Belgian psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter fell into ‘a fateful trouble’: cancer. It has not changed his ideas about life, he says, previously confirmed. And in this, man is fundamentally lonely.
In the fall of 2021, cancer hits him ‘like a blow to the jaw, the diagnosis came completely unexpectedly’. A year later, after surgery and chemotherapy, Dirk De Wachter warns about his limited energy. After which the Belgian psychiatrist passionately plunges into the conversation for an hour and a half. He repeatedly refers to himself as a lucky guy.
It remains to be seen: his form of cancer kills a majority of patients within five years. It is a statistic that leaves him, at the age of 62, ‘not unconcerned’, but he also puts it into perspective: ‘It is a fateful trouble that falls to me, like so many people.’ The fact that he considers himself lucky is due to his being ‘well surrounded’: first of all by his wife who is a GP ‘and just as level-headed as I am’, and by his three adult children. But also through many friends, including doctors, and the sympathy of many compatriots: ‘Every day I receive messages from people who light candles and pray for me. That’s wonderful, it’s comforting. Although I also find it uncomfortable. There are so many people dying of cancer who don’t have my silly fame.’
It can be traced back to his books, first and foremost Borderline Times from 2012. Intended as a critique of the diagnostic practice of his colleagues, it is perceived by a wide audience as an indictment of a hardening society. This trend is disastrous for the sensitive souls among us, such as psychologically vulnerable people, argues De Wachter: ‘Suddenly I was standing in front of full halls of young people applauding this professor.’
With the book he places himself in the footsteps of ‘anti-psychiatrist’ Jan Foudraine. That set Who is made of wood? already in the 1970s that not the patient, but society is sick. De Wachter read it as a 15-year-old: ‘It struck me deeply, it suited the counterculture in which I found myself.’ It puts him on the trail of psychiatry, just like The evenings by Gerard Reve does: ‘Phenomenal, the inner monologue of Frits van Egters. I recognized his existential loneliness and became fascinated by people’s thoughts.’
This is how he came to the profession that he sees as ‘a vocation’ almost half a century later: ‘It is said that psychiatrists fulfill the tasks that priests used to perform. That is a bit simplistic, but it contains a grain of truth. For me it’s about offering comfort for all the sorrows of life.’
You see man as fundamentally lonely, ‘that is typical of our species’. Why do you think that?
“We are squeezed out of our mother’s body and cut off. From that moment on, that symbiotic relationship has been lost. Our yearning for love throughout life is a constant effort to restore that relationship. But that is doomed to fail, we remain lonely. It will never be like in the womb again.’
That doesn’t immediately make a person permanently lonely, does it?
‘Yes, because we can never feel that heavenly connection again. Occasionally, but always in short supply. You might think: what a sad story. But the great thing is: the shortage encourages us to search, to try, we want so badly to eliminate it. That explains our passion for love, which we need because of loneliness.’
Do you actually experience your own life as lonely?
‘Now I have to be careful not to end up in a kind of sadness, but the answer is: yes. As I lay in the hospital, near death, I felt incredibly lonely. Whenever my wife or a nurse came in, I was happy as a child. The need for closeness was incredibly pronounced, precisely because of my loneliness.
‘That I can endure it is mainly due to the love that I received so abundantly in my youth. My late parents loved me very much, I am convinced of that. Don’t get me wrong: I am not an unhappy person, my loneliness is carried by the basic trust that I experienced as a child. So I don’t feel lonely, I am. My loneliness is very well surrounded. As a result, I have confidence in my fellow man and I can allow others. Without that basic trust, loneliness can become unbearable. I come across that a lot in my work.’
‘You cannot know the other’, as you quote the French philosopher Levinas. Isn’t that a painful realization, especially for a psychiatrist?
‘I would rather say: liberating. The illusion that we could fully know the other person is to cage him, even to rape the other person. The starting point must be right: respect for being fundamentally different, the unknowable of the other. That is the human condition, the loneliness that can never be bridged. Not even with our beloved. Or rather: especially not with our loved one.’
Why especially not?
