The Seed

To see things in the seed, that is genius – Lao Tzu

At the initial consultation with any new case, I search for the seeds. The small, encapsulated point of contact that is filled with all the potential for whatever might be able to grown between us, as well as the seeds of destruction: the previous patterns and pre-existing conditions that will challenge any healthy connection and may even block our growth together entirely.

And there is something else I am scanning for as well. Something more mystical maybe – something that a good evidence-based skeptic would scoff at; a sense of the soul-seed of the person sitting across from me.

There are intuitive indicators internal and external: a client who reports a dream that led them to me, a certain kind of swelling identification, a little empathic heartbreak, the wish to soothe and console or a restrained impulse toward all-out rescue. A sensation that makes my heart feel bigger than it was before we were introduced, a rising courage to withstand something I had been afraid of seconds earlier, for the sake of a just-met person whose name I am not quite sure how to spell yet.

This Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard-seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet. This Soul of mine is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds. (The Upanishads, Chandogya 3.14.2-3)

I look for some intuitive confirmation that we may be right for each other and that I can provide the necessary conditions for their truest destiny, the best, deepest, highest, hardiest Self to emerge. I am trying to assess if I have the resources to support them in withstanding and thriving even if the elements are less than ideal, if the therapeutic connection I can provide will prove to be fertile soil.

But even if I spy these tiny potentialities, there is no predicting with any degree of certainty what direction they will grow, or if they will take root at all. What we hope for together may not manifest. Who you think someone will become may bear no resemblance to who they turn out to be. Nothing is as consistent over time as we would hope.

Farmers know this in their bones, there are few certainties.

Except for one:

The Mother and the Mustard Seed
A woman whose child had died asked Buddha to resurrect her babe. Buddha promised that he would do so when she returned to him with a mustard seed from a home that had not been touched by death. She traveled from village to village seeking a home where no one had died. She returned to Buddha without the seed, realizing that death and suffering were inescapable, and vowed to spend the rest of her days seeking to console the suffering of others.

Personas, false selves, and even what were seemingly core identities can, terrifyingly, die on the vine in an instant. As external conditions are always changing, our route to survival and growth can cause us to diverge from any anticipated trajectory. We are epigenetic creatures: we are no fixed thing. There is a step-wise process through which the inner germ of our identities, triggered by external and environmental influences, can lead us to act in ways that we could never have planned for. And which could never be discerned from gazing at the dormant seed, or the picture on the front of the seed packet.

Too many people I thought I had known throughly – both in and out of the office – have suddenly blossomed or gone to seed, flourished or died out, transforming into someone, or some alternate way of being that I could never have anticipated and which surprises me utterly. Sometimes it is a heartbreak as they become something I can no longer recognize, relate to or understand at all. Sometimes the harvest is more abundant than I could ever have hoped for.

And certainly, there are times that whatever I envisioned at the outset – for good or for ill – was just dead wrong. Even the gods don’t hazard such predictions.

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. ~ Matthew 13 King James Bible

The surprise unfolds in both directions. Cases I thought I was foolish to take on become deeply gratifying. Connections easily established fall to pieces. Perhaps the most surprising is when my initial impressions bear whatever fruit I thought they might.

Survival, and certainly the processes associated with thriving are inherently creative, and therefore surprising acts.

The “Seed of Life” is a sacred geometric pattern, consisting of seven circles in sixfold symmetry – an interlocking pattern of spheres and seeds – which forms a basic component of the Platonic solid known as the Flower of Life. ( ) In Kabbalistic thought it represents the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.

The creative processes of adaptation and Life itself, which seems to unfold in a straightforward, sequential uninspiring manner, can startle and amaze us with their symmetry when viewed all at once or with hindsight.

The pattern repeats, until we become aware, and sometimes continues, even then, without our choosing. Organic growth rarely shows us where it is heading in advance. We never know for sure if the seeds we have sown will feed us or leave us hungry. It is, too often, only revealed after the fact.

Some seeds never sprout above ground at all, but do their work entirely deep below the soil, in the Underworld.

