Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1976
Suffering to Grow ROBERT W. IHLOFF Introduction More and more people today seem to be conditioned by our ever-advancing technology to anticipate instant gratification. We are an impatient people, annoyed if we have to wait in line, infuriated if we cannot see at least in our mind's eye the fruits of our labors, disenchanted if we experience a lag between our hope and its fulfillment. Our expectation of immediate gratification not only affects our consumption of goods and services (wherein we are beginning to sense the staggering problems of pollution and waste); it increasingly plays a part in our interpersonal relationships, our self-expectations, and our religious and moral convictions. How can we live happy and productive lives in meaningful relation with one another in a society where the investments of time and effort seem increasingly to become alien qualities? Can marriages and other close social bonds reach maturity when little effort is invested and allotted time is so short? Can we reach the full potential of our own maturity without struggle throughout life? Can we develop values and grow in faith without engagement in the agony of doubt, uncertainty, and frustration? That more and more people are asking such questions, recognizing these kinds of problems, and calling into question the whole instant gratification syndrome I view as a positive development. Furthermore, I believe that much of the work being done in the social sciences, in philosophy, and in religion suggests alternative value systems and a return to basic life phenomena. The importance of struggle and even suffering as a means to growth and maturity seems to be gaining acceptance. In the face of all the drugs designed to deaden pain, all the ready escapes and easy blocks to our awareness of our distasteful feelings, some people struggle to live life with deepened awareness of its joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. I am convinced that the recognition and willful experience of suffering is a prerequisite to growth and maturity, that it, as a part of increased awareness of all in life, is essential to happiness and full human potential. I believe that Gestalt therapy and Christian religion offer theoretical and practical bases for this conviction. Before turning my attention to the importance of suffering in both Gestalt therapy and Christian religion, I will examine some of the basic assumptions of Gestalt therapy and draw parallels to them in Christian tradition and theology. The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, M. Div., is Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Nat]ck, Massachusetts. He has previously served churches in New Britain, Bolton, and Southport, Connecticut. He is interested in the application of Gestalt psychology to pastoral counseling. 164
Suffering to Grow
The importance of awareness, the present moment, personal responsibility, and moral courage are only some of the concerns common to Gestalt therapy and Christian religion. Because of these and similar stresses, the Gestalt approach seems to lend itself especially well to pastoral counseling. Modern theologians and Gestalt therapists seem to be saying so many of the same things, albeit from different points of view. The writing of this paper comes from my interest in, study of, and application of Gestalt therapy techniques in pastoral counseling situations. The interest, study, and application, in turn, stem from my growing conviction that Gestalt therapy offers a realistic and rewarding path to happy and healthy living, which is in keeping with my theological presuppositions relating to life, health, and wholeness. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to examine all the areas wherein Gestalt therapy and Christian religion agree; I include only those that bear directly on the understanding of the appreciation and importance of suffering. I shall include general observations about Gestalt therapy for the benefit of the reader who may not be familiar with this approach. The word "Gestalt" is not easily translatable into English. The word "situation" does some justice to it. In Gestalt therapy the total situation of the person is considered. In life we pass from one situation to another, one Gestalt to another, and each situation holds together many different parts. In a sense, the Gestalt is the total picture of one's present situation; it includes all things of which we are conscious and all appropriate things of which we are not. Gestalt therapy is a holistic approach to human life. How the therapy operates and what it assumes may be sensed in the following material. The importance of the present and awareness "Modern man lives in a state of low-grade vitality. Though generally he does not suffer deeply, he also knows little of true creative living. Instead of it, he has become an anxious automaton. ''1 Many have rightly identified our time as an age of anxiety. Many of us are preoccupied with the future--busily worrying about our own, making plans for situations t hat may never arise, struggling to remain in control of our lives. Others of us carry around a lot of baggage from the past--reliving in our imagination events long past, bogged down in unfinished business, or immobilized by our fears. Anxiety itself is caused when we block our excitement. When we become excited about our projections for the future but are not in a position to expend these energies toward reaching our goals, we experience anxiety. When the emotions of the past close in on us and we try to escape from them or block them out, we experience anxiety. Anxiety is the penalty we pay for refusing to live in the present. The only effective way to deal with anxiety is to recognize it and through increased awareness to liberate ourselves to experience fully our excitement, joy, sorrow, fear, or any other emotion we might otherwise try to block out. Unfinished emotions from our past must be given opportunity for full expression in the present if we are to leave past situations behind. Our excitement in relating to the future must be properly channeled so that we may use up its energy now. To do this our goals must be realistic and must come from a full awareness of ourselves in our field of activity.
