“When will you make an end!” Pope Sixtus IV to Michelangelo, 1512
“There’s more than one way to get to the goal that you want to get to, but once you compromise your own principles, then you’re lost.” Dr Fauci, 2020
An exasperated Pope harangued Michelangelo to finish the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not compromise his principles. The end was worth the wait. Dr. Fauci works to ameliorate the pandemic while being harangued to declare it over. It isn’t. We struggle to imagine a post-pandemic world.
Our patients, especially those who are younger and starting out in their independent lives, or those who now have to restart their lives, with or without partners, need our help to keep moving forward into this (we hope temporarily) perilous future.
Neither therapists nor anybody else has a good enough read on the future to clear a path through it, or even to pave a road to it. Anxiety is inevitable. Chronic anxiety can be debilitating. The losses and confinements of the pandemic have made all the more important our own contributions in sustaining and orienting patients in emotionally as well as practically meaningful ways. Freud said the road to a contented life is to love and to work. How does one find that now?
While lip service is paid to the pandemic’s mental health impact, and policy and funding are nowhere to be found, our patients are on their own when they imagine the future. Therapists cannot rest on the assumptions of models and predictions of the past. And yet we are responsible to guide our patients to a path they can pursue with hope. Today the therapeutic process requires the acceptance of uncertainty while remaining free of despair.
We have to be honest with ourselves as well: how do we need to adapt to a world in which so much is uncertain. To love and to work is easier said than done when the structures are unstable. Violent disagreement about what is true, what is of value, what is “normal” add to everyone’s anxiety.
Michelangelo had the self-confidence to tell the Pope to be patient; Dr. Fauci has the integrity to pursue his personal expertise in the face of great provocations. Our patients rely on us to help them become confident and steadfast in the chaos of our times.
Psychological and psychoanalytic theories cannot designate any specific way or path. What these practices can provide is help in discovery and commitment to principles of seeking one’s own truth, and support so patients can can search without despair.