Phuc Tran, who as a child barely escaped death in the last days before Saigon fell, speaks in a TED talk about how grammar and culture shape one another and create different worldviews. English, he notes, employs the subjunctive tense–the could haves, would haves, and should haves. It communicates hope, imagination, and possibility, but also regret and longing.
Vietnamese, on the other hand, offers no such grammar. Lacking the subjunctive, it traffics in the indicative–how things are rather than how things might be or could have been. Tran credits to this foible of grammar his parents’ resiliency in tackling the survival needs of their transplanted family: “There was no psychic energy drained to focus on what could have been.”
Tran, however, thinking primarily in the English of his adopted country, often imagined the What ifs? of past, present, and future, musings his elders saw as pointless. The subjunctive tense allowed him to dream but also proved a quagmire when life didn’t pan out as he wished it would. “Accepting things for what they are, their indicativeness,” says Tran, “was my first step away from depression and anxiety.”
Tran’s talk led me to reflect upon how often we use the subjunctive in therapeutic dialogue: “What would it be like if you could let yourself ____.” “What could you have done instead?” “How should your mother have responded?” “If you could feel, what might it be?” The subjunctive softens defenses and helps gain access to feelings, fantasies, and memories, allowing the patient’s experience to emerge without too much interference. Most importantly, it fosters the expansive space in which possibility and creativity thrive.
Yet “the dark side of the subjunctive,” as Tran calls it, can lead to fixation on an unchangeable past. We see the dilemma play out between what we might call the more indicative approaches, like CBT, and the more subjunctive, analytic therapies that plumb the darker recesses of thwarted possibility. Who among depth psychotherapists and their patients has not wondered where the balance lies between past and present, what might have been versus what is? There is wisdom, as well as limitation, in Tran’s father’s outlook.