Journal of Religion and Health
The Gestalt approach to life and therapy developed by the late Frederick S. Perls and others places primary emphasis on the importance of awareness and living in the present, in the "now." Within the Gestalt approach it does not seem appropriate to ask the question " W h y ? " but " W h a t ? " and "How?" Twentiethcentury man through specialization and automation seems not to care much about why things function as they do. Nor does understanding why we do what we do seem to help us make the changes we desire. The questions of our time are: "What is happening now? .... How do you feel about it?" Finding the answers to these questions does seem to produce changes in behavior and mood through increased awareness. Many people in a variety of fields are turning their attention to approaches to greater awareness. Gestalt therapy assumes the prime importance of awareness. Because it has avoided becoming dogmatic, is essentially eclectic, and assumes that each therapist will develop a style and approach appropriate to his own nature and that of the person he is counseling, it is difficult to outline the Gestalt approach. The theory behind the approach and awareness exercises are presented in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman, the standard theoretical work in the area. ~ Claudio Naranjo suggests a list o f " m o r a l injunctions" of Gestalt therapy that are not definitive, as he recognizes, but that serve as a guide to understanding the approach: 1. Live now. Be concerned with the present rather than with the past or future. 2. Live here. Deal with what is present rather than with what is absent. 3. Stop imagining. Experience the real. 4. Stop unnecessary thinking. Rather, taste and see. 5. Express rather than manipulate, explain, justify, or judge. 6. Give in to the unpleasantness and pain just as to pleasure. Do not restrict your awareness. 7. Accept no "should" or "ought" other than your own. Adore no graven image. 8. Take full responsibility for your actions, feelings, and thoughts. 9. Surrender to being as you are. 3 Behind this Gestalt preoccupation with things in the present lies the assumption that life is a present reality and that increasing awareness of the totality of one's life and situation is the only sure road to the development of full human potential. In somewhat similar fashion, the Christian religion stresses the importance of the present and heightened awareness. Hebrew religion in general presents a picture of the God who is acting in the present moment in the life of His people. The events of the past (God's actions in the past) are brought into the present by the use of present-tense verbs and the tradition of anamnesis, re-enacting an event from the past in the present in such a way that the people relive or experience that event. Through anamnesis, the whole of divine history becomes incorporated as a part of each generation's, each person's experience. The Passover Seder is an example of this; through it the people yearly flee from Egypt, pass through the Red (Reed) Sea, and wander through the desert on the way to the land of promise. That any notion of an afterlife developed late in Hebrew
Suffering to Grow
thought and has never occupied an important place in theology bears witness to the importance of the present moment. Following its Hebrew roots, Christianity, too, stresses the present. The Holy Communion, the central act of corporate worship and the sacrament of sustenance for all who have been joined into the community through baptism, is itself an anamnesis. At the Last Supper, Jesus reinterprets the Seder in such a way that it is by passing through him rather than the sea that his followers will enjoy new life and the land of promise. The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are celebrated at each Eucharist as a present event in which his followers participate in the "now" of their lives. Jesus himself seems to be an example of a man living and working in the present situation. He lays great stress on the fact t hat it is one's present condition that is important; the sins of the past are forgiven, the old order is passing away. There is little evidence that Jesus thought or spoke much about the future; some of the statements attributed to him that do concern the future are now generally believed to be additions of the early church to the Gospel narratives. Modern theologians again stress that now is the time to experience salvation, now is the time of God's actions in our lives. A good deal of Gospel material accentuates this theme; for example, the parable of the six wise and six foolish maidens calls for readiness in the present to greet and do the work of the Lord. To be sure, St. Paul and other early Christians became increasingly concerned with the future, as have Christians in most ages since t hat time. Christians have been overly concerned (and in some cases preoccupied) with the future. Concern about afterlife and the end of time seems to occupy less space in the writings of contemporary theologians who have returned to an accent on the present encounter with God, mission as our present occupation, and the future as a direct result of our actions in the present. Bolstering this attitude is the theological assertion that man is called to be a helper of God. To be made in God's "image" means to share in His essential creativity. Man is evolving into a more human being, and with that evolution comes increased responsibility to realize our potential as the children of God and co-creators in the universe. Such a theological view sets the stage for man to see the importance of the present and the need to use the present for creative purposes. No longer is man seen as a pawn in the cosmic chess game; he cannot wait to be moved by some outside force, but must take responsibility for moving himself. When it was assumed that the future was entirely in God's hand, man's present was relatively unimportant. With the accent on man's role in molding the future, his present takes on new importance. Awareness is crucial to an appreciation of the present and an understanding of one's life. In Gestalt therapy a great deal of time is spent centering on awareness of one's breathing and posture, one's expressions, one's use of words and the sound of one's voice, one's internal feelings, one's fantasies, one's feelings about and relationships with others. In short, all of the ground must be scrutinized so that as much of it as possible can be incorporated meaningfully into our awareness. As Stevens insists, "Be-aware--really aware--and you don't need to worry about anything. No fear. That's where no-fear is. Not beware! (Be
Journal of Religion and Health
cautious.) J u s t be aware."* In the New T e s t a m e n t , Jesus frequently calls his followers to greater awareness of their inner motives, their relationships with others, the mood of their times, and God's hand at work in their world. For the Christian, awareness is an i m p o r t a n t means to life fulfillment and b e t t e r comprehension of and stamina for one's mission in the world. In Gestalt therapy, as in Christianity, awareness is the p a t h to integration and to health. T h e " w h a t ? " and " h o w ? " questions referred to earlier are asked in order to gain greater awareness of one's present situation. T h e r e are any n u m b e r of good m e t h o d s and techniques designed to foster awareness. T h e use of any of t h e m should depend on the person and situation. Muriel Schiffman, in her book on self-therapy, suggests five steps t h a t should be taken in order to grow in awareness of one's emotions, especially u n p l e a s a n t ones: 1) In the situation, recognize or identify an inappropriate reaction; 2) Feel the a p p a r e n t emotion; 3) Ask what else you feel, what other emotion; 4) Ask what this reminds you of; does it have a root in the past? 5) Look for a pattern; when has this kind of reaction and emotion occurred in your past? 5 Staying with questions like these should greatly increase one's awareness. A[firming what is
