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The Existential Moment: Existential Givens—Death

A picture is worth a thousand words.  At Eternity’s Gate by Vincent van Gogh conveys the overwhelming weight of grief.  However, the title brings home the meaning of the work and, more surprisingly, the hope in the subject of the painting, death.

Van Gogh painting, At Eternity's Gate, features an older man sitting in a wooden chair with head in hands in sorrow

Western art depicts death through numerous symbols and scenes:  skeletons, skulls, scythes, apocalyptic scenes, the superhuman, the demonic, plagues, war, and so on.  The Grim Reaper and The Angel of Death are perhaps the most famous personifications of death.  

Death in art raises important themes.  It is terrifying, even gruesome.  Grieving ranges from abject anguish to regret to simple wistfulness.  It is an incomprehensible mystery, an absurdity, or a doorway to awe-inspiring hope.  It is inescapably our own and undeniably certain, coming for us all. 

E-H Therapy theory holds that four existential givens (also called paradoxical polarities) pervade The Cosmological Dimension of the Therapeutic Encounter.  An essential task in therapy is to help clients acknowledge and accept these realities and their actual but unacknowledged givenness and paradoxical influence, which too often go denied and realized in polarization.

The first polarity is wishing to live but having to die.  Death is overtly alive, for instance, when a client faces a terminal diagnosis or copes with the loss of a loved one.  It might be unacknowledged, for example, in issues of power, control, and security, as we all face the whim of Fate and the fear of the Reaper. 

On the other hand, life matters to us.  We care.  Caring makes life a project to be undertaken, a gift to be lived.  Issues of significance and meaning rise and stand opposite the absurdity raised by death.  The denial of death too often motivates a possessed attempt to live and avoid nonbeing.  Acknowledgment of death, however, may spur a new lease on life.

Overall, a central question arises in therapy and life when we confront the reality of always effectively standing at eternity’s gate:  how do we choose to live? 

Links to Related Blog Posts:

The Existential Moment: The Cosmological

Read all the Existential Moment series posts on EHI’s blog.

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The Existential Moment: Micro-skills: Reflecting

Reflection is a bit like the work of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. We mirror or reflect our client’s experience—the content presented, the process or experience in the moment (e.g., nonverbals, tone, pattern of speech, etc.), self and world constructs (e.g., “I am…”), protective patterns and inner tensions, and core vulnerabilities or wounds.

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