“There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.
This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”
~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.
And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.
We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.
Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.
They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory references to human objects. Any non-human object is most likely merely representative, a symbolic stand-in for a human one.
You can’t have a relationship with a non-human thing – can you?
Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.
I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or immersed in a mikvah.”
The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.
But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:
“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”
~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.
When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…
Heinz Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.
Searles might agree:
“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.
I do too.
A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:
A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…
Or a cat…
Or a dog…
Or even a white mouse.
A tree can be a different kind of a friend.
It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….
Or sometimes a place to swing.
A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.
It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.
The wind can be a friend too.
It sings soft songs to you at night
when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.
Sometimes it calls you to play.
It pushes you from behind
as you walk and makes
the leaves dance for you.
It is always with you
wherever you go,
and that’s how you know
it likes you.
~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, 1958
And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.
“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.
But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.
“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960“
What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?
Sometimes you don’t know who
are your friends.
Sometimes they are there all the time,
but you walk right past them
and don’t notice that they like you
in a special way.
And then you think you don’t have any friends.
Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…
and move very slowly,
and look around carefully,
to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…
Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…
or a tree that lets you climb it easily…
or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.
~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, 1958
So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.
At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.
I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.
I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.
I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.
The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.
A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?
A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.
An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970’s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance
A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers: drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.
A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.
A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.
A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.
The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960
It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.
I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.
And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.
We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world itself. We have affected each other. We have been affected.
Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.