The Other Side of Power – The Larger System at Play

My last post emphasized “the existential responsibility” side of the coin. I’d like to spend a little time on the other side of the coin in the service of the whole.

This also provides a nice segue to talk about psychological health in general. As I’ve said prior, the goal is response-ability. The growth of a human depends on its ability to respond effectively in its environment.  Abilities can fit nicely into sets of polarities or opposites, with a continuum running between.  Seeing abilities in sets of opposites is very useful in order to ascertain where one is stuck, off-balance, or has an INability.

Health (or even happiness?) can be summed up succinctly as the ability to perform both extremes of an ability-continuum coupled with the ability to recognize the situation and what it calls for.

1) Ability to reach the extreme ends of an ability-continuum
2) Ability to recognize what the situation calls for

Response-ability.

We become the most unhappy when we’re in situations where one of those two things is off.  We either (1) lack an ability that’s being called for or (2) we misinterpret the situation and respond “out of touch.”

At root, this is psychological digestion at the boundary of organism and environment.  Food and senses touch (see the mold, smell the milk gone bad, taste a chemical out-of-place taste).  Senses help to determine whether it’s worth putting it inside us. Teeth do the work at the entry.  In the end, it boils down (ha) to whether we have the full ability to take in and whether we have the full ability to keep outspit out.

If we’re not fully able in those polar skills, we’re in danger of swallowing something bad for us or rejecting something good for us.  Even if we have full abilities but then we misinterpret the situation, it’s the exact same danger.

I hope that makes sense.  It can be hard to see abilities as sets of opposites until you get used to it.

So back to the coin.

Existential responsibility:  “Yes, this is my situation.  Yes, I have created it.  Yes, I am responsible for what happens next.” Basically a God-like attitude, yes?  Is this good?

It’s an ability.

Polarity? Continuum?

“I am powerless against the forces much, much bigger than myself.  Forces other than myself will determine how things unfold from here on out.”

Is that good?

It’s an ability.

Rather than look at this particular polarity as beliefs (nouns), please try to look at them as verbs or abilities (in the sense of taking the stance or, more abstractly, being with the belief).  One could move to the far side of the continuum to touch the extreme pole and then one could move all the way to the other side to touch the opposite pole.  They’re polar abilities and they both have a perfect function…  depending on what the situation calls for.

I will often say to parents, “we want to teach your kids there are powers much bigger than themselves.”  I usually feel the need to clarify with, “I’m not talking about God or the police.”  This isn’t about following societal laws or being religious.  It’s about the realization there are powerful laws (natural laws) and how, if we don’t follow them, things don’t go well.

This belief (or the lack thereof) seems to be buried so deep down there sometimes.

It has a couple of fuzzy twins like “being an exception” or “I shouldn’t have to.” Those are very, very close to what I’m talking about in this post but they’re not exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking very simply about the realization that we’re not God.  We didn’t create these rules.  And when we don’t play by the rules, things don’t go well.  We can’t deprive ourselves of sleep for a period of time and then expect things to go well.  We can’t put junk in our bodies and then expect to feel good.  We can’t sit in a chair 99% of the time and then expect not to get a nasty case of Chair Pain Syndrome.  We can’t be selfish in our relationships and then expect to have warm, deeply satisfying relationships.

I’m talking about the genuine surprise within a person after they go on a 30 year drug binge and then can’t understand why their system is misfiring.  I’m using an extreme example (albeit a true one I’ve seen time and time again) to illustrate a concept that can be very subtle and buried but can still be very destructive.  My hope in writing this piece is it emphasizes this belief (the “I am not God and I didn’t create these rules so I really can’t bend them” belief) and it supports people to refrain from doing destructive things.

I love the word-play with being “care-full” – not “careful” in the sense of hyper-cautious, scared, mistrusting, but care-full in the sense of trying to be fully in touch with these powers that are much greater than ourselves and then taking-full-care to move with them, not against them, because we will lose every time.

So back to the coin.

The polar abilities.  The whole coin.

The ability to be open to the possibility I have created my situations and I am fully responsible for what happens next and the ability to acknowledge, respect, and move in harmony with powers much, much greater than myself…  followed by the ability to recognize what the situation calls for.

We’re back to the serenity prayer.  The courage to change the things you can.  The serenity to accept the things you can’t change.  And the wisdom to know the difference.

Please be care-full and play by the rules.

Systems, Judgment, and Experimentation (Oceans and Inverted Twister)

I find the following analogy very helpful to explain some concepts. And I’d like to connect some analogous dots.

Systemic vision and judgment are mutually exclusive.  It is impossible to judge something (or someone) when you can see the way it fits into the larger picture, embedded within connections that make any other configuration impossible or, at best, improbable.  When student counselors are taught the Rogerian foundations (Counseling 101) of positive regard, nonjudgment, unconditional acceptance, etc.,  it’s often a stretch.  The counselor has to *try* to be nonjudgmental.  They have to disconnect from their judgment (vision) in order to *try* to connect with their client in a nonjudgmental way.  If the counselor continues to study systems, this [need to] disconnect begins to disintegrate.  Things just make more sense.  The counselor doesn’t have to *try* to be nonjudgmental because there’s nothing left to judge.  PHG talk about this in describing contact.  In contact, things just seem “inevitable” or “just right,” they say.  The more we are in true contact with our clients (and with life in general) judgment actually becomes impossible – or, rather, loses its function / becomes useless.

