Boats Against the Current: Psychotherapy and Learning to Row Against the Past

I was recently reminded of the last lines of the great novel “The Great Gatsby”:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

These words are also inscribed on the tombstone of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Sayre. Gatsby is, of course, a novel about the inevitable pull of the past, the impossibility of escaping it. While the character of Gatsby has seemingly escaped his impoverished upbringing and lives in newly minted wealth, the past, as represented by Daisy and his enduring love of her, cannot be completely escaped. This great theme of the book and these last words are of great interest to me as a psychotherapist. They speak to the practice of psychotherapy: a practice of examining that pull of the past, the currents, and then together, therapist and client, figuring out what best strokes to use to propel the journey (the client’s life) forward.

For inevitably and ineluctably the past pulls on us. This was one of the great discoveries that Freud made: the tendency to repeat the past. The past gets stored in us not only as memories held in our minds and in our bodies, but as patterns, blueprints, by which we organize ourselves and the world around. If for example, one’s past, particularly during early and formative years, was marked by poignant betrayals or failures by those entrusted to protect and provide care, then the template may be that of an untrustworthy other whom a person has to defend against. With such a template imprinted in one’s mind, the result may be that person living a guarded and emotionally constricted life. That person may shy away from intimate connections; his or her expectations (of betrayal and untrustworthiness in others) are again and again realized. The world is an unfriendly place and others are not to be trusted.

The practice of psychotherapy is to understand and reveal those blue prints. An unconscious map, influencing the course one takes in life, cannot be changed until its existence is clear and the experiences it is drawn from is made known. And then the therapist and client set out to discover how to move differently in the world, how to revise that internalized set of expectations. It is particularly through the help of another, in this case the therapist, who over time can prove to be trustworthy (albeit not perfect), interested and caring that one can come to trust, develop a different map, and push forward in life’s journey. That one can make headway against these currents.

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