Sometimes even a walk down the road on a sunny day is an offence to the spirit. I have just been to see my therapist.
‘The prison of the self, the innate alienation of individual existence – this is what you’ve come to believe?’ I’ve learned to be wary of her paraphrasing. It can be a blunt instrument.
A runner eyeballs me as though the pavement is his designated track and I’m deliberately obstructing it.
‘Prison is too strong a word,’ I told her, ‘but you keep talking about empathy as if it’s something we can all pour from a tap. Personally I don’t think we’re designed like that.’
The runner passes close, elbows akimbo, leaving a momentary nimbus of resentment and halitosis. The slap of his flat feet gradually lessens.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that empathy is a phenomenon we can just assume, either in ourselves or others. But ask yourself where we’d be without it.’
My therapist, I realised a while ago, is competitive, hence she frequently answers her own questions.
‘Without empathy there can only be isolation,’ she therefore continued, before looking at me as if she’d smashed a winning forehand.
A tall, brightly dressed woman turns the corner on the other side of the road. She gesticulates, and yodels into her mobile, which has claimed her entire focus.
Is it feasible that an individual sensibility can be offended by the pathology of the world? This was the hypothesis I’d hoped to tease out during my afternoon appointment. But really, I think now, how could it not be? The world, by its nature, offends.
The woman hits peak volume as she goes past, and I can still hear her after I turn the corner. Is oblivious solipsism a form of psychological defence, I wonder: I’m not aware of my surroundings so they can’t harm me? Perhaps I can explore this in my next session. Then I think of something else my therapist said.
‘I notice you tend to deflect when I ask you about your feelings.’
‘What do you mean?’ I could hear my voice sounded defensive.
‘I mean you take refuge in the impersonal. You generalise. I might even say you obfuscate.’
Increasingly, it occurs to me, therapy is becoming a forum for things I can’t say. I do not see myself as a person with renegade feelings of which I’m unaware or take pains to avoid, and yet this is how she feels the need to portray me.
‘Surely it’s important to understand how you think, isn’t it?’ I have begun an imaginary conversation with her, or an internal dialogue as she would doubtless call it.
‘Therapy is not philosophy,’ her voice says in my head.
‘All schools of thought, by their nature, must have a philosophical basis.’ My inner self is leaning forward dogmatically, jaw extended.
‘You are a dissociated thinker,’ her voice retorts. ‘You think to escape.’
‘That’s preposterous,’ I yell internally. ‘I…’
Suddenly I realise that four schoolgirls are about to pass me. Two giggle and two look fearful. I compose my face and walk on.
Earlier in the year, when an elongated winter was finally turning to spring, I decided it was time to ask some questions of life and my place within it. The idea had grown in appeal for a while. I’d been reading Jung, Jungians, and even some post-Jungians – pioneers of the psyche, people who wrote about the Self as though it was an intriguing continent to be explored. I imagined myself trekking in their wake through the foothills of my soul. Also, if I’m honest, I was rather lonely.
The Therapists’ Register, I soon realised, is a more restrained version of Tinder. Both the seeker and the sought have needs they hope to satisfy. Neither quite knows the best way to go about it.
‘They all have the same-sounding qualifications, and they all either look like a vicar or a dominatrix.’ I was talking to my friend Jo-Anne, the only person I know who willingly admits to being in therapy.
‘Don’t let that put you off,’ she sipped her coffee and looked serious. ‘I worked out after a while that one lot are trying to appear welcoming and the rest are hoping to display gravitas, though when you actually meet them it can be the other way round.’
I like Jo-Anne. She reads widely and describes herself as a seeker. She has seen a good number of therapists, and always seems happy and excited when she’s about to start with someone new. I asked her out last year, but she said she was at the wrong point in her process.
Loud voices swoop towards me and a sudden herd of cyclists hurtle past bellowing companionably under their helmets. They rush on, leaving behind fragments of conversation. It takes a while for my heart to stop thumping.
When it does I wonder if I should mention Jo-Anne to my therapist. Jo-Anne always tells me how she feels. One evening last year she cooked me a meal then invited me to stay over.
‘I’ve got a king-size bed,’ she explained. ‘I’d prefer it if we don’t touch, but it will be nice to be near each other.’
Jo-Anne is a disarming person. She’s truthful in an unusual way. Later on I lay between her newly laundered sheets, a discrete but comfortable space between us, and fell asleep to the gentle sound of her snoring. It was a night of perfect peace.
I think of this as I turn into the road where I live. I ponder Jo-Anne’s stance towards life. Seeking is itself separation. You are not the thing you seek. Seekers, by definition, are apart from the object of their search. Like Jo-Anne I suppose I am, without wishing to be, a seeker.
‘It’s normal for insight to occur between sessions.’ By the time I next meet my therapist I have decided to share this new revelation. I should have realised she’d take full credit.
‘To be honest I don’t think it came from anything that happened here,’ I explain. As I speak I can imagine Jo-Anne saying the same thing in much the same tone of voice. My therapist raises her eyebrows: an unmistakeable prelude to challenge.
‘These sessions are essentially a reflective space. They nurture the habit of reflection. Once this is internalised self-awareness results and the need for therapy lessens or, in many cases, disappears.’ She looks at me and for a moment I think she is going to smile. ‘You could say my job is to make myself redundant.’
‘So your redundancy signals the end of my search?’
The hint-of-smile vanishes and her features retract into their default neutrality.
‘It signals the end of my part in it.’
I know in that moment I am attending my final session. It seems to me that I might as well juggle my own semantics.
‘You just haven’t found the right person yet.’ Jo-Anne has come round and I’m describing how things went.
‘Is there a right person? Have you found the right person?’
‘There have been times when I’ve thought so, but ultimately, no.’ She says this reasonably, as though my question did not have an edge.
‘Then how can you say I will?’
‘I was just trying to be encouraging.’ She pauses. ‘In the end therapy is like everything else, you learn a bit then move on.’
The sudden bleakness in her tone alarms me. It’s something I haven’t heard before. A thought enters my mind from nowhere – if you find a dove in your hands you mustn’t press too hard. We are no less fragile than our vision of the world.
‘Shall I make some food?’ I ask.
I cook, we eat. We say little, which is unusual. It makes me more than normally aware of Jo-Anne’s presence. She is easy to be with, either in silence or conversation. She is a better person than I am, I think.
‘Do you mind if I stay tonight?’ she asks later, as I wash up and she dries.
‘No, of course not.’ I didn’t see this coming. I run through scenarios in my mind.
‘My bed is smaller than yours.’ I feel I should point this out.
‘That’s okay,’ she says.
When we make love I’m very aware of her heart. It emanates gentleness.
‘Do you think the world itself can have a soul?’ We are lying back together afterwards. I say the first thing that comes into my head, an old thought returning on its cycle.
‘And do you think that soul could have its own character?’
‘Why wouldn’t it?’
‘So that’s part of what we’re all struggling with, every day of our lives.’
‘It has to be – we’re not separate, we’re part of it.’
‘We are part of the world’s soul?’
‘And the world is part of ours.’
I feel Jo-Anne shift, and very soon understand she’s asleep. This moment is happening so it was always possible, I think.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories ‘Breath’ (Fictive Dream), and ‘Blurred Edges’ (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’ (Cōnfingō), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, ‘The Violet Eye’, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.