President’s Letter

Out of Theory, Into Life

“The world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

—Mary Oliver

On the morning of August 10th, I was playing with my then 13-month-old son, Will, when my wife, Katie, came downstairs looking distraught. Her face was pale; her body was trembling. It went through my mind that she looked dissociated. I began to panic. “What’s wrong?” I quickly asked.

“I just took a pregnancy test, and it was positive,” she said, in a terrified tone.

I immediately began to feel faint as this sudden and unexpected news pulled me into a numb and confused feeling of shock. My mind quickly cycled through countless images and words as it tried to steady itself with some sort of theory or idea. No such theory came. Only raw, unfiltered experience. Naked life.

It is in moments like these that I become most aware that I am alive. And it is upon reflection of moments like these that I become most aware of the centrality and universality of object relations in human experience.

Nonetheless, as much as I care about object relations theory, I have become increasingly devoted to living life beyond it. When I was younger, I spent much of my time reading theory, especially psychoanalytic and object relations theory. Most of my free time in those days was spent studying and viewing the world through a lens of theory. Lately, there has been shift in my internal world, which started when I met Katie, but became most immediately conscious with the birth of Will. This shift consisted of what appears to be the emergence of a funny paradox of two seemingly opposing ideas. First, I became more convinced of the centrality and universal nature of the foundational theory of object relations in human psychology; a theory that asserts that human beings experience themselves and the world fundamentally through relationships with internal and external people, emotions, and things. Second, that I needed to throw out object relations theory in order to live a meaningful and full life.

With regards to the first idea, I am convinced that object relations represents a universal experience that transcends its body of work, its theorists, and its vocabulary. It is a fundamental psychological experience that was true long before it’s explicit introduction into psychological discourse and will continue to be true long after it fades into the pages of scientific history. I have faith in its truth not because I believe in its theories, but because I can see them alive in my everyday life, because I can feel them. And I can see them unfold in the everyday lives of my loved ones and my patients.

Universal truths are not true because someone theorized them. Precisely the opposite. They are true because they are not contingent upon a theory for their existence. For example, gravity is a fundamental and universal truth that existed before Newton’s formal theory of gravity. In fact, gravity seems scarcely aware, nor cares, that humans have any theory about it at all. Its existence is completely autonomous and disconnected from any theories describing it. Anyone, whether they are privy to the theory or not, can jump into the air at any time and experience gravity. It is a lived experience that is alive and universal, whether theories exist around it or not.

I believe object relations, like gravity, is a universal human experience. Where do I get that idea from? In part, because of the abundance of evidence found in the forms of language, gestures, art, dreams, birth, and death, throughout the history of humankind. For example, The Venus of Hohle Fels, a small statue depicting a female body, has been dated to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. This statue is considered one of the oldest artistic representations of a human body in known existence. Its unknown creator birthed this sculpture out of their internal world, out of their heart. Its existence lets us know that this artist had a profound relationship with this woman, whether she was a living person or one that sprouted from their imagination. The innumerable other pieces of artwork from around the globe are further evidence that human beings related to objects in meaningful ways before Freud’s theory of objects. What an amazing discovery.

However, sometimes the excitement of such a discovery can lead us to mistaking the theory for the experience itself. This can be a serious problem. This is where my second idea arises from. In order to live a meaningful and transformative life one has to be willing to throw out object relations theory in service of relating to their internal and external world in a more genuine way. This is where the rubber meets the road for object relations. The question of whether or not we can we enter more fully into life through our relationships with our internal and external experiences is paramount to our studies and work. After all, what is the point of any psychological theory if it does not ultimately allow us to lead a more meaningful, loving, and productive life? If we are not transformed by our experiences, if we are not moved by them in our mind, heart, and body to become a better human being as a result, then theory acts merely as a defense mechanism. It is a sad paradox when we let a theory aimed at bringing life to our relationships become a barrier to life itself.

My challenge is to find ways to enter more fully, more vulnerably, more open- heartedly, into my relationships with my internal and external experiences and people (I hate the word “objects”). This is the real study of object relations to me. It is a continual practice of learning to become increasingly curious and open to the experiences of my internal and external worlds. It is a practice of being emotionally impacted by those we interact with in our day-to-day life, both internally and externally, so we can be changed. Beauty and love bring such

impactful change, as does tragedy and loss. As Katie and I have chosen to welcome this baby into our lives and family, we welcome the myriad of emotional experiences this choice will bring, the love, the joys, the sadness, the anxieties, the sleepless nights, the worries, the arguments, the hugs, the kisses, the frustrations, the losses, the wins, the work, the play. We welcome the changes to our identity that such a decision brings. All of these experiences are life, our life, and our story. Life presents itself to us in a myriad of unexpected ways. Like Mary Oliver’s wild geese, it presents itself to us, offering itself up to our internal world over and over. We can choose how we hold it, what we do with it, and whether or not we let ourselves be changed by it.

As this new baby in my external life develops, I ask myself if I can turn and welcome all the emotional, physical, and psychological experiences it invokes in me and allow it to make me a better father, a better partner, a better therapist, a better neighbor, a better human being, or if I will attempt to turn away from these experiences. I can attempt to hold onto preconceived notions of who this child is and will be, who I am and will be, and how we will interact, but doing so would lead me to miss the real experiences. Instead, I challenge myself to throw out any theory I may have and let life change me. When all is said and done, change is not a choice, it is life itself. Poet James Butler wrote, “It is in the disruption of my heart that I am thrust into life. It is in love, in hate, in joy, in fear, that my heart beats. It is in the faces of those I feel that my heart beats.”

My hope is that COR can be a place where theory is held lightly so we all can remain vulnerable and let emotional experience in. My hope is that COR is a place where all internal and external objects are welcome and held. My hope is that we can learn theory, and then let it go in service of further explorations of our internal worlds. My hope is that we do not use theory to shield us from life, but rather as a way to enter more fully into it. As this new baby coming into my life changes me, I hope COR is a place where I can bring my changes, where I can learn from others and others can learn from me. That is living object relations.

Collin McFadden, COR President

Categories: President's LetterPublished On: January 1st, 2022Tags: ,