In psychotherapy no subject is off limits.
We need to be reminded of that sometimes.
Some clients (and some therapists) have been taught medical models of psychotherapeutic care that suggest therapy clients should be focusing on “personal problems” and not “politics.” That talking about their place in the larger world is psychotherapeutic “resistance.”
Well, sometimes it is but sometimes over-focusing on individual problems is the resistance.
I’ve had clients who have talked about nothing other than the latest headline in the Daily News, for years. And clients who are so insulated or overwhelmed that they make no reference whatsoever to 3,000 people dying a mile from their home on September 11th, or a hurricane that floods and incapacitates the very city they live in.
Some are too porous, unable to insulate themselves, buffeted by every news flash, every Op Ed. Some have lost, or never had, the ability to discern between what is their business, their next necessary step, their ultimate work in the world and what lies beyond them, what is a fruitless or even destructive diversion.
Others live as if the larger community has no impact upon them, as if they have no civic or collective responsibilities of any kind.
We all live, embedded, in a particular personal, relational, familial, local, national, international community.
REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her
minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE: What’s funny about that?
REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope.
~ Thorton Wilder, Our Town, Act 1
We are fragile pack animals living in a particular time, in a particular place, at a particular point – embedded most certainly in the March of History and maybe also in the Mind of God.
Our personal patterns of denial, anxiety, despair, action and paralysis can affect the course of history as surely as historical forces shape and build, contort, lift up, oppress or destroy our lives
My grandmother-in-law told us a story over and over (retold here with my husband’s permission) about how she had learned of the concentration camps from a refugee who had escaped the camps by some miracle, to whom she had offered a meal as he fled, passing through her small town in Hungary. Her assimilated Jewish husband and family didn’t believe her when she told them about what was coming their way. “You are being hysterical. It would never happen here. The Archbishop dines in our home!”
She wanted to flee. No one would listen. She was a canary in a coalmine, smelling the lethal gas long before the others who were focused on the problems and pleasures of everyday living. She could feel the vibration of the giant, pounding, destructive footsteps of a world historical event as it lurched toward her, soon to load her onto a cattle car annihilating her husband, her siblings, her nieces and nephews.
Her primal fear mounted, hysterical or valid, she couldn’t be certain, culminating in a choice between horrors: Two cyanide pills placed on the table. One for herself, one for her thirteen year old daughter.
“When they come they will put us in a terrible place, we will starve, we will be tortured. They may separate us. We will suffer. We will almost surely be killed. Or, we can take these pills now, together, and die peacefully. What do you choose?”
Our lives shape all of history and history shapes our whole lives.
But in each moment, all any of us can do is to assess, for ourselves: Are my fears founded? Are they over-reactive? Is this a cloying worry or a healthy fear? All any of us can do is to question ourselves: Am I too impervious? Am I in denial? Am I ignoring the signs and signals? Will I be on the wrong side of history? Or is this background noise that has nothing to do with me, that would be pointless to get caught up in?
Her daughter chose life. And they stayed together and survived the horrors of two deadly concentration camps – but the horror never left them. It shaped them forever, and their family and my family.
So: Sometimes I will explicitly ask clients how historical/political events are impacting them. I am certainly asking these questions now, at this point in time, in this particular moment in history.
Clients whose identities are marginalized or oppressed don’t assume I am safe to talk to unless I actively invite the content in. Other clients may simply not know that it’s considered legitimate for them to examine their place, their responses and responsibilities inside these events. Some need to be gently nudged awake or even shaken. Some need to be soothed. Some have constructed denial bubbles to insulate themselves but I can feel the anxiety churning underneath. A few know exactly how they are effected, monitoring their tendency to flood or to shut down or both – and actively work to stay calibrated and grounded. The activists I see are exhausted, absorbing so much vicarious and community based trauma they need extra permission to pace themselves. Some struggle so intensely with the pulls of their own internal conflicts – that there is scant energy left to take note of world events swirling around them.
The place where your identity makes contact with your community, your nation, and the historical moment is you too, and is absolutely as legitimate to discuss in psychotherapy as an argument with your partner or conflicts from childhood.
We can suppose we are insulated. But we aren’t really. It’s an illusion. We live in community. Our communities affect us like the water we drink, the air we breathe.
Almost everyone is feeling of powerless, worried, afraid of the deep polarizations taking place all around. Many are in active conflict, debate, estrangement with family and friends. Some feel that they are asphyxiating in avoidant silence. Some have drawn battle lines. Almost everyone expresses feeling simultaneously activated, and concerned that any action they may take will be impotent or destructive to themselves or others.
This tension of this particular place in time and history is a real psychological force that needs to be tended to and observed. We don’t know whether the tension will dissipate or constellate, and we don’t know how our choices will affect the outcome or how the outcomes will affect us.
Psychotherapy, at its best must make space for all of this too.
But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.