Your Story and Mine
by Jessica Rose
So, as they disagreed among themselves, they departed, after Paul had made one statement: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ĎYou shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive, for this peopleís heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes have closed; lest they should perceive with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.í" Acts 28: 25-27 (RSV)
So St Paul concluded his preaching to the Jews at Rome.
Story (in this case the stories of the Jewish people themselves and of the coming of Christ, and Paulís own personal story in relation to these) is usually a matter of disagreement. Sit down with half a dozen participants in any event and ask them each to describe it and you get half a dozen different accounts. This well-known phenomenon, the source of such frustration to the law-courts, is nevertheless a sign of richness. It is an inevitable consequence of each one of us being a unique person who brings to any event not only our cultural, psychological and genetic background, but also a personal autobiography which is nowhere replicated.
It is through relationships with others that we learn to sift the truth of our situation: how we are living our lives, what changes we need to make, what other possibilities are, how we relate to the wider community and to humanity itself, and above all what it means for each and every one of us to be in relationship with God.
In the work of a psychotherapist, one to one relationships play a crucial part. One way of describing it is to say that we take what is going on between people in everyday life, and put it into a laboratory so we can study it more closely: hence the importance of setting up consistency of time and place so that everyday distractions are removed. Anyone who enters into this kind of relationship does so with a story. It may be the story of something current or recent that is disturbing. Sometimes it is an unknown story which is manifesting itself through a sense of discomfort or repeated difficulties which never seem to be resolved. Often healing begins with being able to tell oneís story as slowly and as often as is necessary to someone who can really listen. This person does not, of course, need to be a professional, but good listening is a much rarer quality than is generally supposed. As soon as we start to listen carefully to another person we find ourselves deeply in relationship with them. One personís story begins to interact with anotherís. There will be parts which are similar, and parts which are different. A new story is also in the making through the sharing. This may well be a good and warming experience, but it may also be difficult or uncomfortable, and this is where both parties may need to take care if it is not to become damaging for either or both of those involved.
Most people in modern western society will be familiar with the concept of pyschological repression: the idea that an experience which is too traumatic to manage becomes buried in the unconscious. It seems more and more clear to me that a great many of lifeís insolubles: our compulsions, our mistaken choices, and our psychological dis-ease, as individuals and communities, are driven by story, particularly by forgotten story. Repression of trauma protects us, but it also turns into oppression, unless we can at some point provide each other with enough love and security to allow it to emerge, and find the courage to face it.
Through this mechanism of repression, any one of us will have areas of the heart which have grown dull, eyes which have learned not to see, and ears which have learned not to hear. Opening up these areas of buried story may be extremely painful, and it is an enormous help if there is another person who can participate without getting caught up in it; who can understand without identifying; who can recognize without re-writing the story. This process, whether between friends or family, between members of a church community or within the mental health services, itself becomes part of the story of those involved.
Relationships are risky things. We have an instinct for those whose wounds resonate with our own, and this instinct guides us both to those who can heal us and those who can destroy us. Any relationship can carry potential for healing, and this healing is a mutual matter. For anyone involved in the caring for others an awareness of this mutuality is crucial.
An illustration comes from someone whom I shall call Elizabeth, who sought help with a lifelong depression and disturbing mental experiences. After we had worked together for some time, her mother went through a long period of physical and mental illness and eventually died. This was devastating for Elizabeth, who loved her mother dearly and had always relied on her to contain her own fragility. Shortly after her motherís death, my own mother died, and I took some unexpected time off. Elizabeth, who was already grieving, now had to cope with my unexpected absence as well.
During those weeks she wrote me an extraordinary letter, in which she expressed her sadness for me, but also the fact that my bereavement had made her realize that grief was a fact of human existence. This did not take away what she was feeling, but changed it. For the first time in her life she understood as a matter of felt experience that she was fundamentally not alone. She is an artist, and two years later she mounted an exhibition based on the work she had done during the grieving process. It was visited by a great many people who expressed gratitude for the way in which her work released grief which has been painfully blocked in them. I visited the exhibition on what would have been my motherís seventy-ninth birthday, and was both moved and saddened, and deeply heartened by what I saw.
Returning to St Paul, he tells us that when he remonstrated with Christ about his own imperfection he was told, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). When we enter into helping relationships with others, it is of course important that we treat those relationships with all the care and loving attention they deserve (in the words of Irving Berlin: "Itís not my watch you are holding, itís my heart"). But the healing lies not with us as people or even as communities but with Christ, who may nevertheless be using us as his eyes and ears and hands in this world. Our own care and attention is vital to building secure and loving relationships, but is only part of the process. In my work with Elizabeth, I was reliably there at the same time each week for several years, only being absent with warning and preparation, and she relied on this very deeply. Yet it was at the moment when I became unable to sustain this that she discovered something much more valuable.
In the kind of work that psychotherapists do, people are seeking relationships that will improve things; often they look to the therapist to provide the relationship they have sought all their lives. There may be a sense in which the therapist performs a kind of re-parenting. The person sitting across the room may be well into their fifties, but for this part of their lives they are a few months or a few years old, and the quality of the relationship has to adapt to that. At the same time this baby or child needs to catch up with the adult whose story has its own validity. The eyes and ears that have become shut are opened and the dullness of the heart is brought to life, often with great pain. The relationship can appear all-consuming - positively or negatively - to the person seeking help, and this is part of what has to be lived through. Something else is achieved however, when one finds oneself in the presence of something which does not wish to be shared, not because it is buried through trauma, but because it is so deeply personal to the client that it represents access to their deepest self - perhaps what Thomas Merton referred to as Ďla pointe viergeí which in its purity belongs only to God.
In his work as a psychotherapist, the psychologist Carl Rogers discovered something crucial to the whole enterprise: that when we arrive at what is most deeply personal, we are also at the point of what is most universal. A community which regularly celebrates the Liturgy together comes to this truth from a different angle. No one can celebrate the Liturgy alone; as soon as we try to make it a matter of personal piety we have lost contact with what is really going on. Yet the participation by the community itself somehow enables each member to come closer to their own unique, personal encounter with Christ in communion.
Elizabethís grief touched such depths in her because it went to the core of her own particular relationship with her mother. In doing so, it opened her up to shared experience of loss - my own, and that of the whole of humanity. In the Liturgy, we, as infinitely varied individuals, participate in the prayer of the whole of creation, and we gradually become aware of how connected we are to everyone and everything, whether we like it or not. We pray with and for both the living and the dead.
For this reason, it seems to me important to bear in mind that how we relate to each other in the ongoing story of our relationships also has relevance across the familiar dimensions of time and space. What goes on between us here and now can also affect previous generations, and people a long way off. It is only the dullness of our hearts and the shutting of our ears and eyes which conceals this truth from us. To glimpse this is awe-inspiring, and touches parts of us which we are reluctant to expose to Christís healing love. Yet it is only in allowing ourselves to experience our own vulnerability that in our weakness we can begin to be made strong through grace.
[Jessica Rose is a psychotherapist and teacher of pastoral care and counseling. She is a member of the Orthodox parish in Oxford, England.]