My Day of Magical Thinking
Boundaries, Interpersonal Schema, and Lessons from Parenting a Puppy
“We are imperfect mortal beings” - Joan Didion
One of the best quotes I’ve heard about grief is that the intensity never changes, it’s just the frequency of episodes that decreases. There’s no standing your ground when you get punched in the face by grief, the only real strategy for managing it is to get punched in the face by it less often.
The easiest but perhaps most self-consciously destructive way to accomplish this, as far as I can tell, is to go full Eternal Sunshine, erasing the past and obliterating every painful and happy memory. A forced stalemate with the past. Executing on this devil’s bargain isn’t really a strategy I’m a fan of, but it also isn’t always a conscious decision. The organism will do whatever it has to survive, or it won’t. I try to accept the past, to carry it with me, but our ability to do so is directly related to the blunt force of pain that we, as imperfect mortal beings, are capable of withstanding.
To contemplate loss, whether in the immediate aftermath of tragedy or years after the fact, is to experience a sort of Dresden-bombing of our emotional faculties. If we experience this again and again, we are faced with the very real question of whether it’s worth it to hang on to the happy memories, whether it’s feasible to remain hopeful for some continuity of self, even for one more day, when the cost of doing so is another night spent lying awake in the grip of the unspeakable terror of the irretrievability of self. There is a part of me that will never come back.
Boundaries, we learn in therapy, are related to the idea that there is some place where you end and I begin. This is how we survive the chaos. Says Prentis Hemphill, quite reasonably, writing for the majority: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
Then again, here’s H.H. Fowler issuing the dissent, “Love knows no reason, no boundaries, no distance. It has a sole intention of bringing people together to a time called forever.”
In National Geographic, neuroscientist Anil Ananthaswamy writes of phantom limbs: “the brain creates ‘maps’ of the body and what we perceive are these maps. In the case of phantom limbs, the map should have reorganized to reflect the current physical condition of the body. But it hasn’t and you continue to feel the old map.”
Writing in a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Tamer Soliman and his colleagues find that, “humans are experts in social tasks because they can adjust their body schemas to incorporate the kinematics of partners, thus forming an interpersonal joint body schema.”
Like many others, I experience grief as a phantom limb. A refusal by the body and mind to remap the interpersonal joint schema of the heart. An unwillingness to fracture the infinite.
It’s not your history to rewrite, I tell myself. The tribunal that could approve a remapping will never again convene.
Occasionally, when I am sitting around contemplating the infinite sadness, synapses glitching out as I try to hang on to memories of the past that does not exist, I am interrupted by my barking collie, threatening to leave a turd on the floor if I don’t immediately take her for walk, thus leaving me just one Mellon short of a multi-platinum Smashing Pumpkins album. Not every question has an answer. And not every problem has a strategic solution. But one of the key lessons I’ve learned from parenting a puppy is that perhaps the only thing worse than grief spiraling is grief spiraling while a dog looks you square in the eye, scooches their little doggy butt up high in the air, and takes a steaming shit directly on your floor.
That means it’s time to go outside.