Time flies and with it all things change. To each of us time whispers, silently, its sweet song of transformation. It beckons us forward as if to say “Come dance with me and play.”
Fascinated by this change, a Dutch psychiatrist, Jan Hendrick van den Berg, who recently passed away, studied this phenomenon known to us as metabletics. Coining this term, he wrote: “Metabletica: is derived from the Greek word, metaballein, which means to change” (van den Berg, 2009, p. 5). And, change we shall.
Part of change is our perception of things. As van den Berg wrote in one of his most notable works, The Changing Nature of Man: Introduction to an Historical Psychology (1956):
We believe and in our belief, the world is created, in our belief God becomes present in the only place where we can justly speak of presence or absence: in the world of substantial object, in our world. If the objects manifest his presence, a miracle occurs.” (As cited in Journal of Metabletica, 2011, pg. 41).
This is a metabletics of the miracle of a life through death as represented by pendants.
Ten years ago, I stood in a small, brightly lit hospital room surrounded by my siblings and father. The doctor walked in and explained to us that my mother, my best friend, would not wake up from the medication-induced coma. He needed our permission to discontinue treatment. My Dad sat stoically in shock, tears streaming down his face, trembling, grasping for his children. The decision was made amongst much debate and sorrow. The word was given to the doctors to discontinue all heroic efforts on my mother’s behalf. Thirteen years of illness was long enough. She had fought the good fight and lived far longer than anyone ever expected.
Returning home to a house filled with memories tormented me. She had died too young and left me while I had two very young children. The depth of sorrow was unfathomable. I have never felt such utter grief before or since. I wandered upstairs to my room and opened a tiny box my mother had given to me before she was hospitalized. Within it laid a beautiful diamond star and a heart filled with the colors of the rainbow cut from authentic gemstones. Beside them, folded neatly was a note simply scrawled in my mother’s beautiful handwriting “I will always love you.” I knew the star was very old, a family heirloom dating back generations. I had seen her wear it on several happy occasions along with the heart. But that day, the sight of them brought only tears.
I packed them back in their box and hid them in my jewelry box determined to forget the pain and move on with the job of raising two spritely young toddlers. These little ones brought joy to me daily as I watched them develop. They unknowingly reminded me, through gestures and sayings passed down through the generations, of my mother. The day came when it was time to go through and sort her things. The task fell primarily on my shoulders. I began to sort through her history, through bits and pieces of paper, photos and memorabilia, an image of my mother began to emerge that had not been there before. She had faced many demons, fought many battles and been broken, dropped to her knees. But, the face she presented to the world was that of strength and joy, a veritable ball of energy capable of the impossible. She had been determined to leave this world a better place through her volunteer work, organizing a national charity, and pursuing a career in publishing. That legacy still exists today a shining symbol of her determination and courage.
As I sorted through her past, I began to realize that I too could accomplish my dreams to whatever extent my heart desired. It would not be easy but it was doable. I enrolled in classes to begin a lifelong quest. I wanted to become a psychologist. When I returned home, I looked at those pendants and they did not bring tears, sadness yes, but something was bubbling beneath the surface. I could not quite put my finger on it.
Enrolling in a doctoral program brought many challenges to my daily life. There were books to be read, deadlines to be met, and classes to attend all done while working and raising children. The task seemed near impossible, certainly improbable. My first dissertation topic, inspired by my mother, holding vigil during the darkest moments, asked the question: How can a positive mental attitude affect the life span of the terminally ill? And then, one balmy summer evening, while studying in a study group it happened.
An event that would rock my world, challenge my desire to become a psychologist and bring me to my knees trembling in tears of utter fear. As I moved through those days of uncertainty, battered and bruised, I held tight to my mother’s pendants. But slowly, the chair of the PhD Clinical Psychology department, joined by my ever present advisor, gently yet sternly guided me to safety, those pendants began to take on a different meaning—a meaning of strength, of resolve, and of courage.
This is the qualitative experience of an individual much different from what psychological science would value today. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has taken over ignoring the qualitative aspects of a human life, the experiences that shape the individual. Van den Berg (1961) noted this in one of his last writing. He wrote:
The whole science of psychology is based on the assumption that man does not change. Whereas, in traditional psychology, the life of a previous generation is seen as a variation on a known theme, the supposition that man does change leads to the thought that earlier generations live a different sort of life, and that they were essentially different (p. 708).
These observations by van den Berg bespeak the necessity of humanistic psychology, a blending of the qualitative with hints of the quantitative. For it is with our own experiences that we can live fully. And, it is through the therapeutic process and the importance of relationship, through which psychologists practice, inviting change through time.
Today, those pendants have been transformed from a symbol of sadness into a symbol of joy, love, courage and determination. A legacy from which and to which I belong.
Van den Berg, J. H. (1956). Phenomenology as maidservant of metabletics, (B. Mook Trans.) Journal of metabletica: Inquiries into the changing nature of being-in-the world. Issue 03, December 2011. Ottawa, Ontario: Center for Metabletic Inquiries.
Van den Berg, J. H. (1961). The changing nature of man: Introduction to a historical psychology. New York, NY: Norton & Co.
Van den Berg, J. H. (2009). Introdution, (B. Mook, Trans.). Journal of metabletica: Inquiries into the changing nature of being-in-the world. Issue 01 February 2010. Ottawa, Ontario: Center for Metabletic Inquiries.
— Constance Kellogg
Today’s guest contributor, Constance Kellogg, is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.