We have a problem, Houston….
Our ability to function in a state of true contact with another being, be it human, animal or earth itself has atrophied for far too many citizens of this planet. We are witnessing the results of this loss of contact every single day. From the reports of the ongoing horrific murders of Black people in the United States embedded in 400 years of systemic crime designed to oppress and control to the pillaging and rape of our ecosystem, our Mother Earth without whom we are simply lost.
What is true contact and how can it be achieved? As a trauma psychotherapist, I find that the Gestalt theory of contact provides useful insight into this question of what is necessary to achieve healthy respectful contact. Among other elements , the theory describes the self not as a conceptually static thing, but rather a continually evolving process determined by the quality of how we show up (come into contact) and how we withdraw (move out of contact) from one another. The theory goes on to describe the disturbances of contact that lead to an unsatisfying experience for the one seeking contact as well as the one who is being called on to receive it.
Are You There?
Let’s take the example of what passes for dialogue in our current culture. Many of us have experienced that moment when we are telling the story of our pain or hurt or loss, taking the risk of being vulnerable, only to have the one we are speaking to respond with oh yeah that happened to me too when I… shifting the focus to their own similar story.
Can you see the disturbance of contact here? It’s often meant on the part of the listener (the one receiving) to be an empathic or compassionate response but immediately it takes the focus away from the one who is sharing their pain (the one seeking contact). Whether this is done intentionally or not, the person who is sharing their pain is left feeling not seen or heard or received.
Another example of the same thing is when you tell your story and see that the non-verbal cues of the other indicate that they are just waiting for you to be done so they can tell you their story! This is what so many of us have been taught by example and instruction as the art of so called sharing. This is also what reminds me of what is known as parallel play which characterises how small children play before they learn how to actually interact with each other. Two kids side by side playing with the cars or dolls in their own little worlds!
Our House is on Fire
When we look at this current moment of trauma, pain and rage we find many more instances of this particular disturbance of contact. How many times have you heard or read as a response to #Black Lives Matter, “Well, all lives matter, don’t they?” And there we are. Of course all lives matter, but that’s not what the rage and grief in this moment cry out for!
Generations of people have suffered from systemic inequities in many areas of life, including health care, education, housing, and notably, the criminal justice system. Underlying these systemic inequities and manifesting in especially visible ways in the US law enforcement system, is a fundamental lack of respect for and recognition of Black lives. What would it look like to show up in healthy contact with this outpouring of generations of pain?
As a second generation Jewish American white skinned woman of Turkish, Russian and Polish descent, I am aware of both my privilege and my intergenerational baggage. I could come into this conversation focused on my own DNA-carried memories of being chased, tagged and murdered when confronted with the pain and rage of people of color in this incendiary time. I could be part of that disturbance of contact by bringing the conversation back to me instead of showing up, opening my heart, letting myself be broken open by story after story of men, women and children who are at risk right this minute every day in the United States and other parts of the world.
Healthy and respectful contact means that we step up, shut up and show up by creating space for anyone who brings us their pain. If we can manage to be fully present and in contact, it is impossible to chase, maim, kill or turn a cold shoulder on a human being, animal or ecosystem in the absence of a diagnosis of sociopathy or psychopathy.
This means that we are not engaging our attention and energy in protecting ourselves from the pain or anger of the other or the situation. That we give up jockeying for attention and comparative empathy due to our own pain. This art can be achieved through taking responsibility for investigating, facing up to and healing our personal and collective disturbances of contact that result from our own current and generationally carried traumas. Only then can we cure the ancient sickness of violence and separation which is certainly the most urgent replicating virus demanding our attention right now.
-Laury Naron, psychotherapist and shamanic practioner
Learn more about Laury here: www.laurynaron.com