In Greek myth, when Persephone is kidnapped by Hades she retains every chance of being rescued by Demeter, her mother, assisted by Helios the sun – who locates the missing maiden – and Zeus who demands her return to resolve the global famine triggered by Demeter’s grief-tantrum. Until Hades offers Persephone a quick snack: six pomegranate seeds. Unbeknownst to her, swallowing those six small seeds -certain they were harmless refreshment, something she thought she knew and recognized, and yearned for as familiar nourishment – sentenced her to live as the bride of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, separated from her devoted Earth-Mother and all that she loves above ground for six months out of every year, half of the rest of her eternal life.

Attaching too certainly to our expectations of others, banking on potential outcomes can take us on dark and harrowing journeys.

When we fall in love, we are attaching to the archetypal Seed in the romantic Other. In the early months of connection, we fall for their potential, who they hope to be, what they might grow into, and who they wish they were – rather than who they actually are. Only time can reveal that.

And we can be proved wrong. Or perhaps we were exactly right, but that seed exists only as one potential among many. We can fall in love with something the beloved does not even know exists inside themselves. Certainly the mustard seed has no knowledge that it can grow into the tallest and most useful of plants.

Sometimes we can believe so much in the unrecognized potential of another that we can help them to manifest it, but only if it is what they yearn to grow into.

Other times, we find ourselves more committed to a Seed in our loved ones than they are. Anyone can choose to arrest or prune their growth, change direction, or yank a potential Self out at the roots. When this happens, attaching too tightly to our favorite Seed or the as yet unmanifest Best Self in our lovers, friends, children, parents, clients – can deplete all of our resources and yield nothing.

In ego-psychological terms this Seed can be thought of as the ego-ideal. In the Venn-diagram of Freud’s tripartite structure – the Ego-ideal lives in the seed shaped overlap, ( a vesica piscis) between the Ego (our conscious sense of self) and Superego (our internalized moral injunctions) It is the seat of our conscious dreams, ambitions and aspirations of who we believe we could and should be.

Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. ~ King James Bible, Luke 13:18-19

It is our ideal and idealize-able self, the Self that we need never feel guilty or ashamed of. The favorite Self that we wholly morally approve of, the Fulfilled Self, the Be-All-You-Can-Be Self. The Self many of us spend our lifetimes pursuing at a distance, our Actual Self lagging far behind.

Lovers, parents, (and therapists for that matter) need to see this in us, nurture it, admire and believe in it, but not too intensely. If they attach too exclusively this Seed, we will feel abandoned in our daily deficits and vulnerabilities. We will not feel loved for who we are, but only for the potential gratification our Seed-self can offer. We want our shitty, stupid, annoying, pain-in-the-ass bits – to be acknowledged – for that is where our deepest needs lie.

Loving relationships of all kinds wither when they are nurtured in the wrong way, loved too much for incomplete reasons. Too excited for the imagined harvest, there is no quicker way to kill a seedling than by overwatering. You cannot pry open a bud to see the flower or eat the fruit that lies within the pit.

The inherent mystery of the Seed – and perhaps of the therapeutic process itself – is this: It is a small piece of the whole which also contains the whole within it while at the same time it is also nothing definite at all, unmanifest, pre-existent, uncertain.

It is the starting point,
or not,
of a future completely unknowable.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Way Forward

I have Guilt on the brain.

Suddenly I see guilt, and all our unproductive damaging defenses against it, absolutely everywhere. I am surrounded.

Even, and perhaps especially in our collective denial, hopelessness and paralyzed impotence in the face of ongoing human oppression and ecological destruction

Healthy guilt, obsessive guilt, pathological guilt – guilt repressed. Guilt projected on to others, guilt internalized and disproportionate. Guilt dressed up and hidden in every kind of costume and disguise.

Guilt disavowed.

Not shame. Shame can destroy in its own ways, no doubt. Yet shame is an illusion, a falsehood that insinuates there is something inherently wrong with who you are at your core, something grotesque or reject-able, contemptible or unloveable, lurking in your True Self. Shame is a lie that others convinced you of.

Guilt is the cold hard truth.

Emotional, psychological guilt (as distinct from to legal/moral guilt) is the healthy and accurate feeling that we experience when we come understand that we have engaged in destructive behavior. That we have caused another harm. That we have benefited from another’s loss. Guilt is the responsibility we take for the unintended consequences of our actions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions of course. Good intentions cannot not spare you from responsibility for the destructive outcome of your actions.

