A World of Difference: On Seing and Being Seen

Early AzaleasThe cold returned this past week, and many trees and flowers seem to have taken a deep breath and halted their rush into Spring. Were the maple sugaring season ongoing, these would have been perfect sugaring days and the sugar houses would be boiling madly. (The warmth of a couple of weeks ago stopped the sugar season short.) Now, there is an air of expectancy in the natural world, a quickening and watchfulness, for we are in April, and returning warmth and renewing rains become daily more likely.

The seasonal round brings comfort and a sense of belonging. Maple sugaring gear is cleaned and put away. A few people have made it into their gardens, preparing for the warm season to come. Neighbors, yard and garden tools in hand,  wave to one another. “This sure is weird weather, ain’t it,” echoes down the block. A few daffodils have burst into bloom in south facing flower gardens, some making their way indoors to adorn tables.  Throughout the neighborhood there is shared business and meaning.

Last week, in class, I showed the Bill Moyers interview with Bill T. Jones, Still Here. The video, from 1994, follows the MacArthur Award winning choreographer as he morns the loss of his mate, faces mortality via an AIDS diagnosis, and creates his groundbreaking dance, Still/Here. The video addresses many topics our culture still finds difficult, and does so with refreshing directness: death, terminal illness, homosexuality, loss, and race, among others.

The real focus of the film is difference, a too-hot-to-handle concern in many cultures. Difference is a form of social glue, allowing us to identify ourselves in opposition to the other. It is also the source of creativity, innovation, and adventure, as well as some of our most threatening taboos. The tensions between these functions are played out daily in our cultures, our personal relationships, and our inner worlds. For many people around the world, accepting new technologies, no matter how socially disruptive, has become easier than accepting differences among human beings.

Of course, issues of difference demand attention in the therapy setting. Whether we sit with couples struggling with disagreements about how to manage daily life, young women critical of their body image, or youth and adults who carry labels of major mental illness and wrestle with unique experiences of the world, the underlying concerns are those of difference and acceptability. Always the questions held deep inside include, “Am I loveable as I am?” and “Am I safe?” These are not simple questions.

A walk in the forest offers the opportunity to see difference. No two plants of the same species are identical.  Life history and microecology play an enormous role in the development of each individual. From the point of view of the forest, each is perfect. Only through the gaze of other organisms do individual plants acquire differentiated value. When humans are involved, value is most likely culturally ascribed. Persons of diverse cultures may well read the worth of an individual plant differently from one another, as may individuals of separate species.

Ideally, psychotherapy offers persons the opportunity to challenge internalized or culturally enacted views of  difference in relationship to her or his life. In the process, it may place any number of subversive, liberatory tools at the disposal of those seeking help. Such therapy seeks to provide a space for the successful re-authoring of those stories that isolate and demean on the basis of rubrics of difference. In order to do so, patients are encouraged to challenge the authority of many voices, within and without. Yet, no one can successfully create a rewarding life alone; we each need others to witness and affirm our acts of courage and self authoring.  The therapist is a necessary, yet usually insufficient witness.

Would you share with us your healing stories of seeing, and of being seen by others?

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4 thoughts on “A World of Difference: On Seing and Being Seen

  1. Hi Michael: I very much appreciate this post. Thank you for this beautiful reminder of nature waking up. It brings back so many memories of my time in Vermont. Nature is waking up here too, but it is not quite the same in California. I also appreciate your linking it to “seeing and being seen.” nature’s way if reminding us to wake up and notice what is here surrounding us every moment.

    Love and gratitude,
    Rob

  2. HI Michael

    I just found this quote today, and I think it fits with what you said…

    “Since the beginning we have asked the same questions…
    Am I safe?
    Am I important?
    Am I forgiven?
    Am I loved?
    – Mary Pipher

    Isn’t it exquisite?

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