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  • Carlo Strenger, Paring Life Down to the Essentials: An Epicurean Psychodynamics of Midlife Change

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  • Spotlight


    Louis Rothschild, PhD



    For my first Spotlight introduction, I want to highlight Carlo Strengner’s paper, ‘Paring Life Down to the Essentials:  An Epicurean Psychodynamics of Midlife Change in the current issue of Psychoanalytic Psychology (26,3).  Due in part to reading Strenger’s paper shortly after the Jewish New Year, I began thinking about a well known Hasidic story.  The particular piece that I have in mind is simple and well known for its existential import that every person should walk through life with two notes, one in each pocket. On one note should be the words, “I am nothing but dust and ashes.”  On the other note should be the words, “The world was created for me.” The first phrase originates with Abraham striving to put his own existence into the context of bargaining with God over Soddom and Gemorrah. The second phrase, the world was created for me, comes from Talmudic commentary taking Adam’s creation as basis of the idea that an individual is considered to be an entire world. 

    That an existential dialectics regarding identity has been with us long enough to locate such thought in biblical commentary is not news.  However, the manner in which psychoanalytic thinking situates existentialism can be newsworthy.  For me, a link exists between the note in each pocket and Mitchell’s (1988) tragic man.  In Mitchell’s metaphor one finds a prescription to embrace a narrow lane between awareness that the ocean’s high tide will destroy sandcastles built on the beach (work ending in dust and ashes) and a desire to build on one’s own terms without the limiting factor of an incoming tide (for me the world is created).  Such a compromise, what Mitchell calls the tragic position enables an embrace of the endeavor of work while simultaneously accepting the limits of time.  It is in such a tragic space that Strenger’s current paper address identity at mid life.  Like Mitchell’s tragic man, work plays a central role.

    Carlo Strenger takes the mid-life crisis work of Elliot Jacques that situates the acceptance of mortality as a developmental accomplishment and places it in dialectical tension with the work of Ernest Becker who considers the denial of death to be a prime factor in human motivation.  Like Mitchell’s tragic builder of sandcastles, Strenger uses this dialectic to work with Erikson’s concept of generativity with a focus on midlife.  Here Strenger argues that he is not simply speaking of the limits of a depressive position, but posits a persistent ontological protest to mortality as unconscious bedrock.  Considering how his model converges and diverges on other models such as Mitchell’s builder of sandcastles and the Hasidic notes in pockets renders this paper worth taking seriously. In addition to theory, the reader is also treated to case material located beyond the consulting room. 

    The creativity that affords a sense of authorship at midlife  is studied in the life of business philosopher Charles Handy who is currently several years beyond midlife.  Handy’s capacity to fuse a phenomenological orientation with economic concern is remarkably similar to the philosophy that Strenger considers typical of generation x in his earlier work (Strenger, 2005).  However, Handy grew up prior to the boomer cohort.  This cohort shift implies a challenge to Strenger’s earlier hypothesis regarding the uniqueness of the post-modern situation where disorientation becomes the presenting symptom for those living in a constructed world of relativistic value.  In that case material several patients find their way to embrace limits and forge a functional compromise.  Here, Strenger looks to Handy to illustrate the Epicurean philosophy of orientation to life by paring it down to the essentials.  Strenger suggests that at midlife there is a move toward such a paring down that finds expression in an increased individuation.  Here there is a sense that this is an aspect of the human condition at least since the Greeks and is not simply a new developmental task found in post-modernity.

    However, the greatest strength of the paper may lie elsewhere.  This paper merits serious attention due to its integration of psychoanalysis with social psychology, existentialism, and positive psychology.  Strenger’s ability to link divergent aspects of psychology is notable.  Of these, his use of existentialism could well be considered a marker of renewed integration when compared to its contrarian origin (Sartre, 1953).   The ability to inoculate division seems all the more important in a climate in which division appears to be the norm (cf., Begley, 2009).  In regard to the laboratory of social psychology, Strenger turns to Terror Management Theory.   He uses the finding that subjects show strong adherence to their own beliefs and identifications and intolerance to other groups and beliefs when exposed to mortality salient stimuli to support his midlife hypothesis.  Such laboratory data illustrating defensive orientation in the face of the disorientation of mortality has become the paradigm of experimental existential psychology.   This defensive focus on one’s identifications and beliefs affords a place in which one may enter a state of sustained creation that Strenger compares to Csikszentmihalyi’s positive psychology of Flow.  The rigidity of defense necessary to maintain Flow might well be the embodiment of Mitchell’s tragic man. Here, the clinical harmonizes with the laboratory.  

    Importantly, Strenger does not claim to have constructed a universal model of a trans-personal existentialism.  He does however consider that a model whose philosophy is in favor of paring life down to essentials goes against the philosophy of consumerist culture. To that end, psychoanalysis has much to say about a capacity to accept limits and carry on.  In regard to the specifics of psychoanalysis and consumerism, Strenger’s work is a welcome addition to an interesting outcropping within psychoanalysis regarding consumerism (cf., Wachtel, 1989). 

    Strenger’s argument that an Epicurean philosophy of responsibility in the face of limit is an important beacon aiding one in midlife adds to what he correctly identifies as a sparse literature on midlife.  This is all the more important in light of a multi-method validation spanning experimental social psychology and qualitative psychoanalysis that underpins his work.  To that end, this paper stands in its own right and connects to our discipline in a refreshing manner. 



    Begley, S. (2009).  Ignoring the evidence:  Why do psychologists reject science?  Newsweek, October 12, 2009.

    Mitchell, S. (1988).  Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

    Sartre, J.P. (1953/1965).  Existential Psychoanalysis.  Chicago, IL:  Henry Regnery Co.

    Strenger, C. (2005).  The designed self: Psychoanalysis and contemporary identities.  Hillsdale, NJ:  The Analytic Press.

    Wachtel, P. (1989).  The Poverty of Affluence:  A psychological portrait of the American way of life.  Philadelphia, PA:  New Society Publishers.  

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