" T h e best way to view a present problem is to give it all you've got, to study it and its nature, to perceive within it the intrinsic interrelationships, to discover (rather t h a n invent) the answer to the problem within the problem itself. ''6 This kind of awareness requires t h a t we give up the past and grow in awareness of our present, total situation. To become aware of the pleasant aspects of one's life seems an easy assignment, although m a n y people do not take time to nurture even this kind of awareness. Becoming and remaining aware of the unpleasant is far more difficult. Perls says, " W e have become 'phobic' towards pain and suffering . . . . Anything that is not fun or pleasant is to be avoided. ''7 We constantly build defenses against experiencing our suffering. When we begin to experience an u n p l e a s a n t emotion, we usually withdraw from the situation or divert our a t t e n t i o n in an a t t e m p t to m a k e life more pleasant. T h e result is t h a t we not only do not really escape from t h a t negative emotion; we have stifled growth in the process. By advocating the experience of suffering, I am not suggesting t h a t masochism is in order. T h e masochist, unlike the healthy sufferer, has learned to tolerate certain levels of pain as a result of his own fear of pain. T o experience suffering in a healthy way, we need not anticipate that we will enjoy it (it will, after all, be painful). Acceptance of suffering should come as a result of our recognition t h a t only by such a c c e p t a n c e can we pass through the pain into a new life. Emotional suffering is a means of preventing the isolation of the problem, in order that, working through the conflict, the self may grow in the field of the existent. The sooner one is willing to relax struggling against the destructive conflict, to relax to the pain and confusion, the sooner the suffering is over. 8
Suffering to Grow
Gestalt t h e r a p y assumes t h a t the only way to rid oneself of an u n w a n t e d or distasteful emotion or feeling is to own it, affirm it, a n d express it. People do not seem to be successful at rationalizing u n w a n t e d feelings. For example, the person who has not allowed himself to express grief at the t i m e of the d e a t h of a loved one either because he feels t h a t such an e m o t i o n a l show is not fitting for a strong person or because he has chosen to p r o t e c t himself from the experience of painful grief m a y continue to experience anxiety or depression. H e has not finished off a situation t h a t needs to be concluded. In a t h e r a p y session, such a person m i g h t be asked to get in touch with those feelings of grief, to talk to the deceased loved one, to express fully his tears and emptiness. In a sense, he brings the p a s t e v e n t into the present in order to work c o m p l e t e l y through it so t h a t it can truly b e c o m e a thing of the past. Before such a working through, the p a s t event has been carried along into the present, b u t the person has not really been aware of it as unfinished business. Because it is unfinished, the b e r e a v e d is greatly limited in his degree of experienceing personal growth. T h e Gestalt (situation) needs to be closed. In the case in point, experiencing the grief is the only way to c o m p l e t e the Gestalt. M o s t of us are taught by p a r e n t s a n d others t h a t the display of certain emotions is bad. Therefore, we t e n d to try to stifle the emotions a n d in so doing only succeed in creating anxiety or hostility or some other feeling of discontent. Perls points out, "You never overcome a n y t h i n g b y resisting it. You only can overcome a n y t h i n g b y going deeper into it. If you are spiteful, be m o r e spiteful." ~ If you are resentful, fearful, hateful, or ashamed, the road to relief from a n y negative feeling is through the feeling itself. To experience fully is to overcome. L a t n e r m a k e s this point: Health is not equivalent to happiness, surfeit, or success. It is foremost a matter of being wholly at one with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. Even our death is a healthy event if we fully embrace the fact of our dying . . . . Whatever our present existence consists of, if we are at one with it, we are healthy. 1~ T h e Gestalt a p p r o a c h m a k e s considerable use of a n a m n e s i s , bringing a p a s t event into fuller awareness a n d reliving in some symbolic way, if not in a c t u a l i t y , the emotions of t h a t m o m e n t in the present. T h i s m e t h o d is not only useful in dealing with the emotions themselves, b u t should be used in b e c o m i n g a w a r e of the defenses we build to prevent the experiencing of painful emotions. One such defense in which we all engage is d a y d r e a m i n g . D a y d r e a m i n g is a p r o b l e m only if we persist in unrealistic or impossible d a y d r e a m s . It can be a useful way of planning for the future, but unrealistic d a y d r e a m s are escapes a n d can b e c o m e immobilizing forces. Perls m a k e s the following observation a b o u t dealing with chronic, unrealistic d a y d r e a m i n g : In order to cure such disfunction [sic], you must learn to recognize your energies, to face the unpleasant situations which you imagine you cannot tolerate, and which you try to overcome by day-dreaming. Be unhappy at the unpleasantness, and, if experienced and expressed fully, the unhappiness itself will be a benefit. Then take steps in the direction
Journal of Religion and Health
indicated by your day-dream; set about actually building these "castles in the air" which so intrigue you, by building them on solid ground . . . . Do something to link these dreams with reality. ~1 T h e importance of affirming reality and experiencing painful emotions as well as something of the style of the Gestalt approach can be seen in the following, slightly condensed v e r b a t i m passage from a workshop led by Erving Polster in which I participated in J a n u a r y , 1975. In it we can see t h a t in experiencing suffering rather t h a n blocking the unpleasant emotion, insight and growth take place. M a r y is a well-educated professional person in her late twenties. In the group session, she discusses a problem she experiences whenever she is called on to speak professionally before a group. At such times, she becomes so self-conscious, so aware of her own use of words, she feels t h a t her presentations suffer greatly. She wants to feel freer and to be more at ease. She is at present concerned about a talk she is scheduled to make in the coming week to a P.T.A. meeting. Therapist: H a v e you ever tried to s p e a k extemporaneously, without any real preparation? Mary: No. T: Would you be willing to s t a n d and try to speak to us extemporaneously on your topic? M: W e l l . . . [Mary remains seated and pulls her jacket across her chest]. T: I ask you to stand and you cover up your breasts. M: M m m . [Mary blushes and looks at the floor]. T: What's the m a t t e r now? M: [pause] I'm embarrassed. T: Are you embarrassed about your body? M: [pause] Yes, I guess I am. T: You guess you are; d o n ' t you know? M: Yes, I ' m embarrassed. T: When did you first become aware of your body? Do you r e m e m b e r a time in the past when you were embarrassed a b o u t your body? M: Oh, wow! I r e m e m b e r a time all right! T: Will you share it with us? M: I thought I was here to work on a c o m m u n i c a t i o n problem. I don't know why we're getting off into this b i t . . . [sighs and pauses] You really want me to proceed with this? T: Yes, I'd like you to tell us about t h a t embarrassing experience. M: Well, when I was twelve, I went to camp, a n d . . , well . . . all the other girls in my cabin were better developed t h a n I was. T: T h e y had bigger breasts. M: Yes, and one day they all ganged up on me and stripped off my clothes and held me down on the bed and took my picture. T h e y said they were going to show it all over school. I struggled, but there were seven of t h e m and I couldn't do anything. T: You had a terrible experience. Did they show the picture? M: I d o n ' t know [still looking very embarrassed].