Guilt, if you can feel it, is a good and healthy thing: It means you give a shit.

It means you love or care for something – or have a basic rudimentary sense of empathy and personal responsibility -and you feel remorse for the pain you have inflicted down the causal chain – whether you meant to or not, whether you knew what you were doing or not.

If you can withstand it, through its hot burn and sharp sting, it will become rich fertilizer for more expansive empathy.

But so many seem to have forgotten, if they ever learned, how to find their way through the processes and stages of guilt, if it ever even rises to the level of consciousness at all.

And most fight it off with everything they’ve got.

We get stuck:

In primitive denial and repression:
“I did NOTHING wrong! I have nothing to be sorry for!”

In defensive overstatement:
“Oh, I suppose this is all MY fault.”

In obsessive, over-compensated un-doing.
“I’ll replace it! I can fix it as good as new! I promise I will NEVER do it again!”

In imploding, self-negating, undeserving, hopeless and/or defensive internalization:
“You are right. I’m a total fuck-up. I’m stupid and selfish and worthless. I can’t ever do anything right. What is the point of doing anything”

In paranoid reversals:
“Stop TRYING to make me feel guilty!”

And sometimes all of the above.

At first dawning: Guilt is great and terrible and terrifying. Annihilating.

The weight of deep remorse, when you first take it on to your shoulders can make you regret being born. It takes extraordinary fortitude, and self-compassion to bear it.

And there is a great deal of destructive behavior to feel crushing guilt about – intentional or not – that each of us indulge in individually, generate accidentally, or participate in collectively, culturally, and nationally:

Greed, aggression, inequity, privilege, economic violence, disproportionate consumption, institutional racism, the xenophobic and objectifying oppression of human beings in all its forms.

And the contamination, exploitation, disruption, extinction and depletion of the planetary climate, air, water, food, plants, animals and destruction of our own human habitat.

Guilt, initially, is an almost unbearable crisis.

Melanie Klein describes the child’s very first experience of guilt as one of utter despair.

Using breast-feeding as a metaphor: she describes the infant as suckling without remorse or empathy on an archetypal, omnipotent persecutory Bad Breast. A breast that withholds, dries up, over- or under-produces, hides itself, and controls the entire feeding experience. The infant attacks, bites, gums, hits, hates, devours, demands, and releases its frustrations into it, with no guilt, whatsoever.

Or as Winnicott might say: Ruthlessly.

Klein calls this the Paranoid Position.

Yet, at some point, according to Klein, the child wakes up – realizing that this breast is finite, and perhaps even connected to a finite human being, a human being that soothes and cuddles, loves and tickles. Biting, attacking, devouring demanding have new implications – they can cause harm, perhaps in the child’s mind significant harm to the beloved parent.

This is a shocking, terrifying crisis. Remorse, grief, anxiety, despair are activated and intolerable.

We feel that we have suddenly become all bad. And the object of our empathy: all good.

This is Klien’s Depressive Position, and the emergence of what Winnicott calls: “Ruth”

The extraordinary pain of first guilt, of the crisis of the Depressive Position is so overwhelming, that the child turns tail and retreats back to the relative comfort of the Paranoid one.

Both these theorists would say that the infant, the child, the adolescent, and the adult will spend the rest of their lives moving forward into the depressive position, becoming overwhelmed, and collapsing back into the paranoid position.

And that we will toggle back and forth, working these through with every relationship we encounter.

The greater our awareness of these processes and the more consciously they are faced – the more quickly and successfully we can move through these cycles.

The more compassion we can have for ourselves and for others.

To quote one of my favorite bodhisattvas:

Sometimes people are good. And they do just what they should.
But the very same people who are good, sometimes,
are the very same people who are bad, sometimes.
Its funny but its true…..

(~ Fred Rogers, from The Mr. Rogers Songbook)

And if bravely, consciously faced, healthy guilt will deepen our capacity for empathy, responsibility, and mature concern.

But how?

How do we get out of the terrible cycle of paranoia and depression, of painful advance and frightened retreat, of self-loathing remorse and defensiveness?

There is a way.

Reparation must be offered and accepted.

