Early in my practice, I once said to a supervisor: “I really had a good week! I was a good therapist!” She laughed and laughed, and said, “Enjoy it while it lasts!”
In the moment, I may have felt taken aback but, as the years passed, I began to hold onto those words like a smooth stone in my palm, soothing and cool through hot, prickly times of anxiety and discomfort.
I do try now to bask in it, to treasure the fleeting moments of efficacy and fruition. Revel a bit in the subtle, satisfying clinical “I told you so’s” when things work out for the better – because those supplies, a belly-full, will be needed as the process passes through dark times: times when both of us will be lost, disoriented, overwhelmed, anxious, drained, powerless, paralyzed, hopeless, and totally useless.
That’s the gig.
The good news is, just as that “good session” feeling is fleeting and temporal – so is the “bad session” feeling – and, for that matter, so is any feeling of any kind.
So, we may never know the ultimate effect, if any, of that terrific feel-good session until long afterwards – the flowing, connected vibe long since passed. Likewise, the 45 minutes struggling with an awful, dreadful, at-a-loss impotence may generate far more than we could ever imagine.
Simply put: empathy only feels good when we offer it to someone who is feeling terrific.
To empathize with someone in pain, to hold their feeling with them, is necessarily painful. Feeling lost, useless, and powerless is the absolutely expectable outcome of working to truly understand someone who is feeling lost, useless, and powerless.
Recently I attended a brilliant staging of King Lear at EPBB theater gym (http://epbb.org/). As the Shakespearean agony escalates, the innocent are outcast and slain while the evil and oblivious are utterly annihilated. As the dead bodies piled up at my feet, I sat – unable to affect the outcome, disrupt the action, or protect the innocent. Watching, witnessing the power of destructive acts spread in ever widening circles, I thought: I know this feeling. I do this a lot. Maybe everyday.
I wondered, maybe this is why such stories exist and need to be retold. Maybe we all need to build up this muscle, to increase our ability to tolerate the tragic so that we can look squarely at our loved ones and our neighbors, and not flinch or retreat when the everyday tidal waves of tragedy move through their or our own lives.
What good does all that do? It depends.
It depends on what you hope for, what you expect.
Maybe it doesn’t do much.
We might not know for a good long while.
But sometimes, it may do more than we will ever know.
copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford