Preoccupations: Painting Ponds or Hiding Sea Monsters?

In The Crown’s retelling of British history, we find Winston Churchill having his portrait painted […]

Madeline D'elia / 11.7.18

In The Crown’s retelling of British history, we find Winston Churchill having his portrait painted by the royal family’s artist Graham Sutherland. Though the show’s writers have surely taken liberties to imagine how these more intimate moments would have gone, they present a scene that is a poignant depiction of how profoundly art can function in our lives. After long sessions of sitting still and wondering if Sutherland would portray him in an ideal light, we watch an agitated and anxious Churchill question Sutherland’s painting style.

In return, Sutherland analyzes Churchill’s own paintings, a personal yet time-consuming hobby of his. Specifically, Sutherland remarks that Churchill’s painting of the goldfish pond is quite honest and revealing, considering the fact that he has painted it over twenty times. Defensively, Churchill says he’s returned to the pond so many times because it is a technical challenge that eludes him, to which Sutherland responds that Churchill is actually eluding himself. Sutherland says:

I think all our work is unintentionally revealing, and I find it especially so with your pond. Beneath the tranquility and the elegance and the light playing on the surface, I saw honesty and pain, terrible pain. The framing itself indicated to me that you wanted us to see something beneath all the muted colors, deep down in the water. Terrible despair. Hiding like a Leviathan. Like a sea monster.

Viewers come to find out that Churchill put in this pond shortly after the death of his two-year-old daughter, Marigold. And it’s in this realization that Churchill finds his painting of the pond has become an outlet that has both obscured and revealed the depths of his despair, the preoccupations of his mind.

Sutherland can so clearly see something in Churchill that Churchill can’t see in himself. Sutherland says: “I find in general people have very little understanding of who they are. One has to turn a blind eye to so much of oneself in order to get through life.”

Mark Savickas, an existentially-leaning therapist who works primarily in career counseling, would agree with Sutherland that our preoccupations are sometimes much easier seen by others than by ourselves. In fact, he theorizes that through a pretty ordinary set of questions that he developed as a “career interview,” significant problems, moments, or feelings with which we have become absorbed and preoccupied become clear. And in career counseling this is helpful, because Savickas believes that individuals often construct their careers by turning a personal preoccupation into a public occupation. They turn their essence into interest, tension into interest, and obsession into profession.

I wish I had known Sutherland’s theory before answering this set of questions for myself. I must have forgotten that I was in school for therapy when I perceived this assignment as straightforward and unemotional, but the questions, like I said, seemed pretty ordinary.

“Who did you admire when you were growing up and why? What TV shows do you watch? What’s your favorite book? Favorite movie?” And the last one, which did start to make me suspicious: “What are three memories you recall happening to you between three and six years old?”

When I sat down with my professor to go over how I answered the questions (which I was not told was going to happen), I wondered what in the world we were going to talk about, because it didn’t seem there was much to gain from the interview, other than the fact that I might have been the only ten-year-old who looked up to Michelle Branch.

“These questions help me understand what your preoccupations are,” my professor says to me as I very quickly realize I’ve been set up and that this is about to turn into a therapy session. She then proceeds to tell me that she believes I might be preoccupied with sadness.

“Oh no,” I think to myself. “This is going to be worse than I thought.” And the rest of the session—oh I mean “class time”—is pretty much a recreation of Sutherland and Churchill as I try to prove to both her and myself that there’s really no pattern or theme here, especially not this scary “preoccupation” word she keeps using. I mean, yes, admittedly, my favorite book Anna Karenina is a really sad 800-page novel in which everyone ends up dying and unhappy at the end (so sorry if that’s a spoiler). And, yes, my second choice of Wuthering Heights is arguably more downbeat. And yes, all of my earliest memories involved being separated from caregivers for the first time, or my grandma explaining what to say to people at funerals. Ok yes, all of my answers had to do with sadness. Crap.

To make matters worse, I tell my best friend when she gets home at the end of the day that my professor thinks I might have a preoccupation with sadness, and she doesn’t even think about it for five seconds before she says, “Oh yeah, that makes sense. You listen to sad music all the time and become friends with sad people.” Again I feel like Churchill, as I hear Sutherland saying, “I find in general people have very little understanding of who they are.”