Winnicott says, somewhere in The Maturational Processes and The Facilitating Environment that the reparative gesture must never be rejected. If the therapist, or the parent, or the loved one that we perceive we have harmed (or merely wished to use ruthlessly), actually rejects our little gift, our silly Hallmark card, or the cookie we offer as a token gesture of remorse – they will deprive us of the symbolic act that allows us to begin to bear the weight of responsibility for our destructive energies.

Rejection of reparative gestures sentences us to return to the state of persecution and defense. And the cycle begins again.

Reparative gestures are the behaviors which transform fresh overwhelming guilt into mature concern.

As guilt, made conscious, begins to mature into Winnicottian Concern and attuned responsibility, symbolically reparative acts repair our ability to emotionally withstand, have empathy for, and accept responsibility to those who have experienced harm or sustained losses that have resulted in our gain.

Reparative gestures do not actually repair what has been harmed, lost, destroyed, or disrupted for the Other.

The attempt at “repair” is only symbolic, not literal.

The symbolic nature of reparation rests upon the awareness that the guilty one cannot literally give back, repair, or undo what was lost or broken. the symbol expresses our concern about the destructive effect we have had and signals our acceptance of the injured, angry, reactive consequences that proceed from our actions.

And quite often, deep listening to the injured party, and withstanding the intense, guilty discomfort that is activated within us, is the deepest reparative act of all.

In my office this very frequently looks like this:

I am running five minutes late, and a client in crisis sits and waits – feeling increasingly angry, abandoned, and forgotten.

When they enter, they let me know the effect I have had. They are angry, hurt, the pain they came in with must be set aside, because now they must process feeling upset with me in its place.

I can and do offer up the compensatory 5 minutes at the end of the session, but that is merely for equity’s sake, and I have no expectation that it will or should undo what has already occurred.

I could “promise” that it won’t happen again – but, frankly, it might, and similarly it won’t undo or give back the five minutes that they needed me and I was not there.

I could subtly defend my intentions, my work load, remind the client of all the times they have been late or that I gave them extra time – and try to make them feel remorseful for having activated my sense of guilt.

I could aggress and become defensively enraged myself, call them ungrateful and go on the attack, creating an effective diversion from my own culpability.

I could collapse in shame and self-loathing, become so flooded with guilt that I caused harm and discomfort to a client, that I require the client to reassure me about all the ways that I am a wonderful therapist.

Or I could offer reparation: I could ask them to tell me everything they are feeling, I could have empathy for the state that I left them in, I can struggle with my remorse, and let them know that my remorse exists, but is secondary to my caring and my concern for their feeling, and take responsibility the effect that my actions, intentional or not, have had on them.

Reparative gestures repair the relationship itself, not the injury – and help the guilt-ridden to stay in open, active empathic relationship to those who activate our guilt-sense without resorting to defense, denial or collapse.

Sincere apology is a reparative gesture for an act that generates injury and offense. Listening is another. Committing to self-reflection and scrutiny of your own motives is yet another.

And one of the deepest reparative gestures is allowing yourself to be changed, learning about oneself,
contending with what we do not know and may not like about ourselves for the sake of those we have offended.

Such gestures move us from ruthlessness, beyond the crushing regret of ruth, toward the mature Capacity for Concern, the empathic, responsible relationship to our communities, to all those who have harmed.

And may it save our own sorry ruthless souls as well.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

The Goat

Sacrifice is an unavoidable part of life.

But sometimes you are the sacrifice.

At some point, we will all serve our turn as The Goat.

And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
~ Leviticus 16 King James

And the sheep will be separated from the goats: Goats are independent, differentiated, disobedient, and hard to direct; a wholly different creature than a happily herded sheep.
Even the three Billy Goats Gruff cross the bridge to face down the hungry troll one at a time.

Every school, church, social clique, graduate program, social service agency, group therapy, small town, every team, club, and every family system has their own identified patient, the angry one, the-who-do-you-think-you-are one, the broken, vulnerable one who absorbs all of the cast off sins, shames, and discomforts – who manifests “dis-ease” for the rest. The chosen Goat suffers so that we may escape ourselves, distance ourselves, externalize our terror of loss, of aggression, of suffering, of inflation.

