Saturday, September 19, 2009

Existential Psychotherapy 2

The Basics of Existentialism (continued):

3. A third theme would be that of absurdity. I am my existence and it is absurd. Why am I thrown into this existence here? Why here? Why now? We are utterly contingent beings. In other words we are not logically necessary at all. We did not have to exist. And so my life is an absurd contingent fact. How many of us have stated something such as this to our parents or other significant adults: “I did not ask to be born!”

4. A fourth concert in existentialism is that of nothingness. Here is where I as the existential being, the conscious subject, rejecting all philosophies and theories that seek to define me objectively, strips away all these external structures or scaffolding. Then what am I left with? Following Kierkegaard’s lead I am left with absolutely nothing by way of structure. It is here that I stand in anguish at the edge of the abyss. All human beings have at some time in their lives stood at the edge of the abyss. I’m thinking of a friend’s son whom I taught many years ago who has recently contemplated suicide, ending it all because the abyss was so frightening, another friend who had a massive amputation due to cancer, another who has had a testicle cut out due to that same disease, some other good friends and many acquaintances who suffer from some sort of mental health problems. All of these have looked into the abyss. Good psychotherapy will accompany the client there, attempt to listen to the person hurting and try to give them the strength to turn and face that abyss without being crushed and accompany them away from any possibility of self-annihilation. Good friends will also do the same for the suffering person.

5. A fifth concern associated with and leading from the last is that of Death. Death is a huge black hole or void which concentrates nothingness into our very body and being. It is interesting to listen to the paraphrased words of Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) here:

…the whole of my being seems to drift away into nothing. The unaware person seeks to live as if death is not actual, he tries to escape its reality. But Heidegger says that my death is my most authentic, significant moment, my personal potentiality, which I alone must suffer. And if I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself… (Lavine, op.cit., 332)

6. Another theme or concern is that of alienation. Let’s look at the provenance of this term. In philosophy, I first heard this term with reference to Karl Marx. Marx's theory of alienation refers to the separation of things that naturally belong together, or antagonism between things that are properly in harmony. As a worker I am alienated from myself, from the product of my labour and from the the rich who make money from my work. Apparently, this theme was first adumbrated by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1851) who saw the Absolute (God) as being estranged from itself as it exists only in the development of a finite spirit in historical time. Then, from this emerged naturally the idea of humankind being estranged from its own true nature. Social alienation, then, obviously, is the individual subject's estrangement from its community, society, or world. We even have this term appearing in worlds as far apart as those of medicine and the cinema: Alienation effect which is a theatrical and cinematic device by which the audience is "alienated" from a play or film and Parental alienation or parental alienation syndrome, referring to hostility between a child and its parent. In medicine alienation is the medical term for the splitting apart of the faculties of the mind.

What’s behind all this alienation then? Well, it’s all about the “otherness” or “strangeness” of everything outside myself, everything outside my conscious thinking subjectivity. Everything is opaque to me except the vitality of my own subjectivity.

However, existential psychotherapy takes all these themes and works with them and seeks to lead the client away from such concerns by acknowledging them (strangely and ironically.) Kierkegaard said that the only way out of despair was the “leap of faith,” that is, the leap of faith into the lap of God as it were – only faith in God could answer these crises of the human spirit. Existential therapists take all the above concerns as concretely exemplified in the subjectivity of their clients or patients and seek to accompany them on the personal journey of self-integration, of piecing together the dis-integrated, fragmented, alienated and shattered self. In a sense this therapy is at once an acknowledgement of deep despair in the light a higher overarching hope. It’s the heralding of hope over despair.

Above a gaslight lamp in the Phoenix Park - a photograph I took a few years ago. The light of therapy (hope) versus the descending darkness of the night (despair).

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