Thursday, November 03, 2005

Can We Get Closure on the Notion of Closure?

The WSJ recently ran an article positing that the human habit of "making the best" of bad things is actually hard wired into our brains. They discussed studies showing that humans have a tendency to interpret less-than-favorable results in a way that imbues the unexpected outcome with positive meaning.

Here is the article:

It's incredibly interesting to ponder, the human need to have something good come from something bad. The article goes into the theory's relevance to religious belief, but I don't want to touch that today. I'm thinking today less about the biological impulses moving us toward relative/comparative positivity (which, now that I think about it, might be true and therefore a positive thing) ;) and more about our current cultural obsession with enforcing that positivity. You've heard the word and you know you hate it as much as I do: "closure." The concept that something bad can happen, you can "closure" it out of existence within the all-important One Year Anniversary media timetable (think Challenger, 9/11), and then move on unscathed. But if humans truly are programmed to interpret a positive from a negative, why the RUSH to make it happen NOW, rather than letting it happen when and as it is meant to happen?

Perhaps it is a result of our current dissonant society: so much empty or gratuitous "emotion"/divulging/reality TV drama saturating us, and yet a tremendous discomfort in hearing another human describe their pain. We can watch Jackass but not Hotel Rwanda. It's as if we only want emotional drama if it is an outsize caricature or if it is dealt with vapidly and neatly on an episode of According To Jim. We want emotion; just not the messy truth of it.

A few posts ago when I was barfing every 45 minutes and just feeling like hell on earth, I wrote a semi-serious post about feeling grateful for good health and for not dying today, no matter how much I prayed for just such an end. Someone responded that "[you] sound older than [your] age. That's too bad." Luckily, my peeps chimed in to disabuse the commenter of the notion that I am anywhere close to being old for my age! I laughed when I read it because it was so out-there, but I think it buried itself in the back of my brain and set up shop, because I thought about it again today after remembering that yesterday was the year anniversary of a friend's father's passing. I didn't mention it to her because I figured she'd tell me anything she wanted to tell. I did ask about her mom, and how she was doing, so it was clear what my point was. But I didn't want to force her to have a conversation with me that she may not have wanted to have. I wasn't uncomfortable in hearing anything she wanted to say, I just didn't want to force her to emote in the middle of the street with our kids present. Upon telling this to another friend in the context of wondering if I had done the wrong thing, the friend said, "well, at least now she can get closure since it's been a year."

That comment and the previous comment on my post just hit me over the head in that instant. The notion that it is somehow not right to feel sad or mad or lonely or sick or scared for as long as you need to (assuming you don't need to for something like a decade during which you quit your job and sit around in your drawers dropping Cheeto crumbs down your wifebeater tank top...)--and that doing so makes you either someone who is Older Than Your Age (ie, not seeing the bright side) or someone who is Refusing To Embrace the Closure (ie, not following The Grief Timetable as determined by Katie Couric and Matt Lauer).

Why isn't it okay anymore to just feel appropriately sad or heartbroken or scared or despairing? And why isn't it okay to say, "Nothing good came of that. Not one thing." I was in a relationship about which I can honestly say more bad than good came out of it, in terms of my physical and emotional well-being. But I feel like if I ever said that to someone, I would seem "older than my age," when what I'm being is honest. And by virtue of the fact that I brought it up, someone might say that I never accepted the closure of the relationship. But is it so wrong to keep lessons you learned the hard way close to your mind? Who gets to tell me that my feelings have a sell-by date, assuming they are not paralyzing me?

It's like that rule about funerals: you NEVER tell someone that their relative is "better off now" or "in a better place" et. al. You cannot convince someone on the day of the funeral that the death of their children's father is a good thing, nor should you start the countdown clock to when you get to announce that they should have achieved closure as of this morning at 9:45am. If the deceased was very sick, the surviving person will someday get to that point where they can say, "I miss him but I am glad he is not suffering anymore." The key being that the bereaved are the ones who tell YOU that the person is in a better place, by virtue of the fact that they have come to believe it over time by going through the inexorable process of grieving, which come to think of it, might be the very thing we are--individually and collectively--trying to avoid by mandating closure.

1 comment:

Raine said...

I can't believe I missed this post E. I can't believe it. I must've been out of town.

But it is, for all aspects, intents, and purposes, correct.

Now, could you paraphrase it into terms that someone under the age of 20 could understand, so my peers would have a reference to understand people like me who refuse to paint silver linings on holocaust clouds?