In groups forced to negotiate in close proximity to each other, and especially groups that feel a strong need to see themselves as Unified in Goodness – relational tensions build up which must be disavowed. The more energy spent repressing aspects of ourselves which threaten to destabilize the collective – the more shame and aggression accrue, the more the community brims with repressed energies, anxiously awaiting discharge.

Envision the Collective as one big agitated kid stuck inside on a Sunday afternoon, wearing wool socks and shuffling though shag carpeting: Flush with electric charge, index finger poised for an unsuspecting sibling to absorb the spark.

Therapy offices everywhere are full of traumatized Goats, marked by their families, schoolmates, employers, coworkers, neighbors. People bearing the weight of collective distortions, targets of harassment, victims of abuse, absorbing vilifying projections of whichever dominant narrative surrounds them: Strung up for being too smart, for telling a threatening truth, for being “other” in terms of their race, sexual or gender identity, for being too gifted, for being obviously wounded, for being too vulnerable.

One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn’t belong….

Any experience or self-state that makes others uncomfortable, that threatens, frightens, exposes or in someway challenges the status quo can mark you as the sacred goat, the Sin-Eater, the point of discharge.

With boring regularity we seize the opportunity to elevate those who seek out and gather up our idealizing projections. Inflated far beyond the limits of humanity, past the point of sustainable hubris – the crowd enjoys the taste of blood and justice when they eventually dismember and destroy their idol, cutting them “down to size.”

Perhaps there is a corrective function, as ugly as it may be, in such repetitive public cycles.

But most of those chosen to eat our sins have not sought out their role at all.

In sports (from my limited understanding) , “The Goat” is the one who slips up, who stumbles, who drops the ball or misses the crucial shot at a pivotal moment. He or she is assigned the stigma of failure for the entire team, although certainly other members could have worked to accrue a larger advantage earlier in the game. Here it is simply our fallibility, our capacity for error, vulnerability and loss that threatens the collective narcissism, the group’s fantasy of omnipotence and immortality.

Goats are nimble climbers, able to negotiate steep and hazardous slopes. Those who find that their ambition and talents lead them to penetrate into new spheres are particularly likely to be selected for sacrificial punishment: A woman or a person of color employed in a profession previously under the sole domain of white men. The first teenager to publicly come-out as homosexual in the history of their high-school.

A Tale of a Very Angry Goat:
I worked once, on a treatment unit with a particularly smart and gifted clinician who appeared, at every staff meeting, in the guise of The Angriest Social Worker in the World. Rage – at the systemic obstacles, injustices, and stupidity surrounding her and her clients, surrounding and perpetrated by us all – emanated from her in waves of hot toxicity. We all appeared to ourselves to be remarkably patient, pragmatic, and well insulated in contrast. The rest of us believed we had our work, our goals and boundaries in proper perspective and that she did not. We all thought more highly of ourselves because we were certain that we were not so so very angry.

And of course, when she announced that she was leaving – we all assumed, that although we admired her impressive skills and her gifts, that we would be relieved to be rid of her daily tantrums and diatribes.

Instead, we all got crankier. In fact, we grew increasingly cranky with each other each passing day.

Eventually, I became extremely  cranky. Intolerably cranky. Everyone else now seemed to be going about their business while clients died, disappeared, suffered, were involuntarily medicated, unjustly incarcerated, or deported. Great hot waves of toxicity preceded me into meetings and trailed in my wake. And I’m sure, that after I left that job some other team member stepped into the position of the Angry One -and began to carry the disavowed rage for the entire team.

Once a community or a group or a family has built up sufficient momentum, and is in the throes of projecting their unconscious, unprocessed conflicts onto the selected goat, there is no logic, no argument, no discussion, no call to morality or reason that can dissuade them.

As Jung himself says (approximately, sort of, somewhere)
It is a pointless task to argue with another’s projections.

Even the Gods cannot protect themselves, and must withstand the shadows projected upon them by the masses.

Once selected: some rail, and struggle, fighting back with full force, refusing to cede any ground or relinguish any standing. Others quickly surrender, either by going limp, passive and derealized or with an eerie dignity and certainty about who they are in the face of terrorizing, baffling lies, exaggerations, accusations and distortions.

