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April 16, 2005

 

EMMANUEL GHENT: TRUTH IS IN THE MOMENT


Emmanuel Ghent: Paradox and Ambiguity
Ghent (1925-2003) proposed that what we believe can at best only be true at that moment. In other words, what we might refer to as truths or beliefs are momentary bulletins from a continually evolving project. What follows is an abstract from a deeply moving memorial presented following his death:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
William Wordsworth (1802)

There are many ways to live a life. All of us are privileged to have a hand in shaping something of how we will live ours. Having a hand in the project is decidedly different from having a free hand - picking and choosing at will - having it just as we want, when and with whom we want.

Our pride does not take well to this qualified involvement. We see the possibilities: we could do life oh so well if we could just do it as we imagine it. And we quickly learn that we are sharing the control with a rather unpleasant collection of additional forces. Many of us, unable to shake off a grim awareness of the stark limitations of health and time, the deep rage over deprivations and cruel losses visited upon us, chafe and fret over the unfairness of it all, disappointed in how the impingement of life's forces has so compromised our vision.

I began to think a great deal about these issues many years ago after seeing Mannie at a psychoanalytic conference that I had attended. I was pleased to see him, a fairly new friend at the time, striding into the hall where I was already seated waiting for the opening address. As he came to the row in which I was sitting, I was happy when he paused to turn in. Perhaps he would sit with me. When I looked more directly at him and heard him speak, I was stunned. His hand groped a bit for the back of the chair at the edge of the row. "Are there any seats open in this row?" he asked quietly (but of no one in particular). He didn't recognize me. I realized that he couldn't see - he was basically blind. I later learned he had suffered a recurrence of a chronic medical condition that would plague him for the rest of his life, but, as I could see, would slow him down only a little.

How amazing, I thought: with all the anxiety that most of us can feel in these large and impersonal public meetings, here is this man who has temporarily lost his sight and is moving around in space as though he is dealing with a minor inconvenience. I decided he had a sense that his body was only the vehicle he was travelling in, that while he did not ignore or abuse it, he took good care of himself - he also didn't identify himself with it. He worked around it when it was not cooperating with him, held himself apart, did not let "the problem," the limitation, become him.

When Mannie first told me that he was seriously ill and expected to live only a brief period of time, it must have been at least six years ago. At that time, I carried the information close to my heart and painfully. Mannie had by then become a fundamental feature of my experience. I'm sure his many other friends will recognize the feeling when I say that for me, just knowing he was in the world made life better. The thought of losing him was unimaginable. Respecting his wishes and not talking to anyone about this was nearly impossible: so many people I loved, loved Mannie, so many of my friends would want to know if he was ill. How could I bear this sense of living on borrowed time with him and not be totally consumed with it?

I quickly learned that Mannie had taken me into his confidence not because he wanted me to be preoccupied with this or because he wanted anything in our relationship to change. Most of us knew him as a brilliant psychoanalyst, but I can attest to his powerful impact as a behavioral therapist, particularly when employing aversive conditioning. If Mannie discerned even a hint that I was looking at him differently or sadly, or, even worse, being somewhat solicitous of him, he became ever so slightly but unmistakably impatient and irritated. He did not really seem defensive at these times, but, rather, disappointed, and this reaction certainly accelerated the speed of my learning how to bear this pain without sinking into it.

Miraculously, weeks passed, months passed, years passed. Medical crises came - and went. Mannie survived. I think I began to feel that, rather than living on borrowed time, Mannie would never die. And now I watched him more carefully, sensing there was more to learn. I could see that while Mannie contained experience that was distressing, he gave himself fully over to the pleasures, big and small, that life could bring. He found many rainbows in his life, most of them not in the sky. There was his wife's music - he was so proud of her talent. Whenever he spoke of something good happening for his children, his face would light up. And there was his delight in describing how he chased the bats that showed up in the bedroom after he had gone to sleep one night at his house in the country.

There was his pleasured recounting of the early days at Bell Lab when, as a young man, his versatile brilliance qualified him to be among a small group invited to an ongoing, off-hours investigation of the computer's capacities to create music.

And, for most of the journey he engaged passionately in these many and disparate aspects of life. Not always an easy task, for, while ever appreciative of the phenomena of rainbows, Mannie was not a light-hearted rainbow chaser. He was a seriously committed intensely focussed person who, once he got started on something - well, I can imagine it might have been difficult to distract him even for dinner. He had a single-mindedness that I think comes with his kind of brilliance.

Knowing Manny was like knowing so many different men all at once: someone deeply spiritual who was decidedly irreverent, the gentlest of men, who could be tough as nails. So while we are here to say goodbye to Mannie we are also here to revel in our tremendous good fortune in having passed through life at similar times, to consider how many ways our minds are expanded, our experience of life has become richer - because of him.

I will miss him very much.

Margaret Black, 2003.

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