With the theme “Compliance and Resistance” the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion conference was held November 8-10, 2018 at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Cultural Center in Somerset NJ. OCAMPR exists to facilitate Orthodox Christian fellowship, dialogue and education of professionals in religion, psychology and medicine.
These talks were recorded by Ancient Faith Radio in partnership with OCAMPR and are made available here for free access and download. Several talks were video recorded while others provide a combination of audio and slides.
OCAMPR welcomes interdisciplinary dialogue and is committed to exploring an Orthodox Christian understanding and perspective on a variety of pastoral issues. Toward that end, presentations and papers are offered for ongoing discussion and dialogue. The opinions of presenters do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the OCAMPR organization, Ancient Faith Ministries, or of the Orthodox Church.
So here we’re talking about compliance and resistance, and there are many issues here about who is complying to what. What I’m interested in is not just simply the clients complying to us or us complying to some theory or us complying to what they expect, but looking at these complexities, of the various issues that are forming, what we consider meaningful choices and meaningful issues in life. In other words, there is something about what I would call the societal discourses, the way society considers these issues, and its impact on us well before and deeper than what we think. It’s not just simply our own pathology and what happens inter-personally, but these wider views about what relationships are, what is suffering, etc. These matter as well.
My focus today will be much more on that side, on the compliance in relation to these wider issues. Let’s see where this will take us to. It goes without saying—not only Philip said it yesterday, but this is a work in progress; these are reflections. I would like to share them with you; I would like to hear more from you, but at the same time, let’s be realistic that there are a lot of complex things that I’ve been thinking over the years. Recently, I started talking to people like you, and there is more stuff behind this. So I look forward to discussing with you separately, individually, when we have time today or tomorrow.
Also, like an academic and a social scientist, I’m interested in this complexity in terms of who complies and who resists and to what. This has been covered already by some previous speakers. When we are talking about the who, then we have usually the mental health care recipients, I would call them. In different contexts, they are called patients, clients, analysands, customers in some places—customers of services—beneficiaries—in the humanitarian work we talk about beneficiaries—parishioners, or helpees. I don’t know if… In the ‘70s there used to be the discipline of helping, and there were the helpers and the helpees. I don’t know if any of you remember that. Then we have the mental health care providers, the therapists or whatever. But then it’s wider—us, as human beings, as citizens, as people belonging to society—where we’re considering these issues, and these issues matter to us. We count as well. It’s not just only between those two.
Of course, the question is: to what to be compliant, or to what to be resistant. To begin with, we have different combinations. If we’re talking about the mental health care providers, we are talking about their own personal views, because when they are talking to people, they talk about their own personal views, their own professional views, and also the theories they represent, so to speak. But also I would say something like wider—again, I’m talking about these wider societal discourses, in terms of what do we believe as society. Nobody has sat down to write this down, but there are prevailing, dominant discourses, as we would say, about what is cure or what is the problem, what is treatment, etc. When we’re talking about what is the spirit, looking at the title, we’re talking about the spirit of these things, of course, where does the Holy Spirit fit into this?
Therefore, strictly speaking, if we’re really trying to be systematic, we need to create a kind of a grid where we can put all of this together and try to sort of see who complies and who resists to what. Here we have the recipients, mental health recipients, health care recipients, and us as the family; and here are the mental health care providers’ own views, professional views, professional culture; and this is the societal discourses. What I’m interested in is that, but actually as you can see, that affects, of course, the professional cultures that mental health care providers provide, and of course have a strong impact in a lesser way on the other ones as well.
What is psychological? Is psychological only just when we’re thinking about thoughts and feelings? But what are the actual factors that affect the way we experience events and phenomena? It’s not just only our psychology, not just only our intra-psychic factors or our interpersonal dimensions, but also what we refer to as socio-political, wider perspectives, but also something else that I want to introduce and I feel very strongly about, and that is the epistemological dimension. In other words, how do we formulate our understanding of these phenomena?
Epistemology is the philosophical enquiry into the nature, conditions, and extent of human knowledge. Basically, it helps understand how do we know that we know what we take for granted that we know. [Laughter] Catch that? It’s very difficult, but we take it for granted. We take for granted that we know certain things.
I know that this is a microphone. We all take it for granted it’s a microphone. But do we take it for granted that this is a problem? What is a problem? Who defines it? What procedures have taken place to give meaning to certain things to be defined as a problem, and by whom and when and for what duration, etc.?
So if we have some kind of what I call epistemological acumen, then we will be interested in trying to understand these complexities. So in a sense, epistemology helps us understand where our primary conceptualizations of phenomena come from. The conceptualizations of phenomena are not just only about what happens in us, so to speak, inside us, so to speak, but also around us and of the world, etc.
So the epistemological dimension of mental health care is for me of paramount importance especially because it is neglected and it is there and it is operative. What lies behind our explicit or mostly implicit conceptualizations of what is a psychological problem? What is trauma? What constitutes treatment, cure, healing? Just simply these three words imply completely