Some catch the smell of danger in the wind early, and know how to become completely invisible, or quickly build a protective consensus of support.

Others attempt to master the terror by internalizing the distortions, taking the shadow of the group into their own identities and beliefs about themselves. Self-hate, toxic shame, internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, a false and degraded Self is organized to further protect the clan. Contact with the essential self is lost and abandoned, in order to stay connected to the family, team, community. A goat can take on the Burden of the group’s Badness and believe it, claiming it as their own.

I spend hour upon hour every week, as do therapists all around the world, working in many different modalities to try to sort through these calcified, internalized projections, and separate the wheat from the chaff, the false beliefs from the core Self, peeling away the distorting voices of introjected herd from the goat’s true, original nature.

“There is clearly danger in opposing the mass and safety for the individual lies in following the example of those around him.” ~ S. Freud, Mass Psychology

Or not.

It depends, I suppose on how you define safety.

Psychological scape-goating may offer the collective some temporary relief, serving to reestablish short-term homeostasis for the group, but it is only through coming into direct contact with our failures and fears, by facing and integrating our own shadow that we move toward wholeness.

Casting our sins away without a conscious reckoning defeats the processes of creative psychological growth.

But not for the goat.

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. ~ Leviticus 20 King James

Ultimately the scape-goat, escapes.

When the ordeal is survived, all old hopes of the former life in the community mourned, the shock and terror assimilated, the projections of other’s shaken off its shaggy coat- the goat owes nothing further to the community. Released to the wild, it reclaims its original nature, free and clear, the confines and conventions of domestication left behind and forgotten.


Goats are archetypes of regeneration. Thor’s chariot is drawn by pair of magic goats – which can be cooked and eaten each night for a delicious dinner. In the morning, when the sun rises – there they are, happy and intact, magically reassembled from the remaining skeleton and hide.

It is an inevitable and inescapable reality, that at some point in our lives, the group will turn on us.

The herd lives in constant terror, perpetually fleeing from its own shadows..

It is the goat, even if only mere skin and bones, that is set free.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Deliver Us: thoughts on evil and psychotherapy

(I promise I will eventually write about Love after all of this: bear with me if it is hard to tolerate. It’s important.)

My grandmother-in-law lived in her own apartment until she passed at 102 years old. My husband and I assumed responsibility for her home-care and were her primary logistical support beginning shortly after her 80th birthday, when she fell down a flight of stairs on the way to synagogue to say kaddish for her dead daughter.

More than 40 years earlier, Grandma and her then 13-year-old daughter had survived Auschwitz, Unterluess (the site of a munitions factory/satellite forced work camp), the long march and many weeks at Bergen-Belsen – staying together by saying they were sisters instead of mother and daughter. Grandma’s husband, brother, two sisters, and all of their children, friends, and neighbors were murdered or lost. A lifetime after the war, her daughter who had excelled at her profession, married, given her grandchildren, had succumbed to a cancer that the family suspected could be traced back to her forced exposure to toxic chemicals at Unterluess.

One regular Saturday afternoon visit, I told her about an article I’d seen in the Times about Eli Wiesel organizing an international conference to explore Love.

“He is a fool,” she said.
I held my breath.
She went on:
“What they should have is an international conference to study Hate, to study Evil. But no one likes to think about that. They all like to think about love and fairy tales.”

Love is a lovely and powerful thing, but it’s easy, pleasant for most of us to think about. Evil we push from our minds, ignore, repress, avoid, minimize, deny and rationalize. We see it as unfathomable, inhuman, repugnant. We don’t want to understand it at all. We don’t even want to be able to understand it.

I felt very grown up at 8 or 9, making an appointment on my own with the Reverend at our Episcopal church: His heavy-set, freckled secretary/wife, scheduled me for a time just after Sunday school. He offered me a seat, chewy taffy from his candy bowl. The Exorcist was in the movie theaters and dog-eared paperback copies were circulating around the elementary school playground. I had important questions: God loves everyone, so does God love the Devil? If so, are we supposed to love the Devil too? Will the Devil ever be forgiven for whatever made him bad? Should I pray for the Devil to become good again?”

His answers were appropriate and unburdening for an 8 year old’s first existential crisis: It wasn’t a little girl’s job to make that happen. It’s God’s job to worry about that, I didn’t have to.

