Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.
Last year Helen Garner published a book about Robert Farquharson, the man found guilty of drowning his three young sons by driving his car into a dam. Garner attended his trials, finding it both a compelling and gruelling experience. In a piece she wrote recently for The Monthly, reflecting on her own and others’ reactions she said,
What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls. I believe this refusal lies behind the strange hostility I encountered, many times, when I was trying to write about Robert Farquharson’s trials. Friends would ask me what I was working on. When I told them, they would be at first quite curious – what’s he like? What sort of man is he? I would be barely three sentences into an account of his family background, his broken marriage and his broken heart, when my questioner’s mouth would harden into a straight line and she would make a sharp stabbing movement at my chest with a straight forefinger and say, angrily, “You’re making excuses!”
Well no….she was simply trying to put herself in his shoes. And as we know, any social worker in direct practice does this routinely in her daily work, immersing herself in the lived experience of others. Being empathic is often straightforward, but sometimes it means bearing witness to the unbearable: a death or trauma, bringing fear, rage, loathing, shock or impossible grief.
The memory may be fresh or a recollection from 50 years before…it matters not.
Nevertheless it is an essential component of our work. We travel the liminal space between high and low tide, love and hate, compassion and fear – the no man’s land between monsters and angels.
Vicarious trauma is an ever-present possibility. Without supportive colleagues and good supervision we would burn out, stumble and fall. But as dangerous as this space is, it is the space of shared understanding. How can we possibly help our clients if we do not truly understand them?
Yet increasingly we live in a world where empathy is conflated with agreement; (If you see it from their point of view -you can’t be one of us!) The monsters are cast out and the liminal space is simply denied. If monsters do exist, they live in another country entirely- never in our own hearts. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is replaced with membership of ‘Team Australia’.
In this brave new world of black and white, marketing plays an essential role- expunging monsters and polishing our claims to membership of the just and righteous brigade. Politicians surround themselves with flags, and we too burnish our images on Facebook and Linkedin reflecting a world without fear, rage, doubt or failure.
Professional bodies of all disciplines manage their marketing with great care. In our sphere the promotion of counselling or psychotherapeutic intervention is so relentlessly upbeat, that a visitor from another planet would conclude that a kind of utopia (of the Stepford Wives variety) has already arrived. Writing about this issue in 1913 Freud said,
A friend and colleague of mine.. once wrote to me: What we need is a short convenient form of treatment for outpatients suffering from obsessional neurosis. I could not supply him with it and felt ashamed; so I tried to excuse myself with the remark that probably physicians would also be very glad of a treatment for consumption or cancer which combined these advantages.
The talking cure has gotten longer and shorter, gurus come and go; solution focused, narrative, CBT, mindfulness, and so on. Whatever the form, the variables make it impervious to randomized controlled trials – but easy to promote as the next good thing.
But the need for empathy and understanding will never go away; nor the implicit knowledge that we all carry darkness in our hearts. To be understood is a necessary and visceral experience- not achievable via text message, website or user manual. In the real world therapeutic gains are often hard won and provisional; bullies thrive and the oppressed are permanently damaged, along with those who try to help them. Too many of us are depressed and despairing because we cannot live up to the shiny expectations of our social milieu.
This however is not an invitation to cynicism or despair; it is a reminder to temper hope with reality, to know our limits, to use language for truth rather than propaganda, to admit that our best is sometimes not good enough and to acknowledge that we are both monsters and angels.
..much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness