How Keats and Helen Vendler (Helen who??) Helped Me Find Success in Taking the California State Licensing Exams.*
By Deborah B. Edgar, MA, MFT
I woke up early Sunday morning with the intention to go through one more practice test for my California State Licensing Exams. This was in the continued hope of reducing, one question at a time, the real possibility of failure. The sense of forthcoming doom has in the past been a wonderful motivator for me to avoid the experience of failure, and in the process, to suppress any sense of being human. I am machine: not human. It had worked. So why would I try anything differently this time? Anxiety, if it does not paralyze, can be channeled (read: “suppressed”) towards a great degree of success. And success, up until now, I have had. Well, if by “success” you mean the concrete experience of “passing.” Depression, migraines, stress and adrenaline’s attack on the immune system, the cutting off of relationship with self and others, etc… can scarcely be categorized as “success,” or so we might appropriately suggest, not to ourselves—never to ourselves—, but to our clients.
But who says that insight and knowledge of the real detrimental consequences to ones life, health and relationships through the art of suppression leads to change? Ask anyone grappling with addiction. And are these tests not, in their very nature, an unfair measure of one’s true abilities and competencies in a therapeutic relationship? How can a case, indeed, how can a PERSON be reduced to A, B, C or D? I would do A AND B in a crisis situation: does it really matter what order I follow up on those actions? In a real life clinical situation, do I not have TIME to find the more accurate diagnosis, with a full measure of rule-outs? I can consult, and open up the DSM-IV TR to verify. Here I have one minute, no aids allowed. And what about this indentured servitude called internship…and, and, argh!
Ok. Stop. Let’s add anger to the list of feelings. Good idea. Ok. No. Stop. Suppress. Better idea.
Indeed, this particular Sunday morning my good friend “suppression” returned and suggested that “avoidance” could really help me again. After all, it was Sunday morning: “normal” people are going to church, going out for brunch, going for a bike ride, catching up on email, or reading the paper with a cup of coffee. “Shh! Be ‘very, bery’ normal; don’t give in to these low-grade feelings of so-called ‘anxiety’ or ‘anger.’ And by God: don’t use the words themselves. Shh…You’re not anx---s. How could you be? You’re smart. And that other emotion starting with an “a” that-you-were-never-allowed-to-have-growing-up-which-is-why-you-are-in-this-mess-becoming-a-therapist-in-the-first-place? You’ve been training hard for the past 3 to, say, 30 years!! You know enough.”
Ha. Ok. I’ll read the paper. What good friends suppression by avoidance can be. Let me just get some milk for my tea.
In the New York Times Book Review, there was an article about Helen Vendler, a premiere scholar of poetry. Intrigued by what the author might say about this brilliant woman, I started reading. Helen Vendler’s life was inspiring enough: now 73, she had risen to the top of her field, through many twists and turns and after much time, in spite of the job declines due mostly to the injustice of sexism in her younger years, a seemingly requisite injustice that many women faced so courageously in a pioneering way 40 years ago. But it was Vendler saying that “To Autumn” by John Keats was “one of the best poems in the English language” that not only furthered my avoidance, but quite paradoxically, lead me to rekindle my passion for what I do. (Which, let’s all be honest, can get buried underneath the bureaucracy of that office somewhere apparently located in Sacramento…)
“Follow the resistance,” I can hear most of my weathered supervisors saying at one point or another during my training. Well, look here! I guess I unintentionally followed my own resistance and it somehow reconnected me to me.
I dusted off my Norton Anthology of Poetry from my bookshelf, and began reading John Keats. His attention to a moment in time, each word seemingly pregnant with layers of meaning, meditating slowly with an attention to the details of experience, feelings, longings, despair, love and loss: here on Psyche and Cupid, there on Melancholy, here on his worst fears, there on a star. Yes, it is this and more that draws me to being a therapist, and the longing to being a good one. On the best of days, I love paying attention to the sacredness of the details of each person who comes into my office. I love slowing down, listening and exploring, discovering with them their experience of love and loss, hope and despair—each word they use pregnant with the possibility of true encounter, a re-experiencing of relationship that, with hope and hard work, produces growth and healing for my clients.
And then I arrived at “To Autumn.” Keats begins,
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;…
Is this not what I hope and long for, for my clients? Abundant “fruitfulness” in their lives? Perhaps I am the one “conspiring” both with sun and client on how to “load” and “bless” them with fruit. Their fruit. Unique, particular, delightful, sacred, and good. And yet, all this sweetness of becoming with the backdrop of the melancholy of the Autumn season: fruitfulness yes, but pending loss too. I live in this frustrating (yet nothing more real) tension in the room, and in my life. Do you?
Good ol’ Keats. He helped me recover energy to study. He reminded me of my own particularity and the passion that motivates me to live and to be a good therapist, despite the seeming petty detail and minimizing inherent, eh-hem, in say, a couple of multiple choice exams. It is a detail I want to now know. Perhaps that energy used to suppress and avoid can today be used to study and take care of myself instead, because I have found me again. I am human, not machine. At least, today, I will use my energy differently. And, I hope that from here on out, I can choose to no longer use it to suppress and to avoid feelings of anxiety and anger brought about by the contradictions and various injustices with which these tests and internship(s) seem to activate in me (and have nothing to do with my family of origin, me or my life experiences in general—no sury-Bob.) Rather, I hope to be more like Helen Vendler who seems to have lived in and through the greater injustice of sexism, without avoiding it, but rather by simply and complexly holding onto herself. Perhaps it took her longer than it should have. But she, in the end, truly succeeded. Hopefully, by 73, I will have not only succeeded, but also passed the California State Licensing Exam.
 John Keats, “To Autumn.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd Edition. P664. WW Norton & Company, 1983