“Illusions of Immortality: Psychoanalytic Engagement with the Human Condition”

On Saturday March 12,  I attended the NIP (National Institute for the Psychotherapies) 27th Annual Conference. Entitled “Illusions of Immortality: Psychanalytic Engagement with the Human Condition” (http://www.nipinst.org/nip/training/events/annual_conference/), the conference was a uniquely enriching experience. The presentations addressed, from different yet complementary perspectives, the mind’s struggle with its own demise, with the knowledge that we all must die.

Martin Frommer, Ph.D., presented a beautifully written, exquisitely honest and sensitive paper about his work with a patient who had a terrifying fear of death and his use of his own feelings about his own mortality in the treatment. Dr. Frommer’s paper is about to appear in the next issue of the journal “Psychoanalytic Dialogues”.

Malcolm Slavin, Ph.D. presented another excellent paper describing the interactions between a mother and her young son, who was troubled by intense anxieties. Dr. Slavin used the case to illustrate the many ways in which the child’s anxieties reflect his perception of the reality of dangers and loss, as well as his perceptive awareness of what Dr. Slavin called the “multiplicity within”, the mother’s love for him but also the tension between that and her own self-love.

Sophia Richman, Ph.D., ABPP introduced David Newman, LCSW, and interviewed him after his own presentation, which was the most unusual and poignant part as he poignantly shared his personal experience of surviving, twice, the occurrence of a life-threatening tumor in his brain, and his ongoing experience of living with the knowledge that another recurrence is always possible. Mr. Newman also shared his remarkable journey through his art, paintings that he had done since his mid-twenties, decades before the occurrence of his disease, until as recently as last year.

The conference was a rich intellectual and personal exploration of the many aspects of an issue so fundamental to the human condition, and dealt with the many ways in which adults in their relationships with children, as well as psychotherapists and doctors in their dealings with medical patients use self-deception to manage their own existential anxieties. Mr. Newman also authored a book based on the experiences he has had, titled “Talking with Doctors”, and emphasized the need to bring about a change in our attitudes to death on the socio-political levels. Attitudes towards death and the self-defensive maneuvers used against death have implications to how doctors communicate with individuals suffering from life threatening illness.

The conference participants each made their unique contribution to elucidating the importance of a deeper and more authentic connectedness with one’s own “evasions of death”, the many ways in which we try to deny the fact that our time is limited. Dr. Slavin quoted Robert Stolorow who said, owning up to the “good bye” that is built into our human existence makes it possible to say more authentically “hello”. This was the message of the conference, to us all, as individuals and as therapists.

Irit Felsen

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