The Examined Life

examined lifeAfter 25 years’ experience as a psychotherapist, Stephen Grosz wrote this lovely, short distillation of his insight about the human experience: love, loss, grief, paranoia, anger, lust, boredom, change, fear, praise, and much more. The book is built on case histories, so each brief chapter is intensely and pleasurably engaging, like a short story or, better, like a piece of a novel (since this person’s life is longer than this case history.) Will this patient come to understand him or herself, will the problems be unknotted? And then there is the final question: how does this apply to me, to my family, to the people I know, to my society? Grosz is so gentle and yet so unflinching in his understanding of the way people behave that I found relevance even in chapters that at first seemed not to apply to me.

One of Grosz’s repeated themes is about change, and the way human beings will fight it even when they know the change is good for them. He writes about the woman who spends years in an affair with a married man, long after she knows he will never leave his wife for her; the man who deliberately loses his wallet on the Tube the night he finds out he’s won a major award, ruining his pleasure in his success; the widow who lives in permanent crisis mode as a way of distracting herself from her grief. Grosz points out that no matter what we are going toward, change means loss: loss of the old way of life, the old relationship, the old habits. Sometimes, even that small loss is too much, and we can’t face it until there is a greater impetus toward the new life. When the man loses his wallet, Grosz concludes:

Could that small gesture — patting his pockets for a wallet he knows isn’t there — have been a way of distracting himself from another, more worrying thought: that he is about to be lost himself? Searching for his wallet might have been a way of soothing that particular anxiety. Better to be in the position of having lost something than to be something someone forgot.

It is at moments like this — or when he watches over an HIV-positive patient who comes to his sessions only to sleep, allowing Grosz to keep him safe and alive in his mind — that we realize that most of psychotherapy is about being listened to as we really are. We all tell our stories all the time, says Grosz, but most of the people we encounter are so busy telling their own stories, setting up their own facades, that we never feel we are heard. Psychotherapy not only gets to your real story, it listens properly. You’re seen, deeply and without judgment. What a gift, for all of us, but perhaps especially for someone who desperately fears being forgotten or pigeonholed or labeled or left alone.

One thing that struck me about this book was how simply and straightforwardly it was written. I think I am accustomed to having my insights into the human condition packaged in the form of novels, which are usually written in beautiful language, with symbolism and metaphor and foreshadowing and the whole ball of wax. This was written with clarity, and even some grace, but it wasn’t written by a writer. I kept stopping, gobsmacked, in the middle of the simple prose, thinking, Where did that truth come from? Whoa.

I got my recommendation for this book from Litlove’s wonderful review of it back in March. I’m so glad I read it, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know. It’s a quick read but a long-lasting one, something to think about for a good long time.

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9 Responses to The Examined Life

  1. Wow, coincidence! I suddenly remembered the existence of this book today (I also added it to my list because of Litlove’s wonderful review), and wondered if it would make a good present for one of my feelings-loving family members. Sounds like yes?

    Question though: How short is short? I mean roughly how long is each chapter? Long enough for you to get a sense of what the person in the case study is like? (I ask because whoever I buy this book for is going to basically use it like we do the advice columns — here is a situation now imagine how you would therap it.)

  2. Jenny says:

    The chapters are usually about 10-15 pages long, depending on the topic — some a little shorter, some a little longer, some combining a couple of case studies, some dwelling on just one. They also really included his own reactions and what he learned as a therapist and a human being. You absolutely get the sense of the people — he does a wonderful job of that — but also of how this applies to us all in our human lives, not “here’s a freak show, look at this weirdo” kind of thing. I think this book would make a good gift for almost anyone!

  3. Story of my life. Last person I read on this that had any original insights and made any sense to me to stick was Jung. Enjoyed the post. I’ll check out this book tonight after work.

  4. litlove says:

    Just a beautiful review. I love what you say about the simplicity of the writing – that’s so true. I don’t know how he did it either!

    • Jenny says:

      For me, that part almost reached to the level of cognitive dissonance, as if I really need more complicated language to communicate deep truth. But if you’ve seen or read Margaret Edison’s play Wit, you’ll know her point that sometimes the packaging doesn’t matter.

  5. Alex says:

    I heard extracts from this on Radio 4 and knew I had to read it. As you say, there is a simplicity in the writing that for me makes everything he has to say seem so very deeply truthful. Definitely one of my books of the year.

    • Jenny says:

      I think that the insights he has are so complex that they are beautifully set off by the simple writing. If the prose were more tangled, I might not have understood the insights as well.

  6. Marcia Lengnick says:

    Perhaps something both you and Bob would enjoy reading.. M This is a new blog for me and I’m thinking she’s a perceptive reviewer..

    Sent from my iPad

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