Sunday, May 09, 2010

Time heals all wounds

I've been thinking about my efforts to get back on the horse (which are going pretty well, most rides I don't even think about my spill) and it occurs to me that there's some marked similarities between the process of recovering from fear, as when getting "back on the horse," and recovering from pain, as when you grieve for a loss. In both cases, there's really no cure but time. People talk about whether there's any way to hurry up the process, and generally conclude that it takes as long as it takes. I think is an oversimplification, designed not so much to reflect the truth precisely, as to make people feel okay with it taking however long it does take, rather than feeling pressured to recover faster (which is counterproductive).

So I found myself wondering, why exactly does time heal all wounds? And I came to what seemed like a minor but profound revelation: when it comes to emotional wounds, time doesn't actually heal anything at all. The wound never really heals or changes in any way. It just becomes smaller in perspective as it recedes in time, as other things get in between you and it.

Don't mistake this for an analogy that has forgotten it's an analogy: the idea of it receding can be taken literally. Our minds are programmed to prioritize the present over the past, and even the recent past over the more remote past. An injury I suffered yesterday, and the fear of how much worse it could be, is big in the mind's landscape of importance; the same exact injury and fear, a month later, is no different, but it simply is less important. Each day, it's farther from the forefront of my thoughts, and so my mind spends less time on it. Eventually, it will have shrunk so far in the distance behind me that it will not register at all. And it's the same with grief and loss; each day it's a little farther from the moment, so while the pain of missing someone is no different, it never actually changes the way a physical wound changes as you heal, it's smaller because there's things on your mind that are more important to your mind -- by virtue of being more recent.

It therefore follows that the one way to actually hasten how quickly time will heal all wounds is to fill up that time with other things. The more things that fill your life and your thoughts, the more quickly they'll push the wounds, the fear, the pain, aside. That said, I don't think it'll work to shove things into your life for no reason other than to hasten the process. Something you had no real reason to do, or think about, won't actually displace your hurt; it could, in fact, just become a reminder of it, since thinking about it will only remind you of why you chose it. However, something that genuinely grips your thoughts on its own, whether good or bad, will tend to displace the hurt. That's why a hobby or relaxation can help, as can a new crisis or concern or something new that you need to do, as can taking on a new project.

But even years later, if you find some reason to dredge up the memories of the pain, or something reminds you of it, it can all come back. If you remember it thoroughly enough, enough to drive away the distance that has accumulated, the pain or fear can return in pretty much the same quantity as when it was fresh. This rarely happens only because it's rare to really eliminate all the distance -- both because it's hard to do, and because we naturally avoid it as much as possible. But it can happen, which corroborates the idea that the wound never really heals, never really changes in itself.

In the end, this theory doesn't really add much to my understanding of grief or recovery in terms of things one can actually do; it mostly just explains what we already knew and makes it make sense. Maybe I'm just doing that Psych 101 student thing of oversimplified theories, but it seems to hold up to consideration. At worst, it could be distilled into the kind of pithy quotation that people share with each other in times of need.

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