I speculated in an essay last year what kind of therapist Winnie-the-Pooh would be*. According to me, he would have been pretty good at doing the kind of things that I do. Imagine that.
This year I’m suggesting the same thing about Beowulf, and I would suppose that at least a few of you out there were just waiting for me to get around to this. After all, many of us were forced to read this ancient poem (the oldest known written epic in the English language, in fact) while in high school. Both my kids had to, so I know this remains true. A new translation by Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney is currently No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, and I recently read a commentary on a fantasy wrestling match between WWF’s “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the warrior called Beowulf on Salon.com.
How could I possibly avoid bringing this story into the world of therapy?
For those of you who got to read Silas Marner or The Return of the Native in secondary school instead, this is the story of Beowulf: A Danish kingdom situated next to a great, black lake is being attacked nightly by a horrible monster. He kills a bunch of people and then escapes into the lake each night. The monster’s name is Grendel. Beowulf arrives. He’s a mercenary from Southeastern Sweden, said to have “the strength of thirty men in his grip.” He defeats Grendel, driving him horribly injured back into the lake. The next night, a larger, much more powerful and terrible monster rises from the lake. It’s Grendel’s mother! (I don’t know about you, but I find this detail pretty funny.) Unable to defeat her, Beowulf pauses in his pursuit at the edge of the lake where she has descended from view. Now he has to decide whether or not to go after her there or stand guard on the shore.
Beowulf remains popular because it represents issues that each of us must face each day. In the context of therapy, the appearance of the mother strikes me as most compelling. Often enough, examination reveals that a patient’s complaint is just the latest manifestation of a much larger problem. The “mother of the problem” might suddenly become evident in many ways, and it would be a mistake to ignore its connection to the most recent complaint. If we leave before dealing with it as best we can, it will continue to have an insidious effect.
Actually, therapy is getting a bit better at recognizing the underlying contributions of deconditioning, neural tension and stress to the painful problems we are asked to treat. Some commentators contend Beowulf suggests that there is something far greater going on here. That in pursuing monsters and their mothers we are chasing some parts of ourselves that trouble us, lead to failure and reside in our unconscious. It is universally agreed that this is what the lake in the story represents.
I find it interesting that Beowulf’s pursuit and eventual defeat of Grendel’s mother involves the discovery and use of a “magical” sword, a weapon that requires the warrior’s deeper understanding rather than his strength. Do you find that as you mature as a therapist that your strength becomes less important, and that difficult tasks become effortless over time? Did Beowulf learn that coercion isn’t nearly so powerful as persuasion and permission? Haven’t countless therapists learned this the hard way?
How is it that a story remains popular century after century? Might it be that we need to relearn its lessons each day? Maybe each generation needs these as they mature.
Anyway, if Beowulf were a therapist, he’d be the kind that doesn’t hesitate to consider the more profound aspects of his patient’s problems. He would recognize the hidden origins of certain behaviors and think about how he might help to alter them with understanding, rather than attempting to just forcefully eliminate them. And he’d see how much he and the patient were alike.
This is the attitude and behavior I strive for in the clinic, and, again, old, recurrently published literature leads me toward it. Now I can place this new translation of the ancient poem on my bookshelf. Right up there next to Winnie-the-Pooh.
*See “Winnie-the-Pooh, P.T.” on my web site “The Clinician’s Manual” http://barrettdorko.com in the “From Dorko’s Desk” section.