highly recommend this book and commend the author for addressing change in a way that can be reflected upon by the very young. Review by Barbara Cunningham, Psy.D., MFT

Dr. Cunningham specializes in issues of grief and loss, and treats these issues from a bibliotherapeutic and play perspective with children.
To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s psychotherapy and family counseling  practice, visit her at http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com

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