(Source of photo: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/uploads/authors/adrienne-rich/448x/adrienne-rich.jpg)

I was sad to learn that one of my favourite poets, Adrienne Rich, died at the end of March.  I have read and re-read some of her poems, over and over again, for about 25 years.   Throughout that time, a large part of my adult life, the meanings the poems hold for me have changed and developed.  They have become familiar companions, and yet they continue also to offer me new discoveries.

Sometimes I find comfort in them, as they express things that I have felt or thought about myself, my life, my relationships, the world around me.  Sometimes I find inspiration or challenge as they show me a different way of looking at some things.  And sometimes I find some of her poems difficult or uncomfortable as they show me aspects of myself or my world which are less than pleasant to see reflected back at me.   Often I find phrases in her work which speak to me of something about the journey of personal development, of trying to live with greater awareness, of learning continually to negotiate relationships, to progress with new projects, to understand more about myself and my life.  Quite often I find odd phrases from her poems coming into my mind whilst I’m thinking about some personal dilemma, or when I’m listening to other people talking about their struggles. 

So for this blog post, I am bringing an Adrienne Rich line to consider.  This is from a poem called ‘Splittings’, published in her collection The Dream of a Common Language (1974):-

                           I believe I am choosing something new       
                          not to suffer uselessly           yet still to feel

I think these lines address something fundamental about our emotional and psychological well-being, our capacity to make constructive changes in our lives, and our ability to live well with our emotions.   To have the ability to choose something new is fundamental to human life: Whatever muddles and messes we might have got ourselves into, however many times we’ve found ourselves repeating patterns of behaviour which lead us into unhappiness, we do still have the capacity to imagine a different way of being for ourselves.   Often people come to therapy when they know they need to make different choices and can’t yet quite see how to go about it.  To make a new choice and act on it might feel like learning to walk again, or like we don’t quite know ourselves any more.  It can be scary and exhilarating, disorienting and liberating.  Having the support of a therapist to talk through new ventures and experiments in living can be helpful at such times.

Making a good relationship with our emotional life is essential to our well-being.  To cut off from all our feelings because we can’t bear our distress is sometimes a valuable short-term solution to a desperate situation.  But it isn’t a sustainable way of living.  We are left with a chronic grey feeling, a sort of low-grade misery, and we realise that we’re missing out on a huge part of life.  Learning to bear our feelings, including the painful ones, is an important aspect of therapy.  We discover that we don’t drown in them, and in fact that we feel more alive and energised if we allow ourselves to be open to a wider range of emotional responses.  At the other extreme, to get lost in our painful feelings might mean that we cease to engage with the world around us.  Some of our suffering might indeed be useless, if we’re continually replaying painful scenes from the past and not paying attention to our present life.   We might assume, for example, that because we’ve been hurt in the past, any new relationships are bound to end in injury.  Therapy might help us realise that sometimes our suffering is bound up with old experiences and false assumptions, and that it no longer serves us any purpose to stay with these painful feelings.  It is a continual balance, though, between allowing ourselves enough space and time to express our feelings rather than disconnecting from them, and knowing when we’re ready to move on, to be available again to choose something new.   To find the balance that feels right for us is a crucial part of our learning about living well.