Today I’m going to write about two wolves, and especially the wolf you feed. I’ll also introduce two words you may not be familiar with… Hiraeth and Timshel.
An old Cherokee speaks to his grandson about the meaning of life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is arrogant, full of anger, pride, regret, resentment, greed, guilt, self-pity, and sorrow.
He continued, “The other wolf is good – he is loving, brimming with compassion, acceptance, generosity, empathy, serenity, humility, kindness, and truth.
The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute. Then he asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee looked at his grandson and said, “The one you feed.”
I’ve been thinking about my two wolves, as well as two unfamiliar words that I’ve encountered recently.
The first word, Timshel, comes from John Steinbeck.
He’s also strangely responsible for a popular body art tattoo… the Hebrew word Timshel, which, according to Steinbeck, means “thou mayest.”
East of Eden (1952), which John Steinbeck considered his masterpiece, portrays a strange narrative universe. The main characters reside simultaneously in the contradictory worlds of myth, fiction, and memoir. At the center of this moral universe is the notion of Timshel.
All quibbling aside, Steinbeck tried to tell us that our choices matter. Our lives flow and find meaning in the choices we make. Timshel is our divinely bestowed ability to choose.
Nowadays, I’m having many digital dialogues with other couples therapists across the US. We all seem to be grappling with the same questions.
How do we help couples and families navigate these historic times when we ourselves, are also grappling with the same uncertainty? How do we inspire our couples to have confidence in their agency…their abiding sense of Timshel?
The idea of Timshel is the heart of couples therapy, and perhaps it’s the beating heart of any talk therapy.
As a calling, counselors are continually reminding clients of their agency, their ability to choose, their God-given Timshel mandate.
Bono once said about Johnny Cash, “Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company.”
While I’m no Johnny Cash, the idea of Timshel is particularly crucial for me right now. Like Johnny, I have never felt so “among” my clients as I have been these past two months.
It was necessary for me to take a break from this blog for a while. I needed to focus less on what I could offer, and instead, wrestle with who I was becoming.
I found that I, too, had two wolves. One wolf scolded me for neglecting my duty, while the other told me, “calm down…you need to stop and just take it all in.”
The second word is Hiraeth (It’s pronounced “here-eyeth” with a rolled “r”). It’s a famous Welsh word.
Hiraeth has no direct English translation, although the Portuguese word Saudade somewhat describes a similar feeling. To say that Hiraeth conveys a sense of ardent longing or nostalgia would be to miss the larger part of its meaning entirely.
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. Mark Twain.
Hiraeth describes a complex emotional state. Both Saudade and Hiraeth convey a yearning for past happiness… happiness that may have been real… or only imagined.
Hiraeth is ardent, nostalgic, and melancholy all at the same time. The key idea of Hiraeth is both spatial and temporal.
In other words, the place, person, or thing which inspires such ardent longing can not be found in the present time or the current space.
It’s an appropriate word to describe the “Old Normal.”
We’ve been in home quarantine for over two months now. Like many of us, I bristle at the notion that a “New Normal” is emerging.
What troubles me about this “New Normal” is that I’m being asked to embrace it wholesale however it rolls out, with all of its limitations, deficits, and blessings.
Implicit in all of this is the expectation for us all to be grateful, muster our resilience, and roll with it. But who is authoring our future? How will this “New Normal” unfold?
We’ve barely mourned what has passed, and we’re still bracing for what is yet to come. If there is a “New Normal,” it has yet to emerge from the fog of dread that lurks before us.
Whatever wolf we feed will prevail…slouching forward to greet our New Normal.
Will this wolf manifest our best selves and our fullest agency? We may feel Hiraeth for the “old Normal,” but I also believe that the old normal is looking better to us in hindsight.
Is it arrogant to want a say in all of this? I want my Timshel. I guessing you want yours too.
Way back in 1976, M. F. Weiner wrote an article in the journal Medical Economics entitled “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.”
Weiner called on the medical establishment to recruit every “medical crisis” as an opportunity to enhance the mental health, resources, and lifestyle of the patient.
Over the past 40+ years, the caveat to “not waste a crisis” has become a familiar and overused trope in politics and economics.
We’re told over and over again…a crisis presents opportunities that are often ignored, don’t waste it!
But the ability to waste an opportunity implies Timshel.…thou mayest.
In order to waste a crisis, you must first have your hands on the levers of power. But do we?
At the risk of sounding arrogant, Couples Therapy Inc. is perhaps the largest science-based couples therapy practice in the US, …and maybe even the world.
We feel Hiraeth for the excellent, in-person intensive work we conducted for our clients during the “Old Normal.” Weekend intensive couples therapy was our signature product. We all miss this work profoundly.
It doesn’t matter to us that states are “opening.”
Most are not following the science-based guidelines. and only yesterday, Dr. Fauci urged us not to open too quickly, or there would be “serious consequences.” Couples Therapy Inc., as in all of our endeavors, will follow the science.
Let me put it as simply as I can. We refuse to put you or our team at risk.
So we will stay the course, offering the best online science-based couples therapy at a lower cost than our previous in-person intensives.
As the need to maintain ‘social distance’ continues, whether you’re working from home or not, you both likely have more free time than during the “Old Normal.”
Instead of binging on Tiger King, or getting consumed by social media, I humbly offer that “thou mayest” choose a different direction…working on your intimate bonds.
Indulge me for stating the obvious—most of us are stuck at home in the middle of a global pandemic.
But now is when we need to go deeper than merely doing all we can to avoid the coronavirus.
Take the time to enrich your marriage in ways that might ordinarily be challenging to shoehorn into your “Old Normal” daily routine.
You’re smart enough to exercise, eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. You may even be for taking more time for meditation and reflection, and stress-relief. You might also be journaling, learning new skills, or reading great books that you never had time for during the “Old Normal.”
It’s the wolf that you feed…
We still are here for you. Doing what we do best…and hiring even more excellent science-based couples therapists to better meet your needs.
M.F. Weiner, “Don’t Waste a Crisis — Your Patient’s or Your Own.” Medical Economics, 53, no. 5, March 8, 1976.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
We schedule three double sessions with you in total. You complete an extensive online relationship questionnaire. In that final meeting, we spend almost two hours with you explaining, from a science perspective what's working in your relationship, what's not, and how to fix it.
It's all done online, either week-by-week or over a weekend.