David Whyte, Author
Review by Tom Neilson, Psy.D.
This book review was previously published in 2015 in the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute newsletter, NPI Reflects.
David Whyte is the author of seven books of poetry and three previous books of prose. His new book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (Many Rivers Press, 2015) is a surprise, completely unlike anything he has written before. It is not a book of poetry, and it is different from his other prose books. Consolations is a book of fifty-two short essays, each on a specific word, arranged neatly in alphabetical order. Topics include “Alone,” “Beauty,” “Despair,” “Longing,” “Self-Knowledge,” and “Vulnerability,” to name just a few.
It seems fitting that I would write a review of a David Whyte book for the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute newsletter. I first encountered David Whyte more than 15 years ago, when he spoke at an NPI luncheon. It was a difficult time in my life; I was trying to establish a private psychology practice at the height of managed care, and things were going so slowly that I was almost overwhelmed with anxiety. I was not sure I would make it in private practice; my financial resources were getting thin, and I was worried about bankruptcy. In the space of an hour, David Whyte helped put my worries in perspective. He reminded me of things I had forgotten: he reminded me that external success and failure were not the most important things in life, and that being true to my own particular calling was more valuable than trying to keep up with the fashionable flavor of the month, especially when that flavor included corporate managed care and time-limited psychotherapy. Most important, he reminded me that living a life of depth was essential because, sooner or later, living this way always helps me feel the inherent meaningfulness of life. In an hour, David Whyte surprised me, moved me, reminded me how I wanted to live my life, and pointed a way forward. His message also turned out to be unexpectedly useful in building my practice; I found being true to my calling and approaching psychotherapy from the perspective of depth psychology led me to do work that people valued, and with some hard work
In Consolations, he continues to speak to me, and I suspect that his voice will speak to many psychotherapists. The book is subversive in the best sense of the word: it seeks to undermine our conventional, narrow, and limited ways of understanding and being in the world. In the process, he helps to enlarge our world, pointing out vistas and horizons that we might otherwise miss. He also points to the mystery that pervades our perplexing human existence, a mystery that may be the largest horizon of all.
There are similarities and differences between the approaches of Consolations and traditional psychotherapy. Both involve enlarging our worlds, for example, but in my opinion dwelling on the similarities minimizes the power and impact of the book. Psychotherapy offers assistance that is greatly valuable, but usually more adaptive and conventional in nature. It helps people to change problematic behaviors and thoughts, to heal from trauma, to adjust to civilized life in a healthy manner, “to love and work well,” as Freud said. Psychotherapy generally aims to remove the brush and overgrowth that impedes a comfortable and relatively happy journey through this difficult life. Consolations, on the other hand, seeks to undermine the fundamental and limiting ways we view ourselves and our world; it seeks to plow over the very ground we walk on, leading us to travel on a radically transformed landscape. While psychotherapy can offer us a similar inner revolution, it rarely does, and only when a convergence happens between a psychotherapist and a client who are both interested in deep change.
One example of how this book departs from the approach of conventional psychotherapy can be found in his essay on Despair. From a mental health perspective, we typically see despair as a symptom of depression and a problem to be fixed. Since despair is an extraordinarily painful state of mind, one that can, at the extreme, lead to suicide, both clients and therapists are usually oriented toward the quick relief of despair. As a therapist, I have sometimes been intolerant of despair in my clients, hurrying them along to some kind of quick relief due to the emotional challenge of sitting with a person in a high level of pain and due to my dubious belief, now discarded, that despair involves “giving up” in the face of difficulties that “need” to be met. David Whyte offers a radically different perspective on despair. He describes despair as “a necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence, an internal physiological and psychological winter when our previous forms of participation take a rest.” In describing despair as a “season,” he tells us that despair can be a necessary and integral part of our journey, and one that, when inhabited honestly and fully, can lead to the renewal of spring. He suggests that, in dealing with despair, we not attempt to artificially brighten our spirits, but rather pay courageous attention to body and breath, and to despair itself, without investment in the thoughts and stories that feed despair. Ultimately, he tells us that despair, approached with appreciation for its well-hidden gifts, is a difficult but valuable season and not a lifelong prison sentence.
Another example can be found in his essay on Self-Knowledge. As therapists, we value self-knowledge, and for good reason. Self-knowledge can often make sense of mysterious psychological symptoms, symptoms that at first seem to come from nowhere. It helps us to understand what we want in life and why we do what we do. Self-knowledge is also a necessary foundation for finding a life path that suits us. There are many more reasons to value self-knowledge, enough to fill volumes. But David Whyte focuses on the fact that full self-knowledge is not possible or even desirable. He suggests that complete self-knowledge isn’t possible because half of a human being is “potentiality” and therefore unknown, a mystery that, when revealed, will be replaced by the next level of potentiality, leaving us always living on the edge of the known and the unknown. Complete self-knowledge is also limited by the fact that the self we know at any given moment is in flux and about to disappear; tomorrow’s self will not be quite the same as today’s familiar self. I’m reminded of Heraclitus’ famous quote, “No man steps into the same river twice, because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Additionally, self-knowledge is limited by the fact that we are equally creatures of individuality and creatures of community. As creatures of community, our choices and actions are dictated in part by forces outside of our individual selves. In fact, the very idea that each of us is an individual, independent “self” who can understand and be responsible for him or herself is at least half illusion. Our capacity for self-knowledge is limited by our very nature.
The limits of self-knowledge, as evoked by David Whyte, can lead to a recognition of and appreciation for the mystery of our human nature. We are, at best, half known and half unknown, half visible and half invisible to our own eyes. Self-exploration increases self-knowledge, but it also opens doors to even larger vistas of the unknown, of mystery and the mystical. I have found these large, mystical vistas to be valuable in their own right. As a sense of mystery has come to pervade my life, my life has become considerably more meaningful. Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers of the modern era, recognized the value of mystery. He concluded that an appreciation for mystery was necessary to fully appreciate life when he said, “The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
I have found Consolations to be a remarkable book. David Whyte’s work may have reached a new level of depth and profundity. He finds the hidden value in what we usually think of as difficulty, and points out the shadow side of our remarkable human faculties. He offers a larger, radically unconventional view of life, one that seems to include everything, but in unexpected and meaningful ways. As I wrote at the beginning of this review, his vision is subversive, in the best sense.
While David Whyte’s new book is in a different vein than traditional psychotherapy, it can be helpful to therapists. I will conclude with two examples from my work, offered with permission from each of the clients involved: On a recent Friday afternoon, I had a particularly challenging series of psychotherapy sessions. Sorrow and pain seemed to be in the air, and were present in the experience of most of my clients. On that day, two of my clients were dealing with some level of despair about the circumstances and challenges of their lives. In each case, I made the unconventional choice of offering to read David Whyte’s essay on Despair, hoping to move the dialogue to a larger, more accepting and generous field of inquiry. Both clients were interested in hearing the essay. David Whyte’s words seemed to stop my first client’s mind in its tracks, and she responded with hushed appreciation. “Every word is profound,” she said, in awe. Our conversation became more spacious, and we turned our attentions, in a different way, to her season of despair. The second client was experiencing much less despair, but it was present in the background that day, and worth naming and discussing. When I finished reading the essay, he looked at me and asked urgently, “Who is that man?” He knew something of David Whyte’s life and work; the question was not a request for biographical information, it was a rhetorical question about the nature of a man who could write something that could change his relationship to despair so significantly. At the time, I thought, noting the mystery of David Whyte and of all human beings, “Good question. And while we’re at it, who are you? And who am I?”
And, dear reader, who are you?