I like how you’re framing it. I might say that we’ve gotten disdainful of suffering. The Buddha’s first noble truth is that there’s always something uncomfortable, even if you’re living a charmed life. Inevitably, the specter of old age, illness, loss, death, it’s part of reality. The big Buddhist teaching—but it lines up with a psychodynamic understanding—is the wisdom of no escape. There’s always something that’s going to be hard to face, but we do better if we train ourselves to be with it, rather than walling ourselves off from it. That’s the whole thing.
I was trying to get at in the section on aggression: love and hate—or even kindness and anger—are actually connected. If we’re pretending to be someone who doesn’t get angry, then we’re living a superficial life. Who doesn’t get angry? Then we’re being run by the false self instead of being real with ourselves. In doing that, dissociating ourselves from the uncomfortable aspects of our emotional experience, we’re also limiting our ability to love. I think that’s the whole point of both psychotherapy and meditation: to encourage our loving nature.
Can you draw that out? What’s the connection between anger and love?
For a young child or an infant, anger and desire, anger and need, anger and appetite, frustration and love, they’re not differentiated yet. An infant who needs his or her mother or father, is just like a ball of energy that’s attacking. They’re not seeing their parents as a separate being, they just want the breast or the bottle, the comfort, the help.
At first, the parent tries to be there totally for the child, but at a certain point—after a year of this or whatever—the parent has to start to disappoint the child a little bit. They make them wait. It’s a process of gradually disappointing the child in a tolerable way, so that the child has some kind of frustration, but the frustration doesn’t become overwhelming. They’re not left alone for too long, where they just get despairing. But they start to learn how to comfort themselves. They start to see that the parent is a person in their own right, who they can be mad at, but then the parent still comes through for them. That’s the critical thing. There’s a little bit of anger, like, Oh, really? I have to wait here to be fed? But then, I guess that’s because you have another child or you have a husband or a wife. It’s a feeling of regard—the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott calls it “concern”—for the other grows out of one’s anger being held or handled in a good enough way, so that it doesn’t come overwhelming, but instead evolves into empathy.
That’s sort of the point of the last quarter of the book that therapy is doing that for people. It’s holding the anger of the aggression that everyone has: why isn’t the world responding to me the way I need it to? Therapy is holding that in a way that that a parent has to hold it for a baby. Therapy is holding that for a grown up, so that they start to develop some kind of compassion or kindness—that’s the subtitle of the book. Kindness for the uncertainty, for the traumatic underpinnings that we’re all subject to.
This interview has been edited and condensed.