what-if (1)

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.

Mourning what has been lost or never was–and dreaming about what might be–is fundamental. So is acceptance of reality. The psyche, like language, is enriched by both the subjunctive and the indicative.
Where has the subjunctive led you?
(Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Impulse, an electronic publication of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy)

10 thoughts on “Subjunctive/Indicative

  1. So fascinating that our language shapes our thoughts and our growth as humans. I love hearing how different cultures approach the world differently. Gives me hope for all sorts of possibilities. But of course all the “could haves” and “maybes” can be just another form of navel gazing if taken to an extreme. It is probably best of we can balance between the perspectives you write about. Thanks for sharing something new to think about.

  2. You leave us with an intriguing question which I will need to think more upon. But here I want to say how much I enjoyed reading Subjunctive/Indicative. As a linguistically oriented person and teacher of English as a second language, I am interested especially in the implications of different grammars and this analysis of Vietnamese was new to me as I have had only a few Vietnamese students. This explains some of the difficulties they have with our grammar. And as a former therapist I was most interested in the connections you made to therapeutic language and interaction. Indeed, the psyche is enriched by both subjunctive and indicative. Human language perspectives are endlessly fascinating.

  3. I think this post is especially fascinating. I have long been strongly in favor of daydreaming and enjoying memories, while my brother has tried to convince me of the value of staying in the moment. (I can see his point of view better now.) Anyway, your essay gets right to the heart of this question in an unexpected and intriguing way. Thanks!

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