“Could it be that the analyst’s insights are less important than his idiom, expressed as a process of listening and commenting?” – Christopher Bollas
This week’s podcast release is a conversation with one of my oldest friends, psychotherapist Nicholas Balaisis. One of the facts that I mentioned in our interview is that he and I have had the same therapists in at least 3 cases. Over the years, this has afforded a depth of conversation and reflection unique amongst my peers. It has allowed us a language to express ourselves in subtle and comprehensive ways. I believe this is a valuable and meaningful insight as it cuts to the heart of the psychotherapeutic process and why it helps us transcend our situation and make further sense of our worlds.
Nick references in our conversation the hunger that a lot of people show up to therapy with. There is perhaps a blow to some part of our life or identity, and parts of us that have been plaguing us finally are too much to deal with and seek out the therapeutic space. Increasingly, “help” has been digitized. For instance, the explosion of online shopping and the mental health sphere has followed suit with apps and relationships with counsellors that can take place over text or in chat boxes. I am not denigrating these solutions, and, if one can establish a “window” with another human being that allows for the expression of discontent and affords a certain degree of scrutiny, I can very well imagine its benefit; in fact, that might be the entire point of this article.
The evolution of our consciousness is a lifelong process. In many ways, it relies in the beginning on a certain degree of predictability and stability. To take a dramatic example, one can think of the movie “Life Is Beautiful” starring Roberto Benigni. In the film, Benigni plays the role of a young boy’s father during the second world war when they are interned in a Nazi concentration camp. Through his humour and imagination, Benigni protects his child from the harsh reality of their situation by creating a fantastical world that interprets the more dire and violent aspects of what is going on. This is the perfect metaphor for the role of the parent. Although most upbringings are not nearly as pressure-filled as in this context, it’s a good example of how the parent’s imagination is intended to mediate our early life and act as a membrane between the internal and external worlds.
Many life events and circumstances can affect and interrupt this process. One might argue that that is what life is, a colourful, rich tapestry of particular stories that we each carry with us as we are moulded and tossed around in the world; why else then would we be so fascinated by storytelling in the form of books, movies or even a good conversation with a friend if not for the rich effectual experience of being moved and challenged by ideas and experiences. On the other hand, it appears that when our sense of safety is interrupted too early, in too dramatic a fashion or through chronically neglectful behaviours by others, especially our parents or caregivers, the human organism can develop strategies to survive that have physiological and emotional consequences that can make it hard to settle and relate to the world in a good enough way.
This is why we as a species are inundated by phenomena that interrupt our attention, our ability to focus and trust, and physiological symptoms that often have no clear origin or purpose. The ability to interpret our world, feel and experience both the joys and disappointments of life, are predicated on a good enough vessel; fundamental cracks in that apparatus can wreak havoc though on our basic sense of being able to tolerate the frustrations and vicissitudes of life. This is where the therapeutic process can be a tether and mediating space to put Humpty Dumpty together again in a good-enough fashion.
We ultimately need to strike from our minds the notion of achieving a kind of static equilibrium as we will be sorely disappointed. What I mean in this regard, is that we cannot return to the garden of Eden, and we must appreciate how seductive that fantasy is. I believe this is especially hard for those that emigrate or emerge from communities, cultures, and countries with very homogenous identities, particularly if the individual difference was tied up in a collective religious and/or political ideology; the fall in these cases is quite dramatic and the fissure is deep and wide. What that entails on a practical level is a vast chasm between one’s old identity and one’s current situation. To go back to my initial analogy in the film Life Is Beautiful, the instinct of the parent is to create an environment where the young boy can at the very minimum come into the world and experience a continuity of reality that befits his stage in life; this may set him up for the cells in his body and his mind to remember a firm and loving hand. I realize that this image is also complicated as the boy is also set up for a fall, given the vast distance between the world his father is creating and the actual reality, but what is more essential for us human beings when we deal with deep disappointment is not that our world caters to our needs, but rather, that we have a felt sense of safety and trust so that we can navigate these eventualities.
The role of the therapeutic process in this regard, to return to my relationship with Nick, our shared history, and the didactic approach of our shared development, is fundamentally tied to the maintenance of language, symbol, and expression throughout our various ordeals. If preparing for our deaths is one of the ultimate goals of the organism, in the sense that we must bear the unbearable in this regard throughout our lifetime, then there is no “end” to therapy, there is no magic line where we are “done”. The dialectical process of exploration with another human being is therefore sometimes akin to Beginini’s role with his son, not from the point of view of so vehemently shielding one from the realities of one’s life but creating a membrane solid and supple enough to withstand the aggressive and sometimes confusing forces of our existence that can knock us over and leave us bereft of understanding, compassion, and faith. If this can become an ongoing dialogue that keeps us flexing in the wind like a well-built skyscraper then maybe we stand a chance at crying when we are sad, laughing when we are happy, and sleeping when we are tired; this seems to be a good enough goal.