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Tom Greening: Memories and Reflections

A few hours ago I learned the sad news that my long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Tom Greening, died. I was blessed to know Tom for almost 20 years. We first met at a convention of the American Psychological Association. I vividly remember standing in the hallway of the convention center talking with Tom about poetry. A few years later, I was able to help Tom publish a book of his poetry, Words Against the Void: Poems by an Existential Psychologist. Our friendship began very much with a shared love for poetry, dogs, and existential psychology, though it grew to encompass much more.

Tom’s biggest contributions to psychology were serving as editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and serving as a faculty member at Saybrook where he mentored hundreds of students. In both these roles, he pushed many people to become better writers and, through this, made an invisible contribution to countless publications on humanistic and existential psychology. At the time of his death, he was the only living person who had been affiliated with Saybrook since its inception. He was an initial board member, then a faculty member, and, at the time of his death, professor emeritus. Throughout this time, he was always a staunch defender of its mission and legacy rooted in humanistic psychology. But as a faculty member and editor, Tom did not spend as much time on his own writings. Throughout the time that I knew Tom, he was often coming up with important ideas, such as existential shattering, to which he would say, “Someone should write about that.” He would find students and sometimes colleagues who would develop these topics. Because of his commitment to the role of mentor and editor, many of his vast, important contributions were not recognized except by those who were close to him.

I would regularly say to and of Tom that I believed that he often thought in poetry. I remember sitting near him at many conference events and watching him write on a notepad. Toward the end, he would say that he wrote a poem on the theme that was being discussed. Sometimes he would stand and read this to the group, and other times he would share it with just a few people. I’m sure others were never shared. Regardless, most of these poems captured deep meanings from the presentation.

Not everyone loved Tom’s poems—or at least the volume of poetry that he produced and shared. They were often quirky and humorous, but also could be powerful and illuminating—frequently at the same time. The humor would often disarm the difficult nature of the topic, such as his poems on death. And his final book of poetry, Into the Void: An Existential Psychologist Faces Death Through Poetry, was comprised of many poems, often tinged with sarcasm, that reflected his own facing of death. In my conversations with him in the last years, he would often say, “What should I do with all these poems? Will anyone still read them? Do they matter?” I would assure him that yes, Tom, they matter. They may never get the readership of Mary Oliver or Rumi, but they mattered.

In 2015, Michael Moats and I gave a workshop on poetry and grief at the Existential-Humanistic Institute Conference. We read a couple of poems on pet loss. Tom attended and was often crying through the workshop, even as he shared his own thoughts and poems. That night, we stood just outside the elevator as he waited for his ride—and then as his ride patiently waited for him—talking about dogs, poetry, and loss. We decided to write a book of poetry on pet loss, which became Our Last Walk: Using Poetry for Grieving and Remembering Our Pets. It was very important to Tom that we had “remembering” in the subtitle. He emphasized the importance of remembering as part of the grieving process. Since this time, I often incorporate this into work with my own clients, finding that the remembering is often a critical part of their grieving. I am sure in the coming days, as I continue to reflect upon Tom, there will be some poems of my own about Tom as I strive to remember him and our friendship.

The breadth of Tom’s poems was impressive, including a couple of children’s poetry books. I purchased a copy of one of these, Animals I Have Known, for my sons when they were younger. One of my sons, in particular, loved this book. It became his favorite book and Tom his favorite author. After Tom had a stroke that made it difficult for him to get around, I planned a visit to see him. I asked my son if he wanted to go. He was excited about the opportunity to meet his favorite author. The picture we still have of Tom with my son and this book is a bit more precious to me today.

While dogs and poetry were central to our friendship, as evident by where I was drawn through the first parts of this reflection, there was much more to our friendship. When I decided it was time to move on from the faculty position I was at in 2009, I emailed Tom and a few friends letting them know and asking them to let me know of any positions that were open. To my surprise, Tom quickly alerted me that there was a position open at Saybrook University. I immediately inquired to find out that it was closed to new applications as of a few days prior. Tom, along with one other colleague at Saybrook, wrote letters urging them to still consider my application given that the review process had just begun. Soon after, I received a letter from Human Resources that I could still apply if I submitted my application promptly. I did so and a few months later received an offer to join the faculty at Saybrook. Though much has changed since then, at that time I viewed Saybrook as the premiere school in existential psychology in the world.

When I arrived at Saybrook, Tom quickly began giving me tips on how to succeed as a good faculty member, helped me recognize the minefields that are present at almost all institutions and connected me with some of the top students at Saybrook. I was deeply thankful and know that the success I had at Saybrook owed much to Tom. Though 9-years later I decided to move on from Saybrook and full-time academia, my early years at Saybrook were some of the most meaningful of my career.

Tom retired from Saybrook as memory problems set in. It was sad for me to see Tom leave, but also recognized it was time. I stayed connected with him, including regularly visiting him at his home in the Los Angeles area until he moved to Tulsa, and then having a final visit with him there earlier this year. He would share many stories on the history of humanistic and existential psychology on these visits that I will long remember and cherish. He continued to remain very concerned about four things right through the end: 1) if he made any difference, 2) what would happen to his poetry, 3) what would happen to the future humanistic and existential psychology, and 4) the fate of the world. I regularly assured him that humanistic and existential psychology were going strong and that his poetry would be remembered by many. I shared stories that I heard from former students and colleagues about his impact on them. I told him that he was my son’s favorite author. And I would tell him how much he meant to me. Sadly, it was more difficult to provide assurances of the direction of the world, but he appreciated that I was honest with him about the challenges we face here on earth.

One of Tom’s proudest contributions was to peace movements and international relations. He would smile when talking about his memories of traveling internationally, including on some trips he felt had some risk. Yet he believed in peace and dialogue, and he was committed to it.

I could write much more of my memories of Tom but will close with one last memory that extended to just a few days ago. My family and I visited the concentration camp in Dachau less than one week before Tom’s death. I shared with my sons a quote from Tom following his visit:

“I finally went to a concentration camp for the first time in my life last August… I wanted to do that, and am glad I did. It was a very powerful experience. It sort of felt like paying one’s existential dues… That if you are going to be alive in the 20th century or 21st century, that you are going to claim to be alive and had lived in that time, then what should you be aware of, or in touch with?… There’s a whole bunch of existential facts that one ought to really… embrace, or acknowledge, even feel existential guilt about.” ~ Tom Greening, 2010, (cited in On Becoming an Existential Psychologist: Journeys of Contemporary Leaders by Trent Claypool [dissertation])

Thank you, Tom, for your friendship, your compassion, your advocacy, and for helping many of us pay our existential dues. You have enriched my life and helped me become a better person.


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