Words that think for us: the past is always present

Seeking closure from the self-help lexicon
November 17, 2010

Psychologists have defined the way we speak about ourselves for almost a century. Words like “repressed,” “introverted” and “anal” have long since escaped their original therapeutic niche and entered general speech. Clinical psychiatry has also contributed its share: “autistic,” for instance, can now be used of anyone a bit nerdy. But the most important recent additions come not from psychoanalysis or psychiatry but from the world of self-help. Three of these—“damage,” “baggage” and “closure”—are particularly revealing. All three originated in America in the 1990s.

Damage connotes harm that is permanent, or at least hard to undo. A damaged vase can be stuck together but not made whole again. Damage thus contrasts with disease or injury, both of which can be righted, sometimes, through the natural healing process. It is a particularly sad word, especially as applied to the psyche. There is no redemption for the damaged, only comfort or “support.”

“Baggage” was first used as a metaphor in the 1960s, but only in conjunction with “political” and “intellectual.” Its union with “emotional” and “psychological” dates from the mid-1990s. Now it usually stands on its own. Unlike damage, baggage can be shed, but only with difficulty. We have a nasty tendency to “carry” baggage with us wherever we go, especially into new relationships.

“Closure” is still distinctly American—many Britons find it hard to say without an ironic American accent—but is rapidly being naturalised on this side of the Atlantic. Closure is what follows the resolution of a trauma, or the jettisoning of an unpleasant piece of baggage. It is an often elusive goal. Therapy workshops across the US are full of people on a never-ending quest for closure. Perhaps, sooner or later, they will admit that they are damaged.

All these words imply a self-understanding that is uniquely modern and western. The self, on this view, is forever in flight from its own past experiences. It seeks lightness, disengagement—emotional amnesia, in short. But as the word “damage” suggests, this goal is hard, perhaps impossible, to achieve. The past—heavy, surd, irredeemable—is too much with us. The more we flee from it, the more we pile it on. History is our fate.