unfinished business

Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece.

-Vladimir Nabokov

Unfinished business wakes you up in the morning. Unfinished business goes to bed with you at night. A life without unfinished business could easily appear as the epitome of boredom. When business is finished and there is now nothing to do and nowhere to go, new business is initiated, which may carry on for years, or decades, or lifestimes. We may very well die with unfinished business, and be reborn, again, because of unfinished business. The initiation of business, and yet unfinished, goes way back before recorded history.

The notion of rebirth is relevant to the notion of unfinished business. The cycles of rebirth are parallel to the cycles of waking. We sleep to wake again; we die to become again. Becoming is the nature of manifest life in all its forms. That which is yet to become visible is contained within the present form in the same way the fully blossomed fruit tree is inside the sapling.

In a more limited framework, unfinished business, a term used in Gestalt Therapy, is

.the phrase therapists use to describe the emotions and memories surrounding past experiences that a person has avoided or repressed. The feelings around the event are not fully processed at the time, often because they are too overwhelming or traumatic.

The critical point with unfinished business is ‘memory.’ Memory is the repository of experiences, a vast storehouse of impressions. Memory is a multi-leveled system of complex code including personal, cellular, muscular, generational and genetic information. What we are today is predicated on multi-leveled memory. What we become is predicated on memory, and imagination.

Memories are, of course, mixed. There are positive, negative and neutral memories. Those memories of an original very intense experience are usually not neutral but either positive or negative, or some blend of both. Childhood, and adolescence, is filled with intense experiences, to the child, or adolescent. So very often parents or adults will tell a child traumatized by an intense negative experience to ‘deal with it’ or ‘stiff upper lip,’ or ‘you’re okay.’ When a parent tells a child ‘you are okay’ when the child is hurting is to put the child in a quandary. Is hurting okay? Is the parent lying? For a child, or adolescent, discounting painful experience can become the norm due to social convention. The hurt is banished away, to not be experienced, not be acknowledged. As a result of this social convention, most all adults carry unfinished business from childhood and adolescence. Nobody makes it into adulthood unscathed.

Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you – and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!

-John Irving

Generally, we are attracted to the positive, and repelled by the negative in much the same way we strive for pleasure and run from pain. So, typically, painful negative memories are abandoned, banished, ostracized, neglected, ignored, swept under the rug or locked in a basement. One need only put themselves into a quiet, solitary place without external distractions to quickly get a glimpse of the internal agitation, irritation, disturbance, which may be the stirrings of long forgotten negative memories, painful experiences locked away, hidden, but alive and seeking embrace. These ‘undesirable’ experiences, being an integral part of ‘self,’ become fragmented from ‘self.’ The integration of these rejected aspects of ‘self’ is a healthy business, as yet unfinished.

The significance of opening the door to painful, traumatic memories is equivalent to a slave breaking free. Repressed, suppressed, oppressed and depressed memories continue to have influence in day to day relationships with others. They can control one’s behavior and decisions. They invariably color the mind in some ways such that all experience is filtered through the haze of unfinished business. There can be projection of one’s own hidden hurts outwardly towards others. For example, a person who belittles and demeans others for their mistakes may do so as a way of belittling and demeaning their own failures, learned from parents, adults, peers, the norms of the day, banished to the dungeon of unconscious memory storage. Most people are familiar with how memory can ignite moods, feelings, thoughts and even actions. The smell of a favorite childhood food can, now, as an adult, recall the feelings, moods, even thoughts, associated with that memorable experience. The sound of a car backfiring can ignite vivid memories of warfare, the sound of crying can bring forth memories into conscious awareness of our own past tears.

Life… is not simply a series of exciting new ventures. The future is not always a whole new ball game. There tends to be unfinished business. One trails all sorts of things around with one, things that simply won’t be got rid of.

-Anita Brookner

The unconscious memory storage banks are not just filled with banished negative memories; there are plenty of pleasant and joyous memories as well. But, when you consider the amount of mild to moderate dissatisfactions and frustrations in any given day, there will likely be more disappointments than pleasures and more frustrations than joys. Frustration and disappointment is a chronic feature of day to day experience, in large part because of expectations which are not met. Broken dreams, shattered hopes, unmet needs and wants, loss both great and small, and even gain of anything unwanted, all contribute to the storehouse of individual memory, which is a quantum, a packet, of generational memory, which is contained within yet more expansive boundaries of planetary memory. A huge proportion of memory is thankfully unconscious. And yet, contained within that unconscious memory is information about who and what we are, as a species, both negative and positive, malevolent and benevolent, cruel and kind. It’s easy to be kind, benevolent and positive, or cruel, malevolent and negative, when external circumstances are favorable and encouraging to either. To be benevolent in a malevolent situation, kind in a cruel setting, positive in a negative world, is to be rebellious, defiant, and oppositional all of which is as much a part of full consciousness as is conformist, compliant and complacent. The ‘mark of man’ is capacity to focus, emphasize, affirm, develop, reinforce, promote and support one over the other at any given time in space. The possibilities of a more wholistic, coherent, congruent, integrated life is available to those who so choose to bring forth those qualities of consciousness.

So, as you go bed this evening acknowledge your unfinished business as relevant to your well-being and as such of value; honor it. The business of becoming conscious, and to begin healing the more surface layers of unfinished business, is, even at the outset, a mysterious process of transformation. Day by day, and night by night, that which is not conscious, hidden away, compartmentalized, out of sight and out of mind, seeks in subtle and sublime ways integration into the whole ‘self,’ strives in sincerity to be known, embraced and integrated into consciousness as an aspect of ‘ whole self’ not unlike a jigsaw puzzle piece finding its place.

Promoting tolerance and human dignity is one of mankind’s unfinished challenges.

-Ehud Olmert


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