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Newsletter for October 2002

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The desire for closure

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  1. 9/11 anniversary and Iraq - tying up loose ends?

  2. Witnessing executions and moving on - What kind of closure?

  3. Closing our obstacles, closing out people - Divorce ceremonies, and job transitions

  4. The crunch question - Does my closure leave more open or less?

  5. Wanting more than a controlled world - Being real about our lack of ability, and why we close people out

9/11 anniversary and Iraq

Before the first anniversary of 11 September, some commentators in Britain and the US felt that subsequent years should not repeat the anniversary on such a scale, if at all.  There was "a need for closure" - to remember, then in some sense to close the door and move on.

This need for closure animates many human responses.  We will consider some examples from personal relationships, from career employment and from criminal punishment.  The need surfaces in international affairs too.  It is possible to see a related desire in President Bush's new drive to eradicate Saddam Hussein. Commentators point not just to a continuation of the "unfinished business" of his father's Gulf War, but also the administration's lack of finality after 9/11 in terminating the Al Qaeda terrorist network or actually knowing what happened to Osama bin Laden.  

Members of the UN Security Council are presently working to allay the fears of France, Russia and China that the US is determined to launch military action whatever Saddam Hussein's response - that the drive towards closure has become inevitable for the Bush administration.  James Rubin, state spokesman and adviser under President Clinton and now a professor in London, said in a BBC interview (04/10/02) that

"After 9/11 the psychology of America has changed.  Government is no longer able to tolerate uncertainty or the unstable build-up of weapons (in Iraq)."

Witnessing executions and moving on

When we speak of a "need for closure," although we may have ideas and beliefs about punishment and justice, the need is firstly about wanting the pain of loss and the emotions of hatred to diminish and stop. Relatives of murder victims attend executions seeking closure with this kind of motive. Ron Carlson, now a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, wrote

"I found that the death penalty does not solve anything.  I know this for a fact because I witnessed the execution of one of the two monsters that killed my sister.  When it was over, I still found that my sister was dead.  I did not feel what I had hoped to feel - they call it ‘closure.'

"Eight years after my sister's death, I confronted those who took away that precious life and love that I had known.  I told them that I forgave them and that I didn't hold anything against them.  It was only then that I felt the anger and hatred leave me.  It was like a great weight was lifted off of my shoulders."  (Restitution Incorporated)

We can't generalise about human nature too much.  Although deeply opposed to the death penalty, period, I can see that for some people attending a ritualised execution does provide a kind of closure.  Hatred remains, and blame towards the killer, but the feeling that one's loved one is somehow honoured by the execution sometimes helps reduce the loss, allowing witnesses to ‘move on' to other matters.  The horrific public executions mounted by the Taliban in Afghanistan seem to have had this aim - catharsis through ritualised killing.

Closing out obstacles, closing out people

We can see that rituals of closure may assist some people in an internal "letting go" of some negative emotions and brooding memories – not everyone, but some. However, letting-go has neutral value in itself - it can be self-serving or it can be generous.  (See our Q&A "What do I do when I can't let it go?")  Letting-go of past issues which cloud the future health and strength of our relationships with people is healthy and wise. Letting-go of the relationships with people themselves – abandoning them, cutting them out, or executing them – is not a good act, viewed from the perspectives of spiritual or ethical or creative humanity.

So in seeking closure, what is being closed – the obstacles to better relationships, or the people themselves? In other walks of life rituals of closure may help. In the UK, the Methodist church has published prayers for divorcing couples, and some German denominations are planning to offer special divorce services to allow couples to say goodbye in a religious way.  In a ritual called "The end as a beginning," couples ask God to forgive them and admit their joint responsibility for the break up.  The hope is that the divorced persons can then conduct a respectful, peaceful contact to some varying degree.

In Transitions, his early book on working through life changes (particularly employment changes), William Bridges said,

"Endings begin with something going wrong ... Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new – not just outwardly but inwardly, where we keep our connections to the people and places that act as definitions of who we are."(op cit pp 109, 11)

At the same time he quotes Mircea Eliade on rites of passage:

"In no rite or myth do we find the initiatory death as something final, but always as the condition of a transition to … the beginning of a new life."  Myths, Dreams and Mysteries p 224)

In other words, we do need to work through an ending when things have gone wrong, but in such a way that we become more open, not less, to the larger whole that awaits us, which may well include the past, now revisited.  The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion observed, "Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available."  (Cogitations)

The crunch question

The crunch question can be put like this:

"Have I closed things in such a way that I am more open, not less, to a larger world of possibilities and opportunities - a world in which I may well also meet my enemy, wrongdoer or victim, in a better and more creative manner?"

If couples go through a rite of passage at the end of a marriage, asking for forgiveness, that is just the first step, and it doesn't necessarily empower us to go on to show more forgiveness to others. From the perspective of forgiveness, desiring closure may assist only at the first or simpler levels.  And when people like Ron Carlson actually want to forgive, the rituals don't help; they hinder.

Once you want to forgive and transform difficult situations, what helps is moving into an active mode, visiting the wrongdoer or spouse or colleague, or writing to him or her … or in the case of international acts of war, working at understanding the attacker's culture, history and values. Our core value and aim, going through a closure, is becoming more open to possibilities of better relationship, not less.

Wanting more than a controlled world

Ostriches are said to bury their heads in the sand when danger looms. A worse-case version of closure, to be sure (!), but in general, when we are weak or ill, with little power to tackle big issues, it makes sense to seek a sealed-off place to heal and strengthen. So too, when we are initially attacked by a stranger. Wanting closure, even when couched in the rhetoric of moral righteousness, is a strong indicator of a lack of power, authority and insight to change things for the better. We can't understand or deal with it, so let's get rid of it.

In the ForgivenessNet e-letter for August 2002 we looked a little at why businesses try to sort their problems by sacking difficult staff – another form of closure. There's a powerful image of this in David Fincher's thought-provoking movie The Game (writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris).  Powerful businessman Nick van Orton (Michael Douglas) sacks an old friend of his father's for not delivering a large enough profit, with these words:

"I am firing you. Action is taken; confidence is restored; the stock goes up."

Van Orton closes people out all the time - family, friends, employees - believing they are his problem; yet the story's meetings will awaken him to discover that "closing people out" is actually his problem!

And this reminds us that when governments and leaders exhibit the same desire, they do indeed have the power to destroy enemies, but demonstrate that they do not have the capacity to increase peace, understanding, wisdom, compassion, or goodness.  We need to be real about what our capacities are: the use of military force may be the last resort by which we seek to protect the westernised world.  (See the praised e-letter we offered last year after 11 September - "Taking sides against evil.")  It may be unavoidable, but it is not virtuous, and when governments use self-righteous rhetoric they exhibit their lack of capacity for goodness.

Closing out people who continue to challenge or provoke us, or people who disagree with us, means we don't want to learn about ourselves - Bion's "inability to tolerate empty space." Pascal said that each of us has "a God-sized vacuum" inside us, a spiritual hunger for the immense Other. Well, as a theory of human nature this needs checking against experience and research.  Perhaps some of us do and some don't! (The era when religious minds, however great, could assume as a motive for repentance and conversion that non-religious people are deficient or half-finished is past.)

But for those who do tolerate empty space and hunger for an Other to fill it, desiring closure is always second-best or tenth-best.

Andrew Knock

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