Thelma and the Existential Dreads

Love and Desire, part 3

Thelma, age 70, declares herself “hopelessly, tragically in love.” But it doesn’t look like love to her psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Yalom -- or, if it is, it is “monstrously out of balance – it contained no pleasure at all, her life wholly a torment.”

Eight years before, Thelma had had, she said, “a love affair” of 27 days. The affair had been with Thelma’s former therapist – so, that’s problematic. The former therapist, Matthew, knowing the relationship was wrong, broke it off after the 27 days that Thelma describes as the most blissful of her life.

Since then, for eight years, Thelma has obsessed about Matthew – she hardly thinks of anything else. She re-lives over and over every memory from their time together. “My life is being lived eight years ago,” she says.

Yalom reflects:
“Her love obsession was powerful and tenacious, having dominated eight years of her life. Still, the roots of the obsession seemed extraordinarily friable. A little effort, a little ingenuity should suffice to yank the whole weed out. And then? Underneath obsession, what would I find? Would I discover the brutal facts of human experience that the enchantment concealed? Then I might really learn something about the function of love....So far it was apparent that Thelma’s love for Matthew was, in reality, something else – perhaps an escape, a shield against aging and isolation. There was little of Matthew in it, nor – if love is a caring, giving, need-free relationship – much love.”
Yalom goes on to note that
“a love obsession drains life of its reality, obliterating new experience, both good and bad.”
For Thelma, however,
“the obsession contained infinitely more vitality than her lived experience.”
How is Thelma to be understood in terms of the four existential dreads:

Aloneness: During the 27 days of the affair, aloneness had dissolved into merger and fusion. Thelma described it as
“an out-of-the-body experience....I had no weight. It was as though I wasn’t there, or at least the part of me that hurts and pulls me down. I just stopped thinking and worrying about me. I became a we.”
But in the eight years since the affair ended, the obsession has only painfully exacerbated her feeling of being alone.

Meaninglessness: the obsession gives her life a twisted sort of meaning while cutting her off from all other avenues of meaning.

Responsibility for one’s freedom: this is the one that Yalom comes to believe Thelma is most terrified of. Thelma has surrendered her power to Matthew
“in an effort to deny her own freedom and her responsibility for the constitution of her own life....It is extraordinarily hard, even terrifying, to own the insight that you and only you construct your own life design.”
Thelma’s psychic strategy is to accept the price of aloneness and highly attenuated meaning in order to escape the terror of responsibility for herself.

The remaining existential dread, death, is also playing a key role, Yalom thinks:
“I felt strongly that Thelma’s fear of aging and death fueled her obsession. One of the reasons she wanted to merge in love, and be obliterated by it, was to escape the terror of facing obliteration by death."
This synopsis of Thelma's case affords a glimpse into some of the complications of this business of being human.

Last week I said, Pay attention. Notice. We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other our fellow travelers. We need a lot of help to do that. We need friends, and sometimes counselors, who can help us notice – notice the very things we most hide from ourselves. We’d rather hide from ourselves our dread of death, of freedom, of aloneness, of meaninglessness. But those are the very things to which we most need to pay attention if we are to emerge at last into a way of being that truly loves this life, loves this world, and loves our fellow travelers. Attention to these dreads also takes us into the paradoxes of a full life of fullest love.

Dwelling continuously on death, we come to genuinely apprehend the wonder and miracle of this brief life.

Grasping that we are responsible and blameworthy for everything, we learn to stop constructing self-blame as a shield against responsibilities right here and now.

Beholding the ineradicability of our aloneness, we open more and more to others.

Falling willingly into the abyss of absence of permanent meaning, we are able to create ever-evolving, ever-richer temporary meanings.

Expressing passions even as we let go of passions, we regard every day as both Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent. Celebrating resurrection of life and hope and salvation while seeing it as all a giant practical joke, we find that every day is both Easter and April Fool's Day.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 1: The Wobbly Middle Path of Love
Part 2: Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?

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