Authors: Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Disturbances in the Field
The name of the bow is life, but its work is death.
The object cannot really be separated from the field. The object is in fact nothing else than the systematically adjusted set of modifications of the field.
ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD
The Concepts of Nature
EORGE REMARKED THAT HE
has trouble working with patients who complain of overbearing mothers. His mother died when he was four. He was brought up by men. To have a mother, even a suffocating one, is to him enviable. Luxurious.
He said, “It’s difficult to respond appropriately because of disturbances in the field.”
I was struck by that phrase. While George went on about how private history persists like static in current encounters, I brooded over it, the way a plane caught in fog hovers longingly over a blurred landing strip.
“Could you say that again, what you just said?” I asked.
“What, you mean ‘reluctant to live in the present reality’?”
“No, no, before that. About the field.”
“Oh. Disturbances in the field.”
“Ah!” Incomprehensible but tantalizing, the words excited me. It was the sort of excitement you might feel when a veil is about to be lifted—the excitement preceding revelation. And revelation—of order, meaning, purpose, what have you—was what I had always hunted. I was nearly forty-two and still seeking to understand. Not that anything very drastic had happened to me to spur my quest, nothing apart from the ordinary failures and miseries life passes around from time to time like a tray of bonbons, just so we know we have not been overlooked. I tended to exaggerate even those disturbances—to imagine that a child’s cough would never end and he would languish his life away on some magic mountain, or to assume, years ago, that Con Edison’s turning off the lights for nonpayment hinted at a much more profound darkness descending on us. I was not a stoic, though in college I had studied
The Golden Sayings of Epictetus:
“God has ... given us these faculties by means of which we may bear everything that comes to pass without being crushed or depressed thereby . ...Though possessing all these things ... you do not use them ... but sit moaning and groaning.” There had indeed been times in my married life when I moaned and groaned. I did not use adversity as a means of strengthening my character—what Epictetus calls the rod of Hermes: “Touch what you will with it ... and it becomes gold. ... Bring sickness, bring death, bring poverty and reproach, bring trial for life—all these things through the rod of Hermes shall be turned to profit.”
Even though I gave up studying philosophy early in college—those revelations were so stiff and formal, so abstract—and studied music instead, George’s phrase, with its allegorical overtones, touched a live nerve.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“It’s a term from field theory.” Field theory! I stared with anticipation. “It means that something intrudes between the expressed need on the one hand and the response on the other. So the need doesn’t receive the proper response and the transaction remains unfinished. What intrudes is the disturbance. I’ll give you an example.”
But first he reached across my coffee table for the bottle of wine and poured us both some more. We were drinking Chianti to warm us, for outside the wide uncurtained windows it was February in New York City, and my living room, in an old, high-ceilinged apartment building, was spottily heated. Often in winter, our family of six huddled around the radiator rubbing their hands, the way Stone Age families must have huddled around the fire.
“Supposing,” he said, and paused. “Supposing a baby cries.” He smiled at his example, tailor-made for me: I had had four babies and knew all about their crying. “The usual response would be for the mother to run and comfort it, right? But—” He paused again for drama. “But the telephone rings.”
George is a psychotherapist, eclectic, but roughly of the school they call ego psychology: first a philosophy student, then a social worker, he narrowed his concerns, attracted to ever more subjective woes. On the walls of his office he has such inspirational and dubious sayings as “Be the Dream,” and “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” which really do not do him justice. Knowing his principles and dedication to his work, I once teased him with the gift of a lovingly hand-lettered poster quoting Epictetus: “A philosopher’s school is a surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein.” He accepted it with good grace, but I don’t think he hung it up. George crossed his corduroy-covered legs nimbly on the sofa. He had always been nimble, and boyish; even now, at forty-six, with gray patches in his hair and opulent eyebrows his round face radiated energy, he looked younger than he was. Only once in a great while, when he was still and thoughtful, could I see his years in the lines on his cheeks, traced by a kind of heavy resignation. George is a dear friend of more than twenty years, Victor’s as well as mine, though Victor doesn’t wholly trust him, with some reason. We met at college: George was older, political—a rarity in the 1950’s—a self-styled proto-ombuds-man for the student body. He didn’t last long in student government—he slept with too many of his constituents, for one thing—but our friendship with him lasted. He became a stocky man of medium height, with a coppery mustache and shrewd hazel eyes; he moves with the slyness of an elf or, as those who distrust him say, a satyr. At first glance he looks as though he might turn blustery—those full lips—but in fact he is mild, almost self-effacing, maybe because no mother ever made him feel like the axis of the universe. George’s combination of erudition and naiveté makes him lovable. His tendency to use jargon when he is on shaky ground detracts from his lovability. He is the sort of exasperating friend who now and then drives you to ask, Is he worth it? but the answer is yes. Adept as he is with other people’s dilemmas, he has made his own bachelor life a series of narrow escapes from amorous and professional misalliances. Now at last in private practice, he has attained some stability. George is sentimental and loyal, like a dog, and almost feminine in his absorption in the drama of personal emotions. Motherless, he confronts the world and its people, especially women, with an attitude of seduction, sometimes charming, sometimes irritating. He has brought over countless women for Victor and me to meet, as though we were parents who had to approve. Each one is presented as a marvel, a prodigy of beauty or talent or goodness. Through them our horizons have stretched; we have learned about astrophysics, travel agenting, poetry therapy, computer programming, urban design, dental technology. Weeks later I will say to George, “How is so-and-so? We really enjoyed meeting her,” only to learn she has withdrawn to the world of urban design or poetry therapy whence she came. But his enthusiasm is unflagging.
