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Creating a Life of Meaning and CompassionReview - Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion
by Robert W. Firestone, Lisa A. Firestone and Joyce Catlett
American Psychological Association, 2003
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Dec 22nd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 52)

The title is one to make most of us in the business cringe, and the APA is of course the 'big' APA, the psychology one, not the other.  Consequently the book is not about psychological or psychiatric nosological categories, but about personal journeys, and the painting, 'giclee on canvas' on the cover is Robert Firestone's own creation.  For those of you who don't know, this term refers to a hi-fi digital reproduction of an original artwork.  So this is a well-rounded family intent on passing on to the world the secrets, or rather the wisdom that is human resource allocated correctly. Metaphor carries away even Daniel Siegel in his foreword, namely, a journey round the world, presumably the Firestones are into sailing, or rather, they have 'friends' who do.

The book further claims to be the result of 40 years of evaluation of the human response of resistance to attempts at change (they mention the high seas, by now I am coming to realize that someone is a sailor).

Statements like "all people exist in a state of conflict between active pursuit of goals in the real world and an inward, self-protective defense system characterized by fantasy gratification and self-nurturance" pepper the book from page xiii onward, and whether you agree with them or not, its heady enough stuff, together with the "death of feeling and compassion in contemporary culture", to whet the appetite of those seeking enlightenment, on or off the regatta.

So the target then of enrichment attempts is to deal with the defenses one develops in childhood against pain, frustration, anxiety, and one hopes, yacht clubs.  In any event, this defensive set of attributions colors us as adults, and we have to bypass or overcome such barriers to switch on fulfillment or whatever makes us self-actualize.

Certainly Viktor Frankl and Martin Seligman were going to be the first to get quoted, but this really is about the 'Circle of Friends.'

This circle refers to an American subculture, a culture of "a lifestyle of freedom, openness and sharing" which instantly reminds me of hippies and Woodstock posters.  So scratching around, one finds The Glendon Association: see the following web page to find the Firestones, their lifework, theories, therapies, and their books there too.  (  The third author is also associated with this organization, a non-profit organization that accepts donations so that its 'high quality and timely' works can be distributed to health professionals, or so they say.

After 30 years of boating and other shared activities, they are sharing their books, articles and documentary films, in this book.  Now I know why I thought, "Hippies" since this circle of friends, this community, grew out of the culture of the '60's in the USA and elsewhere.  In this case, with teenagers in the groups experimenting with drugs, sex and rock 'n roll, a group encounter with adolescents and parents led to a schooner setting sail around the world, sometimes staffed only by about 11 of the kids, and other attempts at creating a lager that would defend against the cold war world establishment.

While they were away on the boat, some of those left behind went into business together.  This and other developments led Firestone One to abandon his practice and go into the group as a participant observer.

So then this book emerges as a set of narratives which catalogue the human response to the cold war age, the plasticization of the USA, the demise of spiritual values, the breakdown of families, and a fair amount of boating, interspersed with psychodynamic commentary on what is going on here.

If life in the 21st Century is challenging, and if our processing of information is inadequate, then we will feel lousy, and there are values thus set out in this book that are regarded as the way out of the trap of everyday life, then, and presumably, now.

"Indeed, the isolation and comfort of contemporary society carry with it the risk of reinforcing psychological defenses that contribute to an inward, self-protective, and somewhat emotionally deadened way of being and living" (page 16).  And they say this as if it was a bad thing: after all, we have Oprah, Dr Phil, Tony Robbins and TV soaps to create such outlets and instruct us in the art of emotion and psychosocial to-ing and fro-ing.

The book begins to discuss the fantasy solutions we all are presumed to have, illusions which substitute for real closeness, warmth, empathy, and meaning, and Frankl again emerges, and of course, real boating.  To be free, we have to be vulnerable, but that is the exact thing our defenses are designed to regulate, and so we have to be aware that there is more, feel unfulfilled and so on.  In healing, we would have to hurt, feel more, be less defended, or as Mad Magazine used to write, I think it was Dave Bergs who said it, turn on, tune in, drop dead.  Existential awareness, a sense of the spiritual, a need for examination of the mystery of life, all would be necessary pathways, without presumably the Timothy Leary vision of the world through LSD lenses.

Thus the authors can define what an 'undefended individual' means, and profile such persons within the circle of friends.

As good motivational literature would do, by chapter two we are looking at the factors that would impede personal development with a juicy quote from Ernie Becker about masses of internal scar tissue and throbbing dreams.

And damaged humanness: blaming parents already, although they admit that to blame mothers and fathers or to be moralistic or punitive about child-rearing responses only compounds the problem (page 39), we are looking at the several factors that cause parents to affect their children adversely.  By now, one is seemingly looking at an extremely American vision of life and the world, and parenting, middle class American values, and even some references to Republican parents and Democrat children-type illustrations.  Not everyone in the world experiences family and parents in the WASP tradition, so many such as my self would have a hard time with some of these arguments, coming from families that did not live in Susan Faludi suburbia.