I toddled off, relieved, with another chewy candy in my pocket for the road, leaving these questions to reemerge for some older, more mature incarnation of myself.

My current working definition of psychological evil has been drawn from a soup of theorists such as Jung, Meloy, Guggenbuhl-Craig , and Lobaczewski’s studies of personal, organizational and political psychopathy. Maybe some Winnicott on delinquency and privation has worked its way in there, some Fairbairn, maybe other ingredients leftover from my undergrad philosophy major that I can no longer discern.

Sociopathic evil manifests most often with no crime committed at all. It emerges when the capacity for Love or as Guggenbuhl-Craig would say, Eros, the capacity for empathic imagination, the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes and compassionately inhabit how they might be feeling, has failed temporarily, failed to develop sufficiently, or failed to develop at all.

Yet, all-essential Love is a still a feeling state, and it is therefore fickle and inconsistent. It is a cat that may or may not come when it is called.

The vast majority of us have a back-up system in place for the frequent, even daily moments when our tenuously-wired capacity for love and empathy has been shorted out by a power surge of our most primal instincts: fatigue, lust, hunger, rage, fear. That back-up system is our moral sense, our conscience. It reminds us of how we should act when we cannot summon Eros. It instructs us in how to behave – love as a verb when we cannot feel it as a noun – and it holds and preserves our connections to other humans until the surge of animal instinct subsides, and we feel what it is to be human again.

In this we are not all the same and it can be dangerous to assume that we are: Some people don’t have the capacity to love at all for probably neurological reasons yet to be pinpointed. Others have never developed a moral back-up system to compensate for the failure of Love. Some cling to a moral code, or a religion, rigidly, radically, fundamentally, to compensate for their awareness that something is missing, and to fill in great Swiss cheese holes in their empathic capacity.

All of us are capable of multiple systems failure – of succumbing to a raw, survivalist power-principle, the wish to dominate, to win at any cost, to force, coerce and manipulate others to behave as we would wish.

We all fall into sociopathic states when we choose to blindly follow an internal mandate to fill our own hunger, to vent our rage, to have our way, to protect our territory or our young, to assert our power without negotiating with those around us. When we reduce those around us to mere tools or obstacles to our instinctual fulfillment, when others are a means to an end rather than ends in themselves – the sociopathic archetype, the seed of Evil, lives in us.

In the darkening winter months of my first year of social work school I was assigned a new client. I took the chart from the intake worker, which looked like an easy case for a 3-month-old social work intern: a man in mid-life, with private insurance a business owner of some sort. Some ‘moderate family conflict’ as the presenting problem, no severe symptoms (no evidence of hallucinations, delusions, no severe mood or anxiety disorder or apparent personality disorder) mental status all “W.N.L” – within normal limits. He was described as “well-groomed, likable, pleasant, and polite.” There was some concern that the case would be better served by a family services clinic for family systems work rather than a mental health clinic, but as he preferred individual therapy he was accepted to our services and assigned to me for regular weekly appointments.

In the first session, more data emerged around his presenting problem. His adult daughter had recently left home and wasn’t speaking to him. It pained him terribly. It, in fact, enraged him. She had manipulated a judge to take out a restraining order on him for some nonsensical reason. He suspected that she was seeing some therapist who put her up to it. He wanted me to write a letter to his daughter to persuade her and/or her therapist that she belonged back at home. He needed to “get to her” and couldn’t without a therapist’s help. He needed me to find out where she was living, to confer with her therapist, to get him in contact with her without directly violating the restraining order.

When I pressed for more details about the restraining order he stated with no guilt, no shame whatsoever that it said he had been having sex with her – and that the ruling was ridiculous because it was his natural right, she belonged to him. He wasn’t here to discuss this, he said, insisting that he just needed a letter from a therapist.

I ended the session as soon as I could, and told my internship supervisor – an MSW just two years in the field after her degree – that I would not see this case.

She replied that in order to pass my internship, I had to continue with the case. That none of the therapists in the clinic could choose their cases based on their “likability.” It seemed clear to me that she had been trapped in a similar position many times, and felt this case assignment was necessary preparation for the “real world” of social work. There was no attempt to asses my history of exposure to sociopathic trauma or if this could be re-injuring for me, as I am sure there had not been for her either. She stated that it was part of our mandate to see any client that was deemed appropriate for our clinic (and whose insurance was active – clients disappeared quickly when their authorization was declined) and that I would need to find a way work with him.

