The character Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s ironically titled great poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” personifies the painful plight of people who are unable to connect with their authentic self. Contemplating “a hundred indecisions,” Prufrock saw the moment of his greatness flicker: he “lingered in the chambers of the sea” and drowned in his self-doubt.
Prufrock lived in the shadow of his self, measuring out his life “with coffee spoons.” What then is this self—or Self—that supposedly rescues us from a life half-lived? We catch glimpses of it when our mind clears and life feels like silk upon our skin. Yet it’s not always easy to describe this core or essence that makes us feel at home in our body and in the world. So let’s heed Prufrock’s summons (though not his fate): “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”
We can note, for starters, that the role of the self tends to be overlooked in mental health treatments. Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, Linda Logan describes her treatments when hospitalized several times over a period of many years for a debilitating mood disorder: “Everything was scrutinized except the transformation of my self and my experience of its loss.” If anything, she writes, “it seems that psychiatry is moving away from a model in which the self could be discussed. For many psychiatrists, mental disorders are medical problems to be treated with medications, and a patient’s crisis of self is not very likely to come up in a 15-minute session with a psychopharmacologist.” [Read more…]