Su[fering to Grow
T: Imagine that they're holding you down. Say to them whatever you want to say-plead, scream. What do you want to say to those girls? M: Get your fuckin' hands off me [said in a dejected and embarrassed voice]. T: Can you sound more as if you mean it? M: Get your fuckin' hands off me! [with greater feeling but not deep emotion; Mary during all this time is looking at the floor]. T: Do you mean it? Say it again. M: [Mary pauses, then looks at the group and screams at the top of her voice] G E T YOUR GODDAMN FUCKIN' HANDS OFF ME! [she looks at the floor and sobs]. T: How do you feel? Do you want to cry? M: [Mary cries for a short time, then looks up. ] I'm all right now. T: Mary, you may want to work some more on this situation, but right now I'd like you to walk around our circle so that we can all see you and you see us. M: I still don't see what any of this has to do with public speaking. [She slowly gets up and stiffly walks around the circle and quickly sits down ]. T: Th at was fine. Now, I'd like you to try it again, only this time let your muscles relax; try to feel what your arms and legs are like. [Mary walks around again and is a little more relaxed; she swings her arms and takes note of her legs. She sits down as soon as she completes the circle.] T: That's better. Now, try dancing around this time. M: Oh, brother! Do I have to? T: I'd like you to. I think you'll find it helpful. [Mary gets up and dances; she moves her arms and legs with greater freedom. As she nears the end of the circle, everyone claps in appreciation. She sits quickly down. ] T: Th at was good, but you sat down too fast; you didn't have a chance to experience their appreciation. Do it one more time, only this time when you reach your place, instead of sitting down, bow or in some other way show us that you are accepting our appreciation. [Mary dances more elastically and when she finishes she turns to each member of the group, smiles, and bows. Everyone claps. The longer the clapping continues the more Mary smiles and seems to enjoy it. Her movements are now quite relaxed. ] The therapist thanks Mary and comments to her and the group that she will need to do some more thinking and some more work on her self-image, but that experiences like this should help her to become less self-conscious as a public speaker. Clearly, Mary has avoided feeling her embarrassment and has tried to block it out; having now experienced it, she may become free from the embarrassment of the past and feel more self-assured in the present. Also, it is important that she realize that people in the present do appreciate her; she does not have to live in the shadow of the past. Recognizing and affirming what has been and what is is a recurrent theme in Christian literature. Jesus himself struggles for awareness and sets an example by his attitude and prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his crucifixion. He wills to avoid escape and faces the uncertainty and suffering of the present
Journal o[ Religion and Health
m o m e n t a n d the i m m e d i a t e future. We h a v e here a picture of J e s u s struggling with himself, t e m p t e d to escape b o t h physically and psychologically, yet d e t e r m i n e d to face a n d go through the u n p l e a s a n t n e s s . His d e t e r m i n a t i o n , "Nevertheless, T h y will be done," far from passing the b u c k to the Father, is his s t a t e d decision to r e m a i n in a n d with the present difficult m o m e n t with the faith t h a t in so doing he will grow, t h a t joy will follow suffering, good come from the experience of the bad. T h e lives of m a n y saints b e a r witness to this s a m e kind of self-willed a c c e p t a n c e of u n p l e a s a n t n e s s , their willingness to go through the emotions of the present situation with the conviction t h a t growth a n d new life will be experienced t h e r e b y . T h e fact t h a t m a n y Christians h a v e a d o p t e d a similar a t t i t u d e in the form of P o l l y a n n a i s m , which is clearly an avoidance of facing the u n p l e a s a n t n e s s of the m o m e n t , should not overshadow the fact t h a t m a n y other Christians h a v e c o m m i t t e d t h e m s e l v e s to fully experiencing the present a n d h a v e not looked for c h e a p silver linings or engaged in the "sweet l e m o n s " game. A proper spirit of Christian c o m m i t m e n t to this end, one t h a t finds m a n y different voices in c o n t e m p o r a r y theology, is expressed in this p r a y e r from a sermon of P a u l Tillich, entitled, " I n E v e r y t h i n g Give T h a n k s " : We thank Thee when we look back at our life, be it long or short, for all that we have met in it. And we thank Thee not only for what we have loved and for what gave us pleasure, but also for what brought us disappointment, pain and suffering because we now know that it helped us to fulfill that for which we were born. And if new disappointments and new suffering takes hold of us and words of thanks die on our tongues, remind us that a day may come when we will be ready to give thanks for the dark road on which Thou hast led U S . 12
A s s u m i n g responsibility
To affirm w h a t is requires t h a t a person t a k e responsibility for his/her own life. G e s t a l t t h e r a p y a n d Christian theology are b o t h very decisive a b o u t personal responsibility. One of the great d i s a d v a n t a g e s of the p s y c h o a n a l y t i c a p p r o a c h has been t h a t in finding causes in the p a s t for present behavior, m a n y people have tended to assume helplessness in the face of their p r o b l e m s a n d h a v e ' f o u n d it easy to b l a m e p a r e n t s or others for their behavior. No m a t t e r how things developed in the past, the individual a n d no one outside h i m s e l f is responsible for his present. A great deal of the work in G e s t a l t t h e r a p y is designed to help the individual accept responsibility for his t h o u g h t s a n d actions. We are responsible for things we clearly do--for being angry, or obstinate, or irresponsible; for breaking dishes and giving gifts. We are responsible as well for the injuries inflicted on us, and the presents we receive, for what is done to us. Here we are responsible for our part in the event--for pain we feel and the taking of the gift. When it rains, we get wet. While we don't make it rain, we are responsible for being wet. We are also responsible for our middle mode experiences, for the things we participate in and give ourselves up to. We do not make ourselves love, or hate, but they are the feelings we have. We are responsible for having those feelings, not because we caused them to be, but because they are our experience at this moment.Is
