Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Life

Last night at the Melbourne Cinematheque, I saw an unusual, thought-provoking film called After Life, made in 1998 by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. It depicts the first stage after death as a week-long stay in a run-down institution, where the newly dead are given three days to reflect on their lives and select a single memory. Once the choice is made, the staff in the institution recreate and film the memory. Finally, these memories are relived via a group screening at the end of the week, allowing each individual to “move on” immediately to a place where their chosen memory will be all they recall, with the rest of their life erased.

The first task for the staff is to gently guide each person in the process of reflecting on their life and choosing a single memory. There are no selection criteria or guidelines, although most people choose a moment of simple happiness. For some the source of joy is sensory – cherry plum blossoms falling in a garden, flying in a light aeroplane through clouds, the feeling of a warm breeze enveloping the body during a childhood bus ride. For others it is bound to relationships – the adoration of an older brother, a late moment of companionship within a long marriage. Some begin with conventional visions of pleasure and later abandon them for more authentic memories, although there are hints that they remain somewhat uncertain of the value and details of these as well. Most challenging for the staff are the few who cannot or will not choose a memory. Various reasons for this difficulty are implied: a view of life so dark that the person cannot retrieve a convincing moment of happiness; anxiety that nothing achieved during life was sufficiently significant or met early ambitions; the conviction that to remember everything is a burden of responsibility that must not be evaded.  
Hirokazu Koreeda (1962 - )
At the end of the film (which involved more than I have revealed here), the friend sitting next to me asked if I had been thinking about what my chosen memory would be. A few thoughts about this had crossed my mind, but mostly I had identified with the staff of the institution, rather than the dead people. The film reminded me of work I have been doing as a provisional psychologist in a big public hospital: listening, asking about, and reflecting upon patients’ accounts of their experience, attempting to create a space in which they can set aside pressures to conform to conventional expectations or judgments, discover what is important to them, and freely share those memories that rise to the surface of the vast flow of a life. Of course, the memories people share with a psychologist are not typically accounts of simple pleasure. Rather, people come because their connection with what brings joy has been clouded. They have memories that cause suffering or confusion, and need to be shared and allowed to shift in their meaning, rather than fixed for eternity. As in the case of the characters in the film who cannot choose a memory, the process also involves uncovering habits of thinking and feeling that tend to block the vital connection to positive experience.

Late in the film, one of the staff says he cannot bear to keep doing his work, constantly saying goodbye to people. This struck a chord, coming in a week in which I had final sessions with several clients. Many of them had shared life experiences of great passion and suffering during our work together. These exchanges had been very meaningful for me as well as them, creating a strong sense of connection between us. In most cases we were ending the therapeutic relationship, not from a sense of natural closure or completion of the work, but simply because my placement at the hospital is finishing next week. There was often a sense of loss and regret on both sides that we could not continue.

However, keeping therapeutic relationships short is recommended in contemporary clinical psychology. “Time-limited interventions,” like the time-pressured process depicted in the film, are in favour. During the day on which I saw After Life, I also went to a presentation on early intervention for young people with borderline personality disorder, given by Professor Andrew Chanen, Director of Clinical Services at Orygen in Melbourne. He explained that the treatment offered there is concluded after an agreed number of sessions, “no matter what” (his rather weary, care-worn expression intimated what this short phrase might encompass in the case of his client group). In part, this practice is based on the view that if a client does not benefit during the standard time of treatment, this indicates that the treatment approach is not working, and more of the same is unlikely to help. In this sense, the discipline is as much for the therapists as the clients, assisting them to let go of any ego-based need to prove they can help by holding onto a client who is not responding, and helping to ensure they do not get caught in relationship dynamics that are part of the client’s problems. 

Musing about this in the wake of the film, I imagined a variant on the theme of After Life, a story in which human lives are seen as opportunities for “time-limited interventions.” Guardian-angel-therapists (devas, perhaps) are given the predetermined span of a single lifetime to help their allocated humans relinquish the delusions and cravings that feed dissatisfaction, with the therapeutic goal of teaching them how to rest in contentment. No guarantees of success, and no extensions of time...


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