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Better the devil you know

Better the devil you know. Not just a Kylie pop anthem from the 1980’s, fondly remembered by those of us of questionable musical taste, but a theme tune that often provides the backdrop to so much that holds us back or frustrates us in our living. Better the devil you know, rather than the devil that you don’t.


Devils come in many different forms, and are very very clever. There are the obvious ones, of course, like the dependencies we wish we could do without - drinking, smoking, over (or under) eating, unhealthy relationships - but more subtle ones, too that we hang on to counterproductively for dear life. Perhaps the inclination to look for argument, even with those that we trust and love most, because we have so much experience in our lives of being unheard or misunderstood and our instinct is to come out fighting even when there isn’t a fight to be had. Or the habit of finding it easier to be alone rather than take the risk of connection, even when desperately lonely, because being alone doesn’t run the risk of being disappointed or hurt. Or even burying ourselves in work or good deeds rather than taking the risk of not needing to be needed. Living is frightening, it’s easier to hide in endeavour. Better the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t. We know who we are when we are…lonely, angry, busy. Changing all that is an effort and unsettling and, arguably, means having to do something deeply counterintuitive; letting something in us die in order for something else to be born in its place.


So, one of the reasons, I wonder, why we find it so hard to chose the devil we don’t know is because it makes us decide against an essential survival system upon which we depend upon for our life. Human beings are hard wired to survive. Put a pillow over our mouths and we’ll fight tooth and nail to push it away, set our house on fire and we’ll step over children in order to escape. We’re built to fight for life and the devil knows it. So when we find ourselves faced with wanting or needing to change something that has become integral to us we resist it like the plague because it means relinquishing an identity that has become familiar and comfortable, even if it hasn’t always been helpful or healthy. Even though we can see clearly that how we have come to live is no longer serving in our best interests - that something needs to change - we hang on to it because at least we know who we are when we are living that life. To live another seems as frightening as if it were a death and we fear that we won’t know ourselves when once transformed.


Yet the irony is that not knowing ourselves is what we yearn for, at least in the sense of being able to find something in us that is more than the familiar habits we’d like to move on from. We yearn to see more in us than currently we’re able, yearn to end our exploring by arriving where we started and know it as if for the first time, to paraphrase TS Elliot (Little Gidding). For this to happen it not only takes courage, it takes a certain willingness to leap. To let go of the familiar and make a choice to fall into an unknown space we’ve never dared encounter before. No one learns to swim by hanging onto the side There comes a moment where we are left only to trust that we can float and to discover that our floating will be a basis for exploring the depths.


Irving Yalom, psychotherapist and writer of very accessible books, once wrote that the promise of psychotherapy is one in which we might give up the hope of a better past. By that I understand him to mean that we can’t change what has been, and what has happened to us, but we can change our attachment to it and the hold it has on us. That by accepting that the past was what it was, by grieving for the losses it represents and letting go of the hope of what our life would have been had things been different, we can begin to find what it now might be, even in spite of what has been so painful and so demanding. That we can begin to find how the devil we don’t know is, in fact, better than the one that we do.


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