Sep 19, 2011

The Myth of Closure: How is Emotional Closure Good?

Does the oft-invoked idea of attaining emotional closure really correspond to something genuinely good?  It is something necessary, something desirable, something towards which to counsel people, to move them by whatever appropriate means suggest themselves?  A recent Boston Globe interview with sociologist Nancy Burns raised a strong challenge to the all-too-common call for closure.
Burns’ view is that strictly speaking there really is no such thing as closure:
The idea of closure [is seen] as a new emotional state for explaining what we need and how we’re supposed to respond to trauma and loss. But closure is a rhetorical concept, a made-up term  … .Closure is not something that we can simply find or something we need. It’s a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss.
So, “closure” is not what the standard popular take presents it as: an actual condition or endpoint of emotion, whereby one moves from one emotional state to another emotional state — from a state in which one’s negative emotions become engaged over and over, trounce and beat down the one feeling or harboring them, refuse or resist resolution, are easily even unpredictably awakened and arise again to plague on on or in to a different state, one in which the person attaining “closure” is no longer prey to their own emotions. They are all right.  They don’t feel them any more, because their reasons for feeling them have been resolved, or they feel the emotions in manageable manners, ways and to degrees that make sense, their echoes and effects gradually effaced.

Where Burns calls closure a “rhetorical” concept, I would rather call it — along lines suggested by both contemporary virtue ethics and certain (admittedly at times unlikely-seeming) intersections with psychoanalytic theory — a “narrative” concept.  If there is “emotional closure,” what changes is not simply the emotional states, nor their occasioning events, agents, or experiences, but primarily the narrative understanding that configures and contains the sense of the intersections between the person, their life and relationships, the goods and evils encountered, chosen, lost or gained, what they and others have made of things through their choices, actions, words, interpretations, presentations, and then, yes, also their emotions.

It does seem odd to see the notion of closure confined to trauma and grief, when one might think of a range of other emotions to which something like it would seem to apply.  Anger, provided “closure” among other ways through punishment of the offender or through forgiveness.  Hatred, brought to an end (or at least thrown into question) in destruction of the hated object, or by unexpected experience of empathizing either on the part of the one hated or by the hater him or herself.  Loneliness, isolation, feeling alone, apart, alien, ending or at least alleviating as one exits one context and enters another, friendlier or more familiar one.  Fears and anxieties, long-lasting boredom and frustration — cannot these admit of some closure as well?

Well, to be fair, Burns’ book is about grief, and the fact that some of the critical points she rightly makes respecting that emotion could apply to other negative emotions and how we ought best to deal with them does not diminish the importance of the points she does make.
We ought to think carefully about closure in a teleological framework — what is the purpose?  Does attaining or even attempting closure automatically aid us in our efforts towards the goods in our lives, including our final end?  It is something good in its own right?  There are a number of distinguishable problems
… .while closure is widely considered possible, desirable, and important. .. . it is not necessarily any of these things. Our reliance on the concept may even do us a disservice. Not only does closure mischaracterize how most people handle grief, but … pressure to achieve it might actually make loss more difficult.
So, several different questions need to be asked.  First: is closure even real, and if so, what is it actually?  What does occur?  Let’s assume that problem solved.  Then we have to ask:  Is it actually good?  Is it actually something we ought to desire?  Is it something we ought to take as an end?  Is it a necessary means for other acknowledged and desired goods?

If closure — understood as something lie its popular representation — is in fact good, it is always good?  Are there times when achieving closure, or even striving for it, making it a priority, advocating it, could in fact be bad?  Could these later time be, perhaps precisely when closure seems to be desired most strongly?

Virtues and vices — as Aristotle taught long ago — have to do not only with habitual structures of specific types of action, but also with specific emotions — how we feel them, when we feel them, why we feel them, towards what we feel them, and so on.  Burns is entirely correct in noting that cultural pressures steer us towards poorly understanding our own emotions — towards vice rather than virtue
I think that we’re in a culture where we expect tidy, feel-good endings [in] our news and entertainment worlds, which are so blended together … people kind of expect that there’s going to be some kind of closure to an event and we can move on.
This also renders us particularly vulnerable to two dangers.  One takes the form of well-meaning advice, what would be good practical reasoning if — and this is not the case — if the advisor actually had matters right.
… . a concern is that they try and turn around and tell other people “you need closure,” or when people assume that everyone understands closure the same way they do and that everyone experiences it the same way.
A second danger is posed by those who — perhaps believing their patter, perhaps just cynically selling — have an interested stake in steering others towards closure.
We also see closure become an essential part of sales talks, whether it’s in funeral, grief, or relationship advice industries, as well as a political argument for issues ranging from the death penalty to memorials … .Closure really has saturated our popular culture … because it’s an effective way to sell ideas and to sell politics and products. As a result, people have come to believe that they do need closure.

  … Funeral home directors use the concept of closure to encourage people to use their services; forensic pathologists try and sell autopsies using the idea of closure; wrongful death attorneys use closure to sell the idea of suing others in order to get peace; psychics tell people they can get closure through their services … .They cannot guarantee anyone closure; they probably don’t know even what it means to other people. They’re exploiting the grief and the pain in order to sell these products.
By accepting the claim that closure is needed, one might be malforming one’s own manifold of emotions, attitudes, habits, and actions — one might be allowing others to steer one wrong, and to worsen one in the process. It is definitely understandable why people experiencing a strong negative emotion would want to have something like closure — it is even understandable why others witnessing them would want it as well, for reasons ranging from the benign (empathizing with them or wanting them to feel better), to the selfish (wanting to push away the bother, discomfort, or unpredictability of other people’s emotions), even the exploitative or the deviant.  There are all sorts of possibilities here for development of varieties of vice, sanctioned and supported by popular culture.

The question that would remain open would be one of virtues. What sorts of virtues ought to bear on this question of closure, to guide and distinguish?  Can this made sense of in terms of virtues already recognized and understood, or are we in a situation analogous to that of Aristotle, who recognized and studied even at-that-time unnamed ones?

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