Losing Your Spit

June 2, 2008

He was in his early 60s and a master carpenter who had helped build our house in the east Texas piney woods some 20 years ago. When I asked him about his cousin who had helped him with the house, he paused and then said sadly, "Doc, he just lost his spit."

When I cocked my head, he went on, "You know, he just stopped trying to be in charge of his life-his work, family, and even his health. Just sort of gave up." The piney woods of east Texas occupy-or once did-the eastern third of the state and were part of the same great forest that spread from the eastern coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This mostly rural area has retained Southern values, and a staunch individualism has prevailed. Losing one's spit in this country was a turning away from this important value.

I do not know what the cousin's circumstances really were. Depression, alcohol abuse, and other syndromes come quickly to mind. The intent of this essay, however, is not to explore the cousin's predicament; rather, it is to explore some of the implications of believing that one is in control of his or her life and then losing it, or in the words of my informant, losing your spit.

As I write, my thoughts turn to two persons who appear to fall at extreme points on a continuum of "life control" (the belief that one is in control of his own life). One is a man I saw in couples therapy. Although he grew up poor in a family dominated by his father's severe alcoholism, he recalled himself as a very driven child. "I always had goals, and nothing deterred me from them," he noted with clear pride. "Being in control has always been very important to me and is responsible for my success." When I first saw him he seemed unaware that his emphasis on control played an important role in his wife's unhappy retreat from him.

Contrast this patient with a fictional middle-aged man, Joe Allston, from Wallace Stegner's novel, The Spectator Bird.1 As for Joe Allston, he had been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There had not been one significant event in his life that he had planned. He has gone downstream like a stick getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about (p 7).1

Stegner's description of Allston is totally devoid of anything suggesting a sense of being in control of his life; indeed, he is both a stick floating passively downstream and, hauntingly, a tourist in his own life. If these two persons are representative of those occupying the extremes of a presumed continuum of life control, what do we know that accounts for such individual differences? What factors explain how much spit one has?

It is in our attempts to understand the roots of life control that we immediately run into some problems. The first problem involves the question of how much such a belief is not real but illusory. This introduces the idea of adaptive illusions-that many (if not most) of us share a small group of assumptions that serve the psychological purpose of reducing anxiety, particularly, anxiety about randomness.2 One such illusion is the belief that we are much more in control of our lives than we actually are or that base-rate data indicate. From this perspective we exaggerate to ourselves the extent of control we have over life's direction, and this illusion can, within limits, be adaptive.

The second problem we have with the concept of life control is that it is so connected to or overlaps with so many other important personality characteristics that it is often diffi- cult to sort out. Separateness, autonomy, purpose, planning, order, and power come quickly to mind. Furthermore, and to the extent that it is possible to sort out the distinctiveness of life control, those factors that influence its development are multiple and undoubtedly interact in complex ways that are beyond our current understanding.

A starting point in mentioning a few of those factors is the role of genetics. Are there combinations of genes that, acting in concert, establish a level of propensity for subsequent life control? I would think almost certainly so, although specific and documenting twin studies fail to come to mind. In his book on the impact of the present on both the memory of the past and the imagination of the future, Gilbert3 discusses control and writes that we are born with a passion for being in control, our brains are wired for it, we strive for it throughout life because control is so pleasurable, and believing that we are in control of our lives-even if the belief is part illusion-is good for our mental health.

Then there are the overwhelming data from infant attachment studies demonstrating that a secure attachment to the primary parenting person (a secure base) facilitates the infant's ability to explore his world. What also becomes apparent to those of us who see couples is that adults with avoidant attachment patterns often are over-controlling in their close relationships. This appears to be in the service of avoiding the vulnerability that is an inevitable component of psychological closeness. The couples therapy vignette illustrates that what may seem adaptive at work often fails in relationships. Families also differ in the extent to which they encourage their children to go out into the world and carve their paths, find their passions, or, in other words, be in control of their lives.

There are other perplexing issues. One is the relationship of control to health and psychopathology. It seems apparent that those with unusually strong compulsive features with their emphases on control are particularly apt to struggle with rigidity and relationship problems. Indeed, at certain levels it is possible to understand extreme life control as part of the effort to avoid closeness.

At the other end of the continuum, Joe Allston demonstrates that there are persons who believe that they have had little control over the direction of their lives. Thus, it appears that like many other personality characteristics, a healthy or adaptive level of life control involves the midrange, neither too much nor too little.

Despite all the complexities and unknowns about life control, what can be said about losing one's spit? I believe the most important answer is for the clinician to not jump to conclusions, but rather, to approach each patient with as open an attitude as possible. In the present climate of categorical thinking, the first consideration may be of some sort of depressive disorder. Others will explore whether losing one's spit is more a reflection of developmental processes such as the midlife tasks of reappraisal of one's life dream and the beginning of a more generative stance toward the world.

Although there are other theoretical lenses through which the clinician might view losing one's spit, it seems important to acknowledge that such a loss may be for the better or worse. The man seen in marital therapy needed to lose some of his spit if he hoped to save his marriage. Joe Allston seems to believe that he never had any, and, if so, the clinician's task is to explore whether Joe really wants to try to find some.

There is much more that can be said about losing one's spit, but for present purposes it is perhaps enough to acknowledge that the concept is an intriguing one and that we have much to learn.

References:

References


1. Stegner W. The Spectator Bird. New York: Penguin Books; 1976.

2. Taylor SE, Brown JD. Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychol Bull. 1988;103:193-210.

3. Gilbert D. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books; 2007.