“The telephone rings,” he repeated, “so the mother can’t respond right away to the child’s need. Actually she chooses to answer the phone rather than attend to the infant”—George sounded a bit severe about this. “Well, never mind her needs. From the child’s point of view, assuming he could have one, the telephone is a disturbance in the field. He feels his need unanswered and experiences frustration.”
My enthusiasm was ebbing. “I thought there’d be more to it than that.”
“There is. That was a simple example because first of all the field of an infant is, well, limited. Also he has very little control over getting his needs satisfied. To complicate it, let’s say the mother hears the child cry but she’s preoccupied with an argument she just had over the phone with her own mother. Let’s say she’s feeling unloved and rejected; she may resent the baby momentarily, for being loved and expecting her attention so imperiously. So she doesn’t respond right away.”
“Shameful. Plus if the telephone rings again on top of that.”
“Look, Lydia, you asked in the first place. The point is, her relationship with her mother becomes a disturbance in the field. Unfinished business prevents her from handling new business.”
“It’s a convenient term,” George said apologetically. “Anyway, that’s what I meant about my patients. If my private reactions require them to detour, well then, I’m not helping.” He took another sip of wine and dug a handful of gorp out of the bowl on the table.
Gorp is an addiction my son Alan, eleven, brought home from his socially aware camp two years ago. Even though it is undeniably a health food, it tastes very good. Gorp is a mixture of unsalted peanuts, raisins, currants, coconut shreds, granola, and sometimes figs. Alan made the best gorp, the ingredients most evenly balanced, but by now we all made it quite well, dumping everything into a big blue ceramic bowl (made by Phil, fourteen and a half, in some shop class) and running our fingers through to mix it up. I always insisted they wash their hands first, even Althea, who was offended that I should tell her this at her advanced age, sixteen. Nevertheless whenever I ate gorp I sensed it bedewed by warm, sweaty child hands. I took some myself and said, “Have you noticed, George, that all your examples are about mothers?” I could tell immediately it was the gorp of Vivian (nine), heavy on the raisins.
“Yes, I have.” He chuckled in his boyish way. “That just proves my point—the tendency is always to try for some sort of equilibrium in the field. To complete an unfinished transaction. Or if that word is too crass for you, Lydia, an action. Then the field can take on a new shape and we start all over with the next need. But I’ll give you something without any mothers in it. They’ve done experiments with children, offering them chocolate but setting up obstacles to getting it, to see what effects disturbances have on behavior.”
“But what if they don’t like chocolate? Vivie and Phil don’t.”
“That’s one of the variables. A child will pursue the chocolate according to the strength of his need. Or, to put it another way, the chocolate has a valence indicating how strongly it’s desired. You know, whether the kid is hungry, what the obstacles are, whether he’s a passive or aggressive type ... He saw me laughing and gazed with mock pomposity at the ceiling. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to know all this can be expressed mathematically. B equals behavior, P equals the person, E the environment. ... You know, what I need”—he held up his glass—“is a little ice in this. It’s kind of warm.”
The telephone rang. “There is our disturbance. You’ll have to satisfy your own need. Try the freezer.” I heard the soft, innocently murmuring voice of my youngest child, the whimsical Vivian, reporting that on the way back from her friend’s house both her tokens, primary and spare, had fallen into the snow from separate holes in her pockets. She was standing on the corner of Seventy-second Street and Broadway and it was getting dark. It was cold. She had spent her last dime to call me. What should she do? I told her to browse in the nearby Pakistani dress shop while she waited.
“I’m sorry to cut this short,” I told George, “but I have to pick her up. Can I drop you off?”
“Sure. I’ve got to go anyway. I have a patient. Then I’m having dinner with this terrific woman I just met. I must tell you about her sometime. She’s into biofeedback. But why didn’t you have Vivie take a cab? You could pay when she gets here.”
I hesitated, feeling foolish. But George has heard from his patients, as well as committed, so much folly that he inspires candor. “I’m afraid to have her take cabs alone. Frankly, I’m afraid they’ll drive her off and rape her.” It was one of his redeeming features that he didn’t laugh. “Anyway, she’ll enjoy the personal service. She’s feeling kind of down. Alan is off on this school ski trip today and she didn’t get to go because she’s too young. She’s pining with envy.”