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“Follow Me When I Try to Explain Something”

VINCENT VAN GOGH ONCE WROTE OF HIS FATHER with whom he had more than one verbal altercation while living under the same roof, “I seem to detect in Father proofs . . . of his really being unable to follow me when I try to explain something to him. He clings to a part of what I say, which becomes incorrect when one tears it from its context. This may have more than one cause, but assuredly it is largely the fault of old age” (CL 347).

Father, Theodorus van Gogh (1822-1885) – Version 2
Vincent’s Father, the Rev. Theodorus van Gogh

Old age aside, rather than decrying his father’s inability to follow what Vincent attempted to explain to him, suppose Vincent instead had inquired of his father: “What is it like for you when I’m conversing with you, and you with me?”

Had Vincent posed such a question without accusation or rejoinder, his father might have taken pause, even pleasure, in reflecting with Vincent about his son’s wish to be better understood. By entering his father’s frame of reference, Vincent may have learned something important about his father as well as about himself.

Vincent’s retorts were often if not always rigid, forceful, and argumentative, thus hard to bear, especially when his precipitous outbursts of rage interrupted the flow of communication, as happened in relation to his father, his brother Theo, and others who kept his company.

The devilish truth was that neither father nor son knew how best to attune emotionally to the other’s presence and thereby offer sufficient mutual affirmation and validation to avoid struggling so intensely with each other’s spirit. It was less demanding yet far less productive for them to remain outwardly defensive by shadowboxing rather than moving inwardly with empathy and sensitivity toward each other’s experienced reality. But, then, how to begin?

self-portrait-with-bandaged-ear-1889-1 copy 2
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Seeking meaningful engagement with a wounded soul who is in pain and suffering warrants close observation of the sufferer’s face, eyes, and voice. For in the visage one can “follow” the contours of distress or, conversely, the expressions of relief that emerge from within.

Affect is key. By analogy, affect is to speech as music is to the lyrics of a song, either concordant or discordant with the content of the words. In human relationships “empathic attunement”* is essential for discerning in the moment of encounter the other person’s state of mind, heart, and soul.

When a ray of light suddenly breaks forth from a person’s prison of gloom, darkness, or distress, thanks to feeling profoundly understood, that ray appears in the face, the eyes and the tone of voice. What frequently occasions it is the very thing that Vincent craved most of all for himself yet found inordinately difficult to grant to his father. In Vincent’s own words: “to follow me when I try to explain something.” That is, to offer powers of undivided attention, of careful observation and deep listening.

The face, the eyes, and the tone of voice comprise the canvas upon which the soul paints its pictures of what is essential for a personal acknowledgment to result in the feeling of being genuinely understood.

Especially is this true, as it was between Vincent and his father, when things heated up to the point where Vincent summarily declared to his father: “Pa, here I am faced by your self-righteousness, which was and is fatal, for you as well as for me.” Whereupon his father instantly retorted: “Do you expect me to kneel before you?”

That was clearly a point at which the train of empathy — “follow me when I try to explain something” — had fallen off the track.

—Which serves to underscore the fact that one of the profoundest gifts a person can give another is to attend with undivided attention, careful observation, and deep listening for the sake of reaching the moment of real understanding.

*A concept employed by the late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut

© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

Portraits of You

AS THE SAYING GOES, and as you have heard it said, you are the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the friends you make, the name you bear, and the words you speak. You are also your social security number, your high school picture, the glimpse of you a passerby brings to mind, and the epithet to be etched upon your tomb.

Not least, you are what you see and think of yourself for better or worse when you look in the mirror and either sigh with satisfaction or scream in dismay. You are what you reconstruct of yourself at the end of your days when you add up the balance and subtract the failures from the achievements and trust the sum to be greater than zero. In that sense you are what you forget as well as what you remember.

You are also the person who has an honest conversation with yourself about not always being your best self, and needing more often than not to be your forgiving self. And when you are your false self, you are that part of yourself that hides from the rest of you your true self.

When you are your true self you may hardly know exactly who you are, for in truth every true self is a composite of more than one self. It is several selves resident in one, and one centered at the heart of many.

Today you feel rotten, tomorrow on top of the world, which means you are somewhere within the vast range of normal.

When the wind blows right and you go left, you are the person who discerns the difference between what is right for you and wrong for others. You respectfully leave it to them to know their own minds, even as you trust they will kindly leave it to you to make up yours.

You are a blundering idiot when you cannot help yourself, and a surprising wonder when you entrust yourself to the wisdom buried deep within you.

You are the sacred ground you tread upon, the holy sights you see, and the mystical things you do. You are the lover who, being loved, loves, and yet the one who can miss the mark of love altogether.

You are the hilarious moments you stumble upon that lift your spirit, and the horrendous deeds you witness that diminish your soul.

You are the prayers you say as you fall asleep, and the dreams you live before and after you awake.

Yes, all these are portraits of you.

Yet even more, you are the living image of the One who made you the exquisite glory you are.

(Composed for those persons who were Charles’ pastoral counseling clients over the course of twenty-three years)

© Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising; Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).