However I am gratified to see the Milan School actually mentioned on these pages, one of the first times I have seen that in years, and of course Professoressa Palazzoli was of the psychodynamic tradition before she was influenced by the writings of the systemic and ecosystemic theorists like Bateson, husband to Margaret Mead.  Even Boszormenyi-Nagy, Murray Bowen, and Salvador Minuchin get a mention, and that you don't see everyday, telling you where the thinking on these pages found its original impetus.  20th Century responses to 21st Century life as well?

So, much of the influence of the psychoanalytic tradition still carries on with Firestone, even though many cultures would not have struggled with what middle class America found pervasive in the baby boom days. And of course, the above influences all were systemic, ecosystemic or family therapists or theorists, and the focus on psychopathology had been urged out of the patient, to the identified patient within a family; here, the Circle of Friends was an ecosystem, with its own self-regulatory mechanism as can be seen in the writing, the narratives, the testimony that follows.  Pathology is now no longer intrapsychic, but intra-personal, and "with respect to physical or emotional child abuse, virtually no family can withstand close scrutiny" (page 39).

Soon, we are back to discussing the fantasy bond, the one where we imagine that we are one with the family, our real one, not the therapeutic community, so one is self-parenting. For instance, children dread separation, death is the ultimate loss of family by separation then realization of one's own mortality, children retreat into a pre-knowledge-of-death state, and so regress, and other sort of psychodynamic flowcharts close to Firestone's heart.  So this is how psychopathology is described from time to time in this work.  All this increases the defense, the death anxiety defense, so kids can live on.  One therefore must see these as barriers to successful psychosocial existence.

Ambivalence in the reader bounds back and forth between what challenges one might face in the Western TV-drugs-Playstation-type world, and the rest of us for whom this is a somewhat different would, but nevertheless feel the cultural universals that plague the modern world. One in every 115 people is a refugee today, every day millions are displaced, starving, and so on.  There is a story about a rich, unhappy man who asks God for the secret of happiness.  God tells him to go and seek a man who is happy, and then buy his shirt from him.  The man sets out across the world, and finally sees a man working in the fields, singing away and clearly delirious with happiness.  Approaching the man to buy his shirt, he discovers the happy man has no shirt to sell for he is too poor to own one.  The point being that very poor people I know well begin each day with a keen sense that if they can only feed their family this day, then it will be a good one.  As they go to sleep that night, bellies reasonably full, a sense of fulfillment, of achieved self-efficacy, fills their spirits, and so what they have done makes a difference, each and every day.  Such feeling is denied to the rich, they have to refurbish a boat and enter the high seas to create such a sense of self-efficacy.

For the Firestones and friends, it appears that little of such spirit is readily available, and they have to go in search across the world and across their emotional ecosystems to avoid the rush of plenty in the USA that followed WWII.  America certainly owned the disestablishmentarianist movement, but Europe had a go too. However, ownership of such struggles, as I said earlier, appears to be a very American thing, so I will try and pluck out the Universalist application if that is possible.

I suppose it is true that all unhappiness is relative, and needs a vehicle, and here the journey proposed by the Firestones begins with disrupting the fantasy process that believes that attachment has succeeded, but operates in mythology.  As the quote from Anna Freud given here goes, gratification through fantasy is no longer harmless when it occurs in an adult. In fact, the DSM rates it as part of narcissism and psychopathy.  Again there are Universalist claims that all people exist in conflict between an active pursuit of goals in the real world and a dependence on fantasy gratification (page 59).  Fantasy solutions of childhood angst thus have to measure up to the real world, and the rewards of living in the real world may clash with the recalled world as it was. In a way it's like the smell of the steak that lures, compared to the taste of the steak as purchased and consumed. Childhood advertises a life in the future, I can't wait to be an adult and do my own thing, but when I am an adult, I yearn for the carefree days of yore.  The trick is to live in the here and now for the rewards of now, but they are going to feel different to the brochure of Kiddieland.

Again denied, parent bashing remains the subtle theme of such psychodynamic thinking, "If the child is fortunate enough to have mature and loving parents who provide the necessary love-food required for adequate sustenance, he or she would be able to live in a real world and would have less need to depersonalize or develop defenses that function to deny reality and avoid psychological pain and frustration" (page 60).

How much influence parents really have in the post-post-modern world is unclear.  In expensive countries, very little time is spent in a family with both parents working, so kids spend perhaps from 6pm till bedtime, maybe two and a half hours with parents who are cooking food, doing homework, making phone calls and watching The Apprentice on TV, wondering who is getting fired by D Trump. 

"Furthermore, the process of gratifying oneself with internal images or self-parenting mechanisms and the pursuit of gratification in the external world are mutually exclusive" (page 60).  My trouble is that I believe it.  Even Donald Trump has to intervene to teach his apprentices about the real world and shatter their illusions: work hard, take risks, rely on yourself, provide leadership, follow your gut but pay the price, there are no free lunches…'re fired.