I sat in an office with him, week after week. Once he arrived drunk and I was able to send him home. I listened to his rage, I watch him shed copious, self-referential tears. I refused, week after week, to make any attempt to contact his daughter, her clinic, her therapist, or to intercede with him and the court. He banged the table. He grieved and keened over his losses. He suffered openly, like a child. He began to write a letter himself and read it to me, hoping for me to sign off on it. No empathy, no concern for her, no appreciation for the utter annihilation he had visited upon her. The letter spoke only of his own pain, loss, frustration, heartbreak, his rights denied, the wrongs visited upon him. I said as little as possible. Any morally tolerable treatment goal I suggested, he rejected. He expressed disgust with me for being useless. After 8 or 9 sessions, he no-showed. I made two cursory, neutral-voiced, follow-up phone calls, as required by my supervisor. And thankfully closed the case.

Do we have to love the Devil? Pray for him to get better?

Did I do any good? Unlikely. I felt my only choices were to refuse to do any wrong.

And to try to restrain myself from revealing in any way how much I wished him dead, gone, hit by a truck, struck down by lightening or the hand of God.

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be God’s job anyway?

Therapists commit civilized mind-murders on clients who activate our primal instincts in ways that we find threatening to our status or identities or who activate our own traumas. At some point, under psychologically threatening circumstances, we inevitably behave in unconsciously manipulative ways to get clients to behave as we wish, to live up to our own values.

We can unknowingly be conscripted by an institution which has lost its own Eros and moral compass, focusing on its billing hours, and rigid adherence to its “mission” having lost all empathy for its clinicians. We become well-intended conveyors of this lack of empathy – passing on our own powerlessness and paralysis.

On the other hand, we can also rush in where angels fear to tread – supporting clients too quickly when they are in the throes of rationalizing, justifying, minimizing their own destructive impulses. We can easily be lured into applauding someone for “asserting themselves” or “claiming their power” when, in reality, their capacity for human relatedness and empathic negotiation has – hopefully, only temporarily – collapsed.

Perhaps its is a safer choice to simply comment on the the loss of moral functioning itself:
“We often have destructive fantasies when we feel this angry and ill-used.”

Sometimes it’s better to sit as still as possible, in a state of active waiting, than endorse, encourage or stimulate a state marked with objectifying distortions and empathic collapse – and wait for the Devil to give up on his own.

This is not a call to moralistic judgment. This is a call to develop on-going discernment of the source, quality, consistency, and capacity for empathy and moral judgment in ourselves and others. We need to recognize when we ourselves, or those we love – or those we fear – have lost that capacity, never developed it, or it is temporarily disrupted.

We need to at least attempt to assess the differences and variations in failures of moral reasoning. When we cannot make those distinctions we will, unwittingly, aid and abet destructive forces.

If you are a clinician: survey your caseload, you may be surprised to realize how many people have arrived at your office to process the existential horror (as well as the post-traumatic response) that follows an encounter with either transitory or characterological sociopathy, victimized by a large or small volitional act of evil that has called their very understanding of humanity into question. They are often confused, in a state of horrified paralysis, mystified, enraged, numb, bewildered. For some it generates a special spiritual crisis, an existential shock. We can help them to assess the intentions behind the injury, and whether the perpetrator is someone who stumbled understandably – if reparation is possible – or to support the client as they come to terms with the shocking reality of evil in the world.

We don’t need to help the Devil when we encounter it. In fact, it’s essential that we don’t.

We may need to withhold indiscriminate support from anyone in the active pursuit of goals destructive to themselves or others, although we need not necessarily always withdraw or retreat. We must recognize the amoral archetype when it emerges – believe in its existence so that we can distinguish it from illness, accident, error, or a gesture borne of temporary collapse, lashing out in panic or in pain.

We need to be able to look squarely at it in ourselves, in our clients, in our community and our institutions. To identify it and address it, not excuse it.

Rather than wish it away for a world full of lovely fairy tales.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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