Suffering to Grow
Only the person who assumes that he is responsible for his own life and all of his own emotions and feelings can risk experiencing the suffering t h a t is prerequisite to growth. Those who cast blame on others tend to cling to their present situation and avoid change. Such people cling to the status quo despite protestations of desired change and chronic complaining. As Perls writes: The status quo is "holding onto the concept that we are c h i l d r e n . " . . . We are infantile because we are afraid to take responsibility in the now. To take our place in history, to be mature, means giving up the concept that we have parents, that we have to be submissive or defiant, or the other variations on the child's role that we play. 1~ Traditionally, Christian theology has presented the concept of free will in order to hold m a n responsible for his thoughts and actions. T h e c o m m a n d m e n t s of both the Old and New T e s t a m e n t s are frequently presented in order to imply that man is responsible for his own life. Unfortunately, the bulk of traditional theology does not make a very strong case for responsibility. In fact, man very often seems powerless without the grace of God. T h e c o m m a n d m e n t s are introjects, feelings of " o u g h t " or " s h o u l d , " presented from the outside and in the case of m a n y people never really owned and accepted internally. These introjects are not enough to hold man responsible. Fortunately, m a n y c o n t e m p o r a r y theologians are presenting a case for personal responsibility based on positive rather t h a n negative observations. If m a n is seen as a helper of God, if his power and position in the order of things are seen, then m a n more obviously is responsible. His degree of responsibility cannot properly be measured by his adherence to c o m m a n d m e n t s but by his struggle to reach his own highest potential. Jesus is in the prophetic tradition within the H e b r e w religion; for him and for m a n y of the Old T e s t a m e n t prophets, the spirit of the law is more i m p o r t a n t t h a n the letter. Slaves are not responsible, b u t children are. T o paraphrase St. Paul, we are not slaves but children of God and heirs in His kingdom. For the Christian, responsibility is based on the nature of m a n in relation to God, a relation t h a t assumes t h a t m a n has a unique place in the creation of the world. T h e nature of t h a t place holds m a n responsible. T h e fact t h a t there are forces in the universe over which we have no control does not lessen our personal responsibility. In any situation, h u m a n beings have some field of choice. In the final analysis, we are responsible. J u s t as the quotation from L a t n e r above implies t h a t responsibility need not assume a position of control, the Christian is responsible for his experience if not for causality. Christianity and contemporary psychology are t h r e a t e n e d by popular trends and fads t h a t u n d e r c u t personal responsibility. For Christians, we see this among some charismatic persons and others who ascribe all evil thoughts and actions to demon possession. " T h e devil m a d e me do it" has become for some people more than a cute expression. In psychology, we see the same thing in some of the popular literature that speaks of character formation and emotional outlook as a product of one's environment and upbringing. In both religion and the behavioral sciences, the more orthodox approaches offer assistance in recognizing the importance of responsibility and its essential part in growth and health.
Journal of Religion and Health
Courage and the positive experience of suffering To assume responsibility for one's life takes courage. Unfortunately, m a n y people fear a loss of security as they a s s u m e greater degrees of responsibility. Yet security m e a n s different things to different people. " T h e r e is no such thing as a true security, for then the self would be a fixity . . . . Sense of security is a sign of weakness; t h e person who feels it is always waiting for its disproof. ''~5 Since all of life a n d all in life changes, security is really a m a t t e r of peace of mind, c o n t e n t m e n t with the present s t a t e of flux. Perls talks of positive peace a n d negative peace: POSITIVE PEACE: When the conflict has raged itself out and come to a creative solution with the change and assimilation of warring factors, there is a relief of suffering and the completed excitement of the new created whole. NEGATIVE PEACE: The peace of conquest, where the victim is still in existence and must be dominated, is, as peace a negative: the suffering of the conflict has ceased but the figure of awareness is not alive with new possibilities, for nothing has been solved. The victor is watchful, the victim resentful. ~e More often t h a n not we settle for negative peace, a s s u m i n g t h a t all is finally well. For this reason, so m u c h of Gestalt t h e r a p y is geared to the working out of u n p l e a s a n t , unfinished business. Its a i m is the possibility of experiencing positive peace. In speaking of the peace he is leaving with his disciples, Jesus assures t h e m t h a t this peace will not be like the peace the world gives. His peace is quite different. His is not the false sense of security, the negative peace, which people " e n j o y " by clinging to the status quo. His peace passes h u m a n understanding, a peace t h a t is itself an a p p r o a c h to all of life, an a c c e p t a n c e of all in life with hope (positive peace). In a n o t h e r passage, Jesus says: "Do not t h i n k ! have come to bring peace; I come to bring a sword." T h e " s w o r d " refers to the struggle a n d strife that are a necessary p a r t of life and a prerequisite for enjoying positive peace. His peace is our experience when we accept the sword as an integral p a r t of living. T h e a c c e p t a n c e of the sword, the a c c e p t a n c e of suffering, is in a very real way a p l e a s u r a b l e experience, although it involves genuine pain a n d m e n t a l anguish. In the m i d s t of self-willed suffering, one frequently becomes aware of feeling, " I ' m glad to be experiencing this," " I need this." S c h i f f m a n begins her book with this s t a t e m e n t a b o u t the positive and even enjoyable aspects of self-willed suffering: I stumbled on the key to self therapy: I learned to "feel painful emotions" I had been avoiding all my life. I explored attitudes and relationships that forced me to feel rage and grief and anxiety, and I did a great deal of crying. For two long years I unearthed a hidden part of my life, and suffered and then it suddenly dawned on me that my old, recurrent depression was gone. Somewhere along the way I had lost it, and it has never come back. 17 B u t before we experience this bitter-sweet appreciation, we m u s t have the courage to u n d e r t a k e the process of suffering. Tillich says: "Courage . . . is the
