The Timelessness of Attachment
My husband and I went on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg last Fall. For those of you who have never heard of it, Colonial Williamsburg is a living history center. Williamsburg was the first capital of Virginia and was still the capital during the American Revolutionary War. Many of the buildings, including the Governor’s Palace, House of Burgesses, Armory, homes, churches and coffee shops have been restored and there are re-enacters in colonial costume at all the various buildings to teach you what life was like at the time. There are also re-enactments of major events leading up to and during the revolutionary war (we got to storm the Governor’s Palace which was pretty cool, I’ve always wanted to storm a palace!) and talks are given by famous people, such as George Washington, who even took questions from the audience (which was impressive, the man had an incredible grasp of both Washington’s life and the events of the revolutionary war.) I love revolutionary history (my humble apologies to my British readers. 😀 )and found this fascinating.
One display I found especially striking was in one of the museums. An early mental hospital had been established by a Dr. John M Galt, who was one of the early adopters and strong promoters of more humane treatment of mentally ill people. Conditions up until that time were pretty horrific, with many patients chained up and left in their own filth, treated worse than livestock in many cases. He was an early proponent of treating the mentally insane with respect and compassion.
Among the displays was the following letter written by a resident of the hospital:
It would have rendered me most agreeable pleasure to have been with you all these Christmas times, but Dr. John M. Galt, the gentleman under whose care and protection I am here placed, does not think my mind sufficiently cured for me to leave here yet so I will not say in this epistle when you will see me, probably never.
The Doctor is a gentleman whom the whole world ought to love and respect. To speak more concisely and emphatically, I do not think that I ought to desire a better or more worthy friend in this world. …Be not disposed to think me exaggerating, for I am writing the real truth, and am bold too, in having the gratification of writing thus. I’ll now bring this epistle to a close not knowing what else beneficial or amusing to write you.
Yours until death,
The Galt Family Papers
Earl Gregg Swem Library
College of William and Mary
Reading this was so powerful. The man who wrote this letter lived in such different times. The culture, the technology, the rhythms of life were vastly different from what I experience, yet the feelings he spoke of echoed across the years with a piercing familiarity. Someone had come alongside him, and given him compassion and acceptance and understanding and at a time when those things were exceedingly rare for someone with mental problems. And he reacted in a way which resonated deeply with me: he saw Dr. Galt as an amazing human being, one deserving of love and respect. He was grateful to speak of his esteem of this man as he saw him as so deserving.
While human cultures, mores, beliefs and customs change, human beings do not. There is a reason we can look at, and be moved, by a piece of art conceived and executed thousands of years ago. Human beings have always, and probably always will, struggle to understand ourselves and our purpose, to make sense of our experiences and distill meaning out of our lives. And one of the most important ways that we do this is to connect with other human beings. We can only know ourselves in relationship, by being clearly reflected by another person. So it is these connections, these attachments, that evoke our most powerful feelings.
So across the years, I found a kindred spirit. He wrote letters home to speak of his love and esteem and I write letters to a world-wide community to speak of mine. But the deep feelings of gratitude and respect are the same and spring from the same source. The next time you are wondering why your therapist is evoking such strong feelings, I hope you remember this post and that these feelings come from deep within and are integral to our humanity. Perhaps one of the privileges of needing to heal is to be conscious of our deep attachments and how they have shaped us. Know you are not alone in how you react, in this or any other time where humans have reached out to each other for meaning.
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