I’d like to continue my series about the things in my office. Today, let me introduce you to the clock.
My relationship with the clock is a troubled one. Sometimes it’s my savior, my teammate, my partner, other times it’s my rival. It’s a valuable tool and a necessary evil. It’s the symbol of all I hate, but it, of course, doesn’t have any feelings about me. It just ticks steadily, no matter how I feel.
I actually have four clocks in my office; two on walls, one on the computer, and one on my wrist; more than I have in any other room I inhabit. I position them so that there will be no place I sit where I cannot see at least one. This one is the most dominant one for me. It’s mounted above the couch, so that I can surreptitiously glance at it without anyone ever suspecting. It’s also constantly watching me.
If you do catch me looking at the clock, please don’t think it’s because you’re boring me, or I’m dying for the session to be over; but I could be feeling that way. The clock is the device that limits my exposure to the toxicity that people necessarily bring into my office. There is a limit to what I can take; and, when I stay within my limit, I remain fresh and able to pay attention. Looking at the clock does not make it go faster, it only tells me what I can do with the time we have remaining.
The clock serves the same function as the net and lines do in tennis, or the picture frame does in art: it not only limits the length of the session, but it affects what can be created within. A session naturally has two movements: opening up and closing down. In the opening up phase, I’m doing everything I can to get you talking, to go deeper than we have gone before. My questions will be open ended. I’ll welcome digressions because I never know whether that tangent will bring us to something important. If the opening up goes well, you’ll lose track of time; and I might, too, but the clock is there to remind me. You might go on and on because very rarely do you get a chance to open up like this without someone interrupting or imposing their own agenda on what you have to say. However, you have to stop sometime and be prepared to return from the artificial world of a therapy session to the world as it is.
By quarter-of, the clock tells me I should be switching to closing down mode. I start interrupting more, summarizing, making suggestions, telling illustrative stories, sharing my impressions. I’m like a surgeon sewing up a gaping wound, a barber cleaning off the loose hairs, or a carpenter sweeping the sawdust before he knocks off for the day. I don’t like it when people leave my office still crying, although I don’t mind if they cry when they’re here.
A session has to end. We can’t go on and on for an interminable length of time; we both have other things to do and there would be no urgency to use the time well we have if we did not have to stop. The clock represents the reality of reality: the fact that we do not have all the time in the world. It’s a little like death, in that way. It means that all good things must come to an end, and all bad things, also.
Incidentally, a session is fifty minutes, not the full sixty, so that we can close down, tie up any lose ends, write a check, set the next appointment, and have you out before the next person arrives. It’s more confidential that way and, besides, it gives me a chance to pee.
So, I use the clock a lot. It’s my partner in a session; but I do feel ambivalent about it. There are some days I question whether I should even have one in my office.
Here’s one reason I question the clock. While a session must end, I don’t think there’s any good reason why every session has to be the same length, except so that it can fit, like a puzzle piece, neatly between other sessions. One of the most provocative shrinks of all, Jacques Lacan, experimented with variable length sessions. A session was over when he said it was over, whether after five minutes or five hours. Of course, Lacan got himself kicked out of the psychoanalytic establishment for doing that. Other therapists thought there was something shady about him. I don’t think he was trying to cheat patients out of their time, but it looked that way.
Lacan liked to end a session right at the most tense, dramatic moment, when a crucial question was formulated, or a contradiction was encountered. The point of psychoanalysis, he thought, was not to achieve closure around an issue, but to open things up and help people be more comfortable with the lack of closure. Good therapy is a complex process of untangling multiple associative threads, and bringing into question ideas that are arbitrarily fixed in the mind. Therefore, to a Lacanian, good therapy only consists of the opening up phase; closing up just leaves you with a false sense of certainty. He didn’t mind if clients left his office crying. He thought it was better that way.
Perhaps the length of a therapy session should be like the length of a life. Most would end after fifty minutes, but some would be arbitrarily cut short, just as we’re getting started, and others would go on, long after anything meaningful had ended.
The other reason to not have a clock in my office is that a clock doesn’t have anything to do with anything good that will happen here. I’m sure you have had moments in your life that are so packed with meaning and importance, they might have lasted years; and maybe you’ve had years that could be summed up in a phrase. Time spent in therapy is the same; the value of a session is measured more by what is said by the client than what is said by the clock. However, shrinks are not paid that way. We’re not paid piece work, so much for every a-ha moment. We’re paid by the hour.
Some clients know to use the clock to their advantage. If you have something to say, but don’t really want to talk about it, there’s always the possibility of waiting till the last minute to let it out. We therapists have a name for this. It’s called the doorknob disclosure. I generally don’t mind being doorknobbed. Whatever you have to do to say what you need to say is fine with me. Besides, I’ll make note of it and bring it up early next time if I have to.
The clock, or, at least a sense of finitude, is as crucial a component of the therapy session as the walls on which it hangs. Just as the walls provide privacy, the clock sets this time apart as special, where the usual rules of interaction are suspended. Everything is different in this hour. For an hour, you can let the gates down, open the windows and doors, and don’t have to worry about the barbarians breaking in. But the clock also represents everything we’re working against: the remorseless rule of nature, the restrictions of time, and the demands of others. When we accept the clock, we’re accepting life as it’s given to us, moment by moment, for a limited duration.