Su[fering to Grow
readiness to take upon oneself negatives, a n t i c i p a t e d by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity. Biological self-affirmation implies the a c c e p t a n c e of want, toil, insecurity, pain, possible destruction." ~8 Faith b e c o m e s an i m p o r t a n t factor here. For the Christian, faith is not an adherence to a set of beliefs, b u t a positive attitude toward life. There is comfort in the knowledge t h a t we share in the love of God. E v e n when we do not u n d e r s t a n d why things h a p p e n as they do, such faith in God can be a strengthening factor. T h e Gestalt a p p r o a c h offers to Christians a n d non-Christians alike a s o m e w h a t similar faith in the essential goodness of self-awareness a n d a belief that all of our life experiences can work for good in the perceptive and feeling individual. Faith a n d courage are, as Tillich points o u t , essentially related:
The courage to be is an expression of faith and what "faith" means must be understood through the courage to be. We have defined courage as the self-affirmation of being in spite of non-being. The power of this self-affirmation is the power of being which is effective in every act of courage. Faith is the experience of this power. ,9 T h e courage t h a t is needed is the courage to accept failure as a possible end of the road. We see this kind of courage d e m o n s t r a t e d in m a n y of the world's great leaders, a n d the Christian sees it especially in Jesus, who chose the p a t h t h a t seemed to lead inevitably to failure a n d death. A m i s u n d e r s t a n d i n g t h a t has developed in m u c h of Christian theology is the a s s u m p t i o n t h a t the resurrection is a reward bestowed upon Jesus because he has suffered so much. M u c h popular theology m a k e s this point. In fact, the resurrection is an integral p a r t of the process of the suffering itself. It is nothing Jesus could have p l a n n e d or p r o b a b l y even h o p e d for, b u t his self-willed suffering a n d resurrection are a m a n i f e s t a t i o n of w h a t is true in general in the created order. W h e n we will to experience the fullness of life, even when that fullness m a y m e a n death, new life is always a potential p a r t of the process itself. For Jesus, the cross spelled the end of his h u m a n existence, the end of one kind of life. Yet t h a t cross also liberated the Spirit of God within h i m so that t h a t Spirit m i g h t continue to grow in others in the world. T h e cross in this sense m e a n s the continuation of life in a m o r e dyn a m i c form. For m u c h of c o n t e m p o r a r y theology, the resurrection does not m e a n the rejuvenation of decaying flesh, but the continuation of the divine S p i r i t ' s life. In a nontheological way, Gestalt t h e r a p y m a k e s a similar point. E x p e r i e n c e of life in all its fullness brings new life a n d is its own reward. L a u r a Perls s e e m s to be i m p l y i n g this in the following: The most incessant and selfless services and sacrifices remain not only unpaid and unrewarded, but must be taken for granted. Only the limited work or object can be paid for with a limited amount of money; only the limited service or effort can be rewarded with promotion or a title or a citation. The unlimited devotion of a parent or the lifelong dedication to a cause cannot be paid for or rewarded, it can only be accepted and need not be recognized. Its reward is the actual performance, in the feeling of restoring the social balance in a changing ongoing process. 2~
Journal of Religion and Health
Courage is what enables us to bounce back from defeat and to refrain from the temptation to become fixated in our momentary triumphs. Or, as Walker says: "Paradise lost is regained only momentarily, only long enough for one to get his feet on the ground so that he may push off again. ''21 Suffering and growth
Suffering is not a sure road to growth, but growth does not take place without it. Frustration and hardship are a very real part of every human life, and for this reason it is necessary to experience these unpleasantnesses if we are to reach maturity. In Gestalt therapy, time is taken to experience painful moments in order to foster growth and maturity. The first task is to get in touch with the present feelings and awarenesses of the individual. The therapist may ask the patient or person being counseled to describe what he is aware of and how he feels. Following the identification of feelings, it is possible to work more deeply on those feelings themselves. Behind the anxiety, depression, or uneasiness, the patient may begin to get in touch with his anger, hate, embarrassment, or some other strong emotion. It may then be appropriate to identify what prohibition within the person prevents him from experiencing more fully or expressing the strong emotion. The therapist may suggest that he carry on a dialogue between the strong emotion and the prohibiting inner voice. Such a dialogue should bring the issue more clearly into the person's awareness; it then may be possible for him to express the emotion fully in dramatic form, by hitting a pillow, screaming, crying, or in some other way whereby the full intensity of the emotion may be felt without the patient or anyone else being hurt. If it is done fully and properly, the patient learns a great deal about his feelings and may be able to close off this unfinished Gestalt. Or, as in the case of Mary discussed above, it may be that the buried emotion from the past will find expression in a gesture. Her covering her breasts when she was asked to stand before the group enabled the therapist to ask questions designed to let Mary develop for herself the