Potential Space

by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, Impulse Staff Writer


America is a young and restless country, its landscape a paradox of loss and opportunity. We are a rootless people given to leaving home for the potential of the unknown. The frontier beckons with equal parts promise and dispossession. Artifacts of loss -- an abandoned plow, a makeshift cross on a child's grave, jettisoned treasures from home -- lay strewn along the rut-scarred terrain. But now we have run out of room and too often suffer from feelings of emptiness and dread. At a time of massive insecurity and overload, we are going under in an avalanche of too much stuff.

The impulse to collect things is universal. Our possessions are useful, bring pleasure and security, denote status, confer identity, and evoke memories of cherished people, places, and events. We can all identify with hanging on to things to memorialize a time, a place, a person. 

Yet essential to the use of what Winnicott referred to as a transitional object is its eventual relinquishment, which is impossible for the hoarder. Feeling and memory are not fully experienced because they are held concretely rather than symbolically. Potential cannot be realized when it is actually and figuratively closed off by clutter and the fantasy of living in the past. There is no limbo into which the object can enter, unmourned, unforgotten, unrepressed. No room exists, either literally or in the realm of potential space, where growth and development occur. Instead, there is just a hardened accretion of stuff.

Hoarding, in its failure to let go, is also a failure of mourning. Clutter stops the flow of grief, which needs to run clear. It keeps others out while offering a bulwark against emptiness. But although the experience of loss is successfully avoided, nothing can shift or change or move. When loss is unbearable -- or when emotional deprivation has been so long-standing and pernicious that one cannot bear to touch the emptiness of what never was -- the need to fill the void concretely can be immense.

It is hard work to sort out our cluttered psyches. In a sense, we are all hoarders, hanging on to grievances, relationships, beliefs, unwarranted hope. In order to move beyond limits, people need the space, and the connection, to grieve and tolerate disavowed pain. Our culture, in its transition to healing and maturity, needs no less.

Maybe we will stay buried. Maybe we will gain a spacious wholeness. We stand again on the threshold of a new frontier.