So here’s the analogy I want to use to describe systemic vision: if you look at the waves in the ocean, there is no way to locate a beginning point or an ending point, a cause or an effect, a do-er or a do-ee, an isolated part from the rest of the parts.  It is simply in flow.  It is completely connected.  All of the parts are moving in relation to all of the other parts.  One can’t ‘judge’ a singular wave and say ‘it shouldn’t have happened that way’.  When you see the whole: of course that wave is going to happen exactly the way it did.  It is simply just happening.  (The ocean also lends itself wonderfully for an analogy of ‘figure and ground’ – wave and nonwave – being made up of the same stuff (“self”) – and also in flow, inseparable, and inverse-able/relative. But that’s another post.)

Now let’s shuttle back to the application of therapy…  and let’s continue with analogies.

Are you familiar with the game of Twister?  Please imagine ‘inverted twister’.  Imagine a playground: monkey bars and other hanging apparatuses.  I’m picturing something like a rock-climbing-wall in a gym, only it’s parallel to the ground so you’re actually hanging parallel, belly up, with your feet, knees, elbows and hands holding and weaving onto certain pieces according to the colors of the inverted twister.  Very uncomfortable.  It’s this discomfort that brings a person to therapy – and the “stuck-ness!”  Inverted twister may have been going ok for a while (and the person is, without a doubt, performing with their best effort) but then a certain combination of color patterns presents itself, knees wrapped over this, ankle tucked under that, arm across one bar to grab onto the other bar, etc.  The configuration started to make any subsequent movement impossible / improbable.  The person is stuck and uncomfortable to say the least.  If we wanted to say more, we could certainly add ‘scared’ and ‘losing hope,’ I’m sure.  Again, this is when a person might choose to enter therapy to get some outside assistance.

I would hope no one would judge this person.  They have been giving their best efforts, responding to the color configurations presented (aka life), and moving along until they got stuck.  To return to the ocean analogy, we see how all of the movements up until now make sense.  We can’t look at any one piece of the picture and say ‘it shouldn’t have happened that way.’  The same with the wave: ‘yeah, of course it happened exactly the way it did.’  Without systemic vision in place, a counselor might think, ‘look at his arm! It’s wrapped under his knee, turned backwards and then only holding on with two fingers! Of course that’s not going to work,’ (with judgment) not seeing the larger picture of the interconnectedness.  Without systemic vision, a person/counselor also can’t see how the arm going under the knee actually supports the leg to keep the ankle wrapped around a different bar.  The counselor says, “just take that arm out and grab onto this bar over here!  You’ll be much more comfortable!”  The client tries and either falls off or simply can’t.  Counselor gets frustrated. Client gets frustrated/confused/shamed.  Client drops out of therapy. Counselor rationalizes, “that person just wasn’t ready for therapy.”

This is largely where the ‘gestalt experiment’ comes into play.  In gestalt therapy, we value (we understand the power of) the interconnectedness and we are interested in the ‘whole’ and in the ‘configuration’.  We want to see how parts relate to other parts to determine the whole of the functioning.  This is the gestalt approach to the unfortunate stuck individual on the inverted twister:

“Hmm.  Yes, you are stuck indeed.” “I am going to stand right here with my arm right here so that you can’t fall and we can take a look at things together.” (There is a fundamental supportiveness within gestalt therapy.) “Now you feel more secure, right?  Good.  Now, what happens if you try to wiggle this finger, does it move?” “Ok. I also see your shoulder is able to rotate a little bit, what’s it like for you to do that?” “Great.  Where do you feel the most range now? That knee? Ok, great, go for it.. what happens when you shift it?” “Are you happy with how your wrist is positioned? Or is it worth playing with that as well?”

There is an understanding that the configuration is paramount and that the work is investigative and experimental, both in the service of learning and developing, opening new options, harnessing creativity.  We value full range of motion and aware choice.  We don’t like stuck.  We want twister to be fun and meaningful.

Lastly, this term will probably show up a lot in this blog but I’ll make the first mention now: “response-ability.”  Gestalt is an existential therapy and in existential philosophy there’s the idea of “responsibility,” the acknowledgment of the authorship/ownership of one’s existence.  Gestaltists (Fritz first, I believe) have played with that term and broke it up into “response-ability.”  This works very well with the inverted twister analogy (life).  We can’t always choose the colors that are presented.  We choose our responses.  Earlier when I said, ‘we value full range of motion and aware choice,’ another way of saying that is, ‘we want people to have full abilities.’  The greater our abilities, the more apt we are at responding to the color configurations that life presents.  Sometimes the color configurations are ugly.  But we can be response-able.