relationship between her self-consciousness and the traumatic, embarrassing moment from her past, which she had tried to repress. By being able to scream at the girls who had so embarrassed her and by receiving the obvious appreciation of people in the group, Mary had an opportunity to free herself from the past and celebrate her acceptability in the present. It is entirely possible to go through these kinds of awareness exercises by oneself. In fact, the whole process involving the therapist and patient has as its aim the training of the patient to do this for himself. Muriel Schiffman, who has published two books on self-therapy, makes the following observation: "In order to grow and be our true selves, we must go back to those unfinished situations, feel the old forbidden emotions and experience those hidden parts of ourselves that are just like the people who once frustrated us. This is the real work of therapy. ''2~ As one becomes more aware of himself and his own feelings and carries on inner dialogues in an attempt to resolve unfinished business, one discovers that this process tends to become quicker and more automatic. The process never reaches an end while life lasts, and it calls for considerable
Suffering to Grow
discipline. M a n y emotions and m a n y situations r e m a i n very painful to get in touch with. One of the most difficult to deal with is the feeling of emptiness. We t e n d to fill the void with phony activities and busy-work. If we begin really to get i n contact with this emptiness, we begin to experience some exciting things. Such experiences are what Perls and others identify as the "fertile void": The person who is capable of staying with the experience of the "fertile void"-experiencing his confusion to the utmost--and who can become aware of everything calling for his attention (hallucinations, broken up sentences, vague feelings, strange feelings, peculiar sensations) is in for a big surprise. He will probably have a sudden "aha" experience; suddenly a solution will come forward, an insight that has not been there before, a blinding flash of realization or understanding. 2s T h e experience of the "fertile void" is truly a kind of self-willed suffering, and suffering of this kind always leads to some meaningful resolution, some means whereby growth can take place. Akin to the experience of emptiness is t h a t of boredom, and it is one of the most difficult to deal with. To avoid the suffering of boredom we t e n d to fill such times with activities. Yet we should at these times stay with the boredom itself. W h a t does it feel like? How does boredom operate in our experience? Do experiences of it from our past come to mind? W h a t is the boredom itself telling us? If we can avoid leaving it for some pleasurable activity or using it for food for complaint, it, like the "fertile void," will bring new insight. M a n y mystics (Christian and other) attest to this kind of experience when they have disciplined themselves to r e m a i n with the voids and the boredoms t h a t are a part of all our lives. Some of t h e greatest religious insights have come at such times as these. For Christians, growth in the life of faith and in the knowledge of and appreciation of God have traditionally been experienced in this way. Disciplined awareness in life and of all in life is from the s t a n d p o i n t of both Gestalt t h e r a p y and Christian theology absolutely essential for growth and maturation. Perls offers an excellent and concise s t a t e m e n t on this: The superior man obeys the signal and engages himself in the suffering, calls up the past, sees his present hopelessly frustrated; he cannot imagine what to do now that the bottom has fallen out of everything; the grief, confusion, and suffering are prolonged, for there is much to be destroyed and annihilated, and much to be assimilated, and during this time he must not go about his unimportant business, deliberately suppressing the conflict. 24 This kind of prolonged suffering is similar to the experiences written a b o u t by J o h n of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and other Christian mystics. For Christians, the Jesus of G e t h s e m a n e is an especially appropriate model for this kind of experience. He does not flee from his agony in the garden, either actually or figuratively; in this he is a contrast to his disciples, who flee from the anxiety of the m o m e n t through sleep and later on foot. Jesus goes through the painfulness of his trial and beating and does not answer the charges being m a d e against him or plead for mercy. He goes to Calvary, is crucified, and dies; he does not accept the drug offered him on the cross. All the convenient escapes are
Journal of Religion and Health
refused, so that he experiences to the fullest extent the suffering of the moment. It is interesting to note that Mark and Matthew record only one word from the cross: "My God, why have you forgotten me?" This is the cry of a man in the "fertile void," in the midst of the full experience of his suffering. Preachers and theologians who suggest that Jesus is here quoting from the Psalms miss the theological and practical point that is so beautifully made. Jesus is the man of sorrows, a model for our own suffering. It may be that the additional words from the cross supplied by Luke's and John's Gospels were added to make theological points about the faith and compassion of Jesus that their authors want to make, or that they were things they believed Jesus should have said. It is also possible that they accurately represent what Jesus did say; if such be the case, perhaps the " a h a " experience of his "fertile void" enabled Jesus to close the Gestalt of suffering and turn his attention to forgiving his persecutors and pardoning the penitent thief, and finally committing himself into the hands of his Father. In any event, the primary advantage for our own learning from the story of the crucifixion comes from the model of Jesus willing to remain with suffering to the end. His model is useful in understanding the religious implications and the behavioral scientific implications of the relationship of suffering to growth. Suffering and the therapist's role