So then, coming to the concept of resistance mentioned earlier, resistance to change that is, is the patient's way of cooperating with the world.  Resistance to change is then defined as resistance, by default, to a different, presumably better life.  In this way, the individual protects against anxiety states that arise whenever fantasy processes and the associated self-nurturing behaviors are threatened.  Suffering is thus easier than change, which would challenge a more internal set of corrupt values held over from childhood fantastic attachment. In essence, the adult has to emigrate from the childhood state, adopt a "what was, was" strategy, and take off the fantasy amour.  In essence, the core skeleton was not laid down, and so an insect-like chitinous exoskeleton has replaced the internal self.

Behavior as an adult has to be goal directed, after insight has been introduced. So the Firestone position is easily recognizable, defining neurosis as an inward defensive process that leads people to invest more in internal fantasy rather than the parentless adult world. Faced with the cruel world, the child-stricken adult comforts internally in a secret world, and thus stays unattached externally, with no rewarding relationships or friends in the real sense that Firestone envisages; one of the pathological pathways involves idealizing the institutions of the past, and maintaining a negative self image, calling now on Ferenczi and Anna Freud again, and the individual's paradoxical response to these perceptions, with projection and so on.

What all this means is that we get locked into an internal world, and can't come out to play as adults would, in a kind of fusion with the external objects rather than in a real relationship where the individual is subsumed, like in the Circle of Friends.

Melanie Klein eat your heart out, for you are seldom quoted, given your presupposition that we are born filled with rage and aggressive impulses.  Carol Gilligan on the other hand, one of my personal favorites (along with Suzi Faludi), is mentioned more often, if only as an archetypical opponent of patriarchal societal influence, Faludi not at all.  Voice therapy is however promoted briefly as a cognitive-affective-behavioral methodology, rather like Michael White's narrative mixed with Carol Gilligan's storytelling mixed with Seligman and Beck.

So the authors move on to challenging the addictive and nurturing lifestyles, namely habit forming attempts to soothe the pain of a less than perfect parenting scheme in childhood. Obviously, these behaviors may not be nicely addictive, just rewarding in some way, which is defined here as less than optimally adaptive, settling for second best.  The way out perhaps is a life of "adventure and travel" (page 102).

Worse than death then is finding out we have never lived in the Laing-ian sense. So we are shown the Promised Land, or the up till now not visualized Promised Land, in other words insight is really outsight when we move our vision across to 'the what' could be.  What it is and what it could be, loss of feeling and 'inwardness'.  In these ways of being, we avoid coping with anger, passivity, and a victimized point of view, all of which come with a sense of entitlement. 

So the book continues, imbuing psychotherapy with the similar, now established litany of a psychodynamic, intrapsychic struggle, with resolution of giving up the safety and limiting stance of the fantasy of a self allocated none of the adult worlds' cost-benefit dilemmas, opting for safety, a lonely and empty safety without true emotions, without true attachments, without true adulthood, or true freedom in the Frankl sense of choice within nothing.

Although heavily psychodynamic in its approach, and peppered with contentious pronouncement about Universalist realities, laden with culture-specific comments in a kind of paradoxical conflation of levels of being, the book is a kind of Celestial Seasoning come of age tea party for aging hippies that, like Woodstock, feels about right on the Nostalgia scale, argues common sense clarities of explanation that have virtually no evidence base since the underlying hypotheses are un-testable, and hence cannot be refuted.  In an evidence based modern world, one would have to argue that unproven theory is just observation, and in this case, just participant observation.

But, there is something compelling about the arguments here, because they feel right in their logic, and look right in the multiple conversation-bytes given along the pages.  We all need a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to escape our internal fantasy world and deal with what is, instead of what was, what is outside and real and what is inside and unworkable fantasy.  Psychotherapy may be the only setting for this in the world of the Firestones and Catlett, for others, it may be in real war, real poverty, real hunger, real perhaps as used by Firestone as 'true'. I don't know what they mean by 'true' as opposed to real. Truth is subjective and objective, real is just so too, and hence, both are not subject to proof, just agreement.

So in order to agree with this tome, with its pronouncement and pretension to alert us to a life of meaning and compassion, via psychotherapy, you have to suspend many aspects of culture, of opposition to the Universalist theme, to an acceptance of the messianic path, truth and real, one comes only to the father via…..?

Is it worth having?  Daniel Siegel and others, me included, find it compelling enough to read, and to reawaken our love for a paradigm almost lost in the 20th Century and now the 21st.  The metaphors created by Freud, reviled by the Feminists, carried on by Klein and others, live on in the post-modernist world, nicely done and filled with earnest writing from a circle of friends. I have to get me some of those.



© 2004 Roy Sugarman


Roy Sugarman, PhD, Clinical Director: Clinical Therapies Programme, Principal Psychologist: South West Sydney Area Health Service, Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, Australia.


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