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Paths Through Life

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 46 - November 1999

We can think about the journey of our life in many different ways. Over the years, I've heard various descriptions of this sojourn, often clothed in symbolic form.

Some observers of the human predicament – writers, psychologists, philosophers, etc. – claim that each person's life is like a story he is writing; the theme gives the clue to his or her life. Some are rather good stories, with interesting developments; and others, unfortunately, are tedious and boring, just like the protagonists themselves.

In this grand epic of existence, we are our own scriptwriters, we choose the characters involved, the plot, and the atmosphere. Then we live it, or live through it, one might say. The "script" is the way in which we make sense of our lives, we "arrange" events within this general plan, and often use it to justify to ourselves the choices we make. Sometimes, judicious remembering or forgetting of events is utilised to maintain the current script.

But all this is a rather abstract way of seeing the "path". American poet Robert Frost gives his individual motif.

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

One interesting metaphor I've often told to others, when necessary, comes from my philosophic friend Christopher. He first told it to his children. He puts it simply like this: Life can be seen as a trip across a large and unknown sea. Now some people prefer a safe passage, and take the easy route, travelling on a large vessel, a sort of cruise ship along with many others going the same route. They follow a regimented schedule, with preordained rules and regulations. The general plan is just follow the crowd, do what everyone else does, and everything will be ok. That's smooth sailing.

This is one way to go, and one might say the majority choice. But then there are those others, idiosyncratic souls, who ingeniously insist on constructing their own type of craft to take them on this unknown journey. Some will have a sailboat, and there are those who like a motorised vehicle. But we must all somehow cross over to the other side.

One occasionally runs into people who apparently attempt to make an excursion in a ramshackle rowboat. Some remarkable sailors hold fast to the rudder despite storms and lack of provisions.

And then there are the really far-out folk who try to cross over by walking on the water.

Many observers have described the path as consisting of a gradient of stages which we must pass through. Perhaps the most famous of these is Erik Erikson, the American psychoanalyst and author. Erikson himself took a very unusual path. Without any formal training, he charmed his way into Freud's inner circle and was trained by Anna Freud to be a child psychologist. He worked out a sequence of eight successive stages of life: infancy, early childhood, play, school, adolescence, young adult, adult and maturity. Each of these stages has a central conflict; e.g. in infancy there is a struggle between feelings of basic trust and mistrust. In adolescence identity is the crux.

According to Erikson each phase of human life has its own crisis which must be dealt with before one can successfully move on to the next stage. This view of development as continuing in successive stages throughout the life span is widely accepted today by many psychologists, educators and others.

Existentialists remind us that the path one takes is ultimately always one's own choice, and that "you are the sum of your choices". Sartre speaks of the "project" that each person lives by, based on one's own philosophy of life. For some, for example, their project is to amass money, for others it may be power, or sex, or whatever. But we all select some goal or path which integrates and steers us in this mysterious passage from birth to death.

Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychoanalyst and author of Man's Search for Meaning, holds that each person develops his or her own philosophy which gives meaning to his or her life.

Looking at the individual philosophies which shape people's lives, reminds me of a fable from Plato (based on the transliteration of John Jay Chapman, an American essayist).

Now we return to the theme of water.

Plato compares philosophy to a raft, on which a shipwrecked sailor may perhaps reach home. (This brings us back to the sea-crossing simile from the beginning of this article.) One could say that each person has his or her raft, which in general is only large enough for one person. The raft is made up of various things snatched from his or her cabin – a life preserver or two from a psalm, proverb or fable; some planks held together by the oddest rope-ends of experience; and the entire shaky craft requires constant attention to stay afloat.

It is ridiculous to think that any philosophic system will fit everyone – when the rag of old curtain that serves one person for a coat is the next man's prayer rug! To try to make a raft for someone else, or to try to get on to someone else's raft, these might be considered the worst sins of religion and philosophy.

The raft itself is an illusion. We do not either make nor do we possess our raft. We cannot seize or explain it, and we cannot summon it at will. It comes and goes like a phantom.

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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email: sheldonlitt@hotmail.com.

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