Poincaré and the Subconscious

This week I had reason to refer to Poincaré and the Subconscious. Of course, Henri Poincaré was one of the last polymaths who was good at all area of mathematics. He lived in the last half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century.

Poincaré believed in the subconscious as a place where "background" work was always in progress, especially on mathematics, for he had many experiences in which things just came to him. Indeed, he would be doing something else other than mathematics and something he had been working hard on in his conscious efforts, perhaps in his study, would come to him in clear form, whereas when last he left it with his subconscious it was confusing and perplexing.

Some 18 years ago my wife and I spent over a year helping our daughter, Laura, battle her ovarian cancer. While fighting valiantly, she lost the battle and died 3 December 1998. During the time of her illness and after her death my subconscious was focused on caring for her and my family and then on grief that Laura was not experience the joy of continued life. I knew this because when I sat down to work on class material there was nothing there - it was a blank sheet. Previous to Laura's condition I would tell me wife I had to go up to my office and work on class. I always hinted that it was going to take a while and always I would be down in less than 15 minutes or so.

Why was I so fast in my prep work for class?  This was my subconscious working on ideas I had placed there when earlier I thought about the upcoming class. I was working in the background on ideas, presentation modes, activities, etc. in my subconscious and when the time came I essentially did a "dump" onto the paper or computer file which housed my notions for class. Sometimes it was practically complete, as is. At other times I had to do a few details. There was never a time before Laura's illness that it was a blank slate in such preparation, even after my 93 year-old father, who had lived a good long life, died.

My subconscious was held captive by fear of what was happening to my daughter and then grief at her death. I could not let go and the part of me that held on hardest was my subconscious. When I would sit down to prepare for class there was nothing there. Nothing had been churning in my subconscious, only grief. It was hard to create from scratch and there was always a blank page staring me in the face.

When I began to get my subconscious back I felt guilty that I was not grieving deeply enough for Laura, but I could not fight it. My subconscious was telling me that life will go on. The subconscious was healing from the hard work of grief and giving itself to creativity, slowly at first but then fully. Yes I will get occasional shrills of grief, but my subconscious will return to work on the more mundane things of mathematics and memory processing (when compared to the death of our child, all is mundane!)

It took me about a year until my subconscious was able to function the way it did before Laura's illness and death. But I knew it was happening to me. I could feel it. I was able to pull out the needed ideas and approaches, the examples and projects, the activities and assignments, I would need for class the next day.

Our family very much misses Laura and when we see other young folks celebrating life's gifts we say to ourselves, "Why not this for Laura?" We savor those moments. We cherish her memory. However, my subconscious remembers her and my grief and fear, but it is fair to me and now gives of itself to my creative efforts.

I am grateful to my subconscious for being there then when I needed grieving and now when I need creativity.

I was able to share that sentiment, the realization I had learned about the subconscious with my colleague in the loss of his wife after a five year battle with her cancer. Such news does not minimize his loss. But, it is my hope that by sharing this human experience with him that when the time comes for his subconscious to complete its grief cycle he will remember what I shared with him and not feel guilty as he "stops" grieving and returns to his normalcy with his subconscious addressing and working on the everyday things it needs to for him to function. Meanwhile, we will both miss our loved one and feel the pings of grief, but not totally surrender our subconscious.



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