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  • Karen Sussan, LMHC


Updated: Oct 17, 2023

“When things fall apart, they turn into something else.” Roger Wolfe, LCSW

I don’t know if my supervisor Roger Wolfe knew Yeats wrote a poem The Second Coming after WWI where there is a line “When things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

But, Roger’s claim that “when things fall apart, they turn into something else” is stamped into my mind. The words often serve as a mantra.

And as a Vietnam Vet, Roger should have known. I suspect those words were hard-won. Heaven knows what combat was like, despite his willingness to talk about it.

There have been times I have clung to that saying as life shook any semblance of faith or confidence I thought I carried. Roger offered this statement to me when I was much younger, in training, perplexed as I imagined the impact of changes in group membership, including the group falling apart. His response was: “When things fall apart, they turn into something else.”

Not that I fully grasped the application of these words at the time.

So, he generously explained it further, offering another gift, an image that I often consider when I seek change or change is upon me. Roger offered the image of a trapeze artist. With the goal of reaching the perch on the other side, there is a point when a trapezist must let go of one bar in order to grab the next trapeze, mid-air. So, Roger explained, there is a single, solitary moment that a fellow is between, moving midair, in open space, without a net.

These words and this image continue to offer encouragement when I face the unknown again and again.

We humans fear things falling apart, of the center not holding, to borrow from that line of Yeats.

We fear missing that bar, even if we practiced countless times with a net.

There are moments beyond our control and times for which there are no rehearsals.

I refer to these words and reflect upon that image whenever I reach for the proverbially trapeze bar, move on in life, despite the momentary risk. I have a couple more decades worth of experience that confirms, at the very worst, should things fall apart, they will eventually turn into something else.

We humans share such age-old fears. We are vulnerable. Change is inevitable. And, life turns into something else.

Whether we focus upon it, our world keeps turning, despite our vulnerabilities, mortality and other human limitations. It can be hard to accept, believe, or grasp given the integrity of our personhood and the appearances of stability in our lives.

Being alive comes with a parcel of anxiety called Existential Anxiety.

It is a normal, unavoidable part of human experience.

Most of the time, people prefer not to focus on their mortality. Many actually push it so far away, they do not ever consider impermanence at all.

We almost all register an existential crisis with shock. A pandemic or a tsunami comes. There is social unrest and massacres, even genocides. Few have achieved the Buddha’s equanimity. Existential crises often accompany more routine life change and transitions, especially when loss of health or risk of dying is concerned. It is phenomenal when such a moment arrives and we must face the facts, must push airborne to grab the next perch. We have little time to reflect as we fly mid-air; essentially, feeling unmoored.

Some therapists may not be comfortable addressing existential issues. Such a focus, frankly, is seldom on the curriculum in professional mental health degree programs or residencies –for they are the questions without clear answers or solutions, that do not translate into a scientific, double-blind research study, fit in psychiatric or medical models and methods, or lend themselves to treatment in a culture of quick fixes. But, we still may suffer from these issues just the same.

There are therapists like me who are trained and specialize in such existential, spiritual or religious concerns. We are here for you when you find you are questioning how you travel through life, face some major questions about life’s meaning, or have had some upheaval in life such as a mega-tough transition. It might be worth seeking counseling and support.

Think about turning the problem into something else, such as a catalyst for healing, growth and transformation through psychotherapy.

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