‘The better we know someone, the more we realize that we can never fully understand that other person. The same goes for my wife. That’s not tragic, because it keeps me curious about her. We continue to speak and I can still be surprised by her. We continue to find each other interesting in the subtleties of existence.’
What about knowing yourself? Is that even more difficult?
‘I don’t know if we can put that in a graph, but yes, certainly: we remain strange to ourselves and only know ourselves in the gaze of the other. I also agree with Levinas on that point. And that insight is also redeeming. It makes life easier. You can be more lenient with your mistakes if you realize that you cannot fully understand yourself. That is not terrifying, rather an affirmation of our human condition. Let’s be humble. Western man tends to think that he can understand, grasp, control, buy and arrange everything. But that is not possible, man is a mystery.’
The other cannot know him, but at the same time he wants above all to be seen by the other.
‘Yes, that is a deep need. It’s the genius ending of The evenings, when Frits says: ‘It has been seen, it has not gone unnoticed.’ That is the essence of existence: to be seen in attachment and loving by your beloved, your children, your friends as meaningful and caring and able to take care of them.’
But there’s something tragic about wanting to be seen, knowing that the other person can’t know you, isn’t there?
‘Yes, but there is also a joy in that, namely in the moments of seeing and being seen. I am not a Buddhist who says that our life consists of suffering. Fortunately, sometimes real contact, connectedness arises. Those are important moments. These mainly have to do with caring for one’s fellow man, with meaning something to someone. And then, again following Levinas, I am talking about la petite motley, the little goodness: a smile, a hand, a short conversation, a moment of silence next to each other, an encouraging touch. I encounter this in my work, but I have also experienced it myself in recent months. My ideas about life have not changed because of my illness, on the contrary. They are, perhaps that sounds pretentious, just confirmed.’
Are you also referring to your mortality and your view of it?
“Death has come closer to me in a nasty way. I’m not insensitive to that, I’m not that stoic. But I still see the meaning of life in its finiteness, in Heidegger’s vision: zum Tode live. Because we die, we must mean something. I look for the answer to that very pragmatically in being meaningful to the other; being able to answer calls for help, assisting someone in need. I’m not just talking about care professions, but about the caring existence that everyone can aspire to.’
And after our death the great nothing follows?
‘That’s still too metaphysical for me, the big nothing. No, life ends through the physical end. I understand people who embrace ideas about heaven or reincarnation as ways to shape our hard-to-accept finiteness. I respect that. But I myself have a sartrian idea about it, where I only remain present for a while in the mind and life of my wife, children, friends. I hope they say to each other on a terrace: ‘Dirk wasn’t a bad man after all’, or something like that. Therein lies eternal life, even if it is not so eternal and lasts three generations at the most.’
Don’t your books play a role in this regard?
‘I see their importance as secondary. I do not think: you will be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gonethat wonderful, ironic statement by Leonard Cohen in the Tower of Song. With that distance I also look at my books. In light of my death, they don’t really matter.’
Where do you take comfort from, except your neighbors? Perhaps philosophy, art or religion help you?
‘I just published a book, Consolations, which I needed to write it, now that fate has struck me. Philosophy has always been a source of comfort to me, because it helps me realize the complexity of existence. But that also falls short. The great philosophers say: we do not know. Then there’s the art. Literature approaches subjective life better than science. A great novel is closer to reality as I experience it than a brain scan.
‘Michel Houellebecq is the writer I know best. It descends not only into the braincase, but also into the genital apparatus. He pre-eminently describes the radical loneliness of man. That is why he is sometimes portrayed as a cynic. Very wrong. Especially in his latest novel, about a man who has cancer, so my story, he shows himself above all as a man who is looking for love.
‘Religiously, I call myself a ‘Christian non-theistic person’, an absurd contradiction. People then shout, “How can you be Christian without believing in God?” Still, that’s my position. My uncle, who was a missionary in the Congo, said at the end of his life: “Whether there is a heaven and a God, I do not know, but I strongly believe in the message of love from Jesus.” I agree very well with that. I am a romantic who believes in love and literature. But when it comes down to it, I am above all a down-to-earth person. That usually also applies to the prospect of my death. Sometimes the membrane tears, I’m too angry. Fortunately I can then show myself to be a sensitive person.’