Then I start really thinking: how many times have I listened to the new Soccer Mommy album in the past two weeks? Of all the specialty areas in counseling, why did I choose to work with trauma?

Our preoccupations, whether they are obvious to everyone or amazingly undetectable, can show up anywhere. In our paintings and our chosen careers, the books we read, the memories that are most vivid to us, and the songs we play on repeat. They can be found in the arguments we keep getting into, the kinds of people we always end up dating, the metaphors we use over and over again, the dreams or nightmares we can’t seem to stop having.

It’s important to emphasize that a preoccupation isn’t an interest or passion that we find ourselves wonderfully absorbed in; if that were the case, the word “engrossed” or “fascinated” might be more appropriate. Preoccupations distract us and pull us away from the present because it’s not just something that our mind is engaged with; it’s something that our mind is trying to resolve or work out. In other words, there is something that troubles us about this particular thing. And that thing, just as it can show up in many different ways, can be many different things. For Churchill, it was a tragedy; for me, it was an emotion that I never quite figured out what to do with.

When our preoccupations “show up,” they subconsciously help us work through something difficult in order to find resolution. The very act of working it out — however we choose to do that, whether painting or singing or fighting or basing our career off of it — sometimes is all we need. But at other times, preoccupations don’t find a natural end in the repetitions applied to them. And we then find a preoccupation at its worst. We are trapped in it.

Much like Winston denying there was any significance to his pond, our preoccupations are, according to Sigmund Freud, prone to our own massive resistance, which is how Freud might explain the subconscious nature of them. Sometimes, this can be due to repression; and at other times, it is due to gaps in memory (forgetting in this context is seen as dissolving thought connection, failing to draw the right conclusions, or isolating memories). In any case, whether because of repression or not remembering, the moment or problem that has absorbed us is reproduced not as a memory but as an action; we repeat it, in some way, without of course knowing that we are doing so. The compulsion to repeat has now replaced the impulsion to remember. And because of what Freud means when he says “remembering,” it is not quite literally that we have a memory come back to us (though that’s very possible), but rather that we have a reintegration of thought connection, draw different conclusions, or memories that were isolated gain context. And to work through something, we must stop painting our goldfish pond and remember that our child has died. If not, we may keep painting the muted colors for forever.

Perhaps the question is, “So what?” So what if our repeating never becomes remembering, and we continue to be unable to recognize what we are repeating, much less be able to recognize what it has to do with? Does it matter if we paint 70-plus goldfish ponds?

I think it does, because in the preoccupation of our minds lies a struggle. The ponds we paint or the Soccer Mommy albums we listen to are not the troubling part (her album “Clean” is seriously so good), but it is the lack of resolution that is troubling. Our minds are at work over that time we felt so abandoned, that thing our parent said or didn’t say to us when we were kids, that time we failed when we thought we would succeed. We never figured out what to do with anger, or with feeling like we weren’t enough. Humans are complex, and the moments and problems and feelings that our minds repress and forget don’t need to qualify as what most people would say are tragedies for our minds to become stuck on them. And in the face of this, it’s worth wondering how or where we can find a place to paint until we can remember.

Freud would say that the way to become unstuck is to move towards our preoccupations. To try to find them so that the Leviathan can come out. And how would one do this? In Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through, he says, “We render [it] harmless, and indeed useful, by giving it the right to assert itself in a definite field…a playground in which it is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that is hidden in the mind…”

Another way to say this is that our preoccupations need a container for suffering. A place where they are harmless and can in fact come out to play, as if on a playground. What Freud is saying is that only if there’s a safe avenue for it to be expressed will it ever be more explicitly expressed and thus seen or noticed. And the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Himself is a container for our suffering. Even for this kind of suffering of our minds, the things that find a constant feedback loop in our psyche and trouble us in their lack of resolve. He gives us a grace that holds our wild despair, rage, and sadness and every single destructive or completely mundane way of expressing our preoccupations until they find some sort of resolve in Him. He doesn’t want us to clean up our act and put down Anna Karenina in exchange for inspiring Christian literature; He will be patiently in the midst of us as we take as many weeks, months, or years as we need to work out what has threatened to take us over. And in His goodness, He will not allow it to take us over.