Helping to enable the person being counseled to experience his own suffering is a major task of the therapist. He is a catalyst in this process, yet he must take an active role without letting the person become dependent on him. As Perls notes: "No conflict should be dissolved by psychotherapy. Especially the 'inner' conflicts are strongly energized and concernful and are the means of growth; the task of psychotherapy is to make them aware so that they may feed on new environmental material and come to crisis. ''2~ The therapist has a responsibility to refrain from yielding to the temptation to be helpful, to come too quickly to the rescue of the one being counseled. This is a great temptation for all who work in the "helping" professions, for these professions generally attract people who want to be helpers. Clergy are especially prone to be too helpful because it is often assumed that love is best shown by being helpful and being helpful is a strong part of the general clergy image. Yet if the therapist is too helpful or too kind, the person escapes from feeling his problem or emotional state squarely and no improvement can be made. Fritz Perls became an expert in skillful (and ironically, loving) frustration of those with whom he worked. He was very quick to spot all the games and all the other subtleways people have of taking others in and avoiding facing their own problems. He writes: "Helpers are con men, interfering. Peolpe have to grow by frustration--by skillful frustration. Otherwise they have no incentive to develop their own means and ways of coping with the world. ''~6 Barry Stevens puts it more succinctly, "'Being helpful' is robbery. ''2~ From a Christian standpoint, it has long been recognized that love in its deepest forms does not stand in the way of the experiencing of suffering. The Father's love does not manifest itself in the removal of Jesus from the cross or in lessening his
Suffering to Grow
suffering. Deep love knows when to be helpful and when to let be, as good p a r e n t s will readily attest. When we are too helpful we do rob ourselves a n d others of deeper, more i m p o r t a n t experiences. In the Gestalt a p p r o a c h where the active i n v o l v e m e n t of the t h e r a p i s t is so i m p o r t a n t , it a l m o s t goes without saying t h a t the t h e r a p i s t m u s t b e c o m e expert at experiencing suffering himself. T h e t h e r a p i s t m u s t continue to grow a n d m u s t foster his own increased awareness. N o t only m u s t he be aware of w h a t the person he is dealing with is doing and saying, he m u s t be aware of his own s t a t e a n d m u s t see the two parts of this one d y n a m i c in perspective. W i t h the skills the t h e r a p i s t learns in dealing with himself, he m a y be of use to others as well. P a r t of the e x c i t e m e n t of Gestalt t h e r a p y is t h a t it nicely bridges the gap between thinking a n d doing; it is an extraordinarily practical and active a p p r o a c h to life a n d health. In recent years, Christian theology has put a new stress on bridging the s a m e gap a n d has t u r n e d to more practical considerations. W h e r e a s in m a n y t i m e s in the p a s t the accent was on w h a t a person believed, the accent in theology t o d a y is on w h a t a person does on the basis of his beliefs. T h e living of one's faith is of p r i m e i m p o r t a n c e . Theology calls for greater h u m a n awareness a n d a deeper u n d e r s t a n d i n g of our calling to be productive children of God. In a sense Christian m i n i s t r y has as its a i m the ~ a m e goal as Gestalt therapy, the reaching out to others in such a way t h a t they m a y discover for t h e m s e l v e s richer, fuller lives. T h a t individuals m a y b e c o m e whole, each p a r t integrated in such a way as to produce growth a n d fulfillment, is a religious a n d social goal. Assisting people to discover how rich and rewarding life can be so t h a t they m a y grow to their full potential is the aim of C h r i s t i a n i t y a n d G e s t a l t t h e r a p y . In this process the minister a n d the t h e r a p i s t h a v e a crucial a n d very special kind of vocation. For b o t h the positive aspects of suffering are seen as a prerequisite to new life. References
1. Perls, F. S., The Gestalt Approach. Palo Alto, California, Science and Behavior Books, 1973, XIII. 2. _ _ . , Hefferline, R., and Goodman, P. Gestalt Therapy. New York, Dell, 1951. 3. Naranjo, C., "Present-Centeredness: Technique, Prescriptions, and Ideal." In Fagan, J., and Shepherd, I., eds., Gestalt Therapy Now. New York, Harper & Row, 1970, pp. 49-50. 4. Stevens, B., Don't Push the River. Moab, Utah, Real People Press, 1970, p. 232. 5. Schiffman, M., Self Therapy--Techniques for Personal Growth. Menlo Park, California, Self Therapy Press, 1967. 6. Maslow, A. H., The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, Viking Press, 1971, p. 63. 7. Perls, Eye Witness to Therapy. Palo Alto, California, Science and Behavior Books, 1973, p. 118. 8. . Hefferline, and Goodman, op. cit., p. 360. 9. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. New York, Bantam Books, 1972, p. 230. 10. Latner, J., T~,e Gestalt Therapy Book. New York, Julian Press, 1973. 11. Perls, Ego, Hunger and Aggression. New York, Random House, 1969, p. 210. 12. Tillich, P., The Eternal Now. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963. 13. Latner, op. cit., pp. 59-60. 14. Perls, "Four Lectures." In Fagan and Shepherd, eds., op. cit., p. 17. 15. _ _ , Hefferline, and Goodman, op. cit., p. 414. 16. Ibid., pp. 362-363. 17. Schiffman, op. cit., p. 1. 18. Tillich, The Courage to Be. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1952, p. 78.
Journal of Religion and Health
19. Ibid., p. 172. 20. Perls, L., "Notes on the Psychology of Give and Take." In Pursglove, P. D., ed., Recognitions in Gestalt Therapy. New York, Harper & Row, 1968, p. 128. 21. Walker, J. L., Body and Soul: Gestalt Therapy and Religious Experience. Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 176. 22. Schiffman, Gestalt Self Therapy. Menlo Park, California, Self Therapy Press, 1971, p. 8. 23. Perls, The Gestalt Approach, op. cit., p. 99. 24. - - , Hefferline, and Goodman, op. cir., pp. 359-360. 25. Ibid., p. 356. 26. Ibid., p. 77. 27. Stevens, op. cit., p. 114.
Useful materials not quoted Fagan, J., and Shepherd, I., eds., Gestalt Therapy Now. New York, Harper & Row, 1970. Perls, F. S., In and Out the Garbage Pail. New York, Bantam Books, 1969. Polster, E. and M., Gestalt Therapy Integrated. New York, Brunner/Mazel, 1973. Pursglove, P. D., ed., Recognitions in Gestalt Therapy. New York, Harper & Row, 1968. Shostrom, E., Freedom to Be. New York, Bantam Books, 1972. Stevens, J. O. Awareness. Moab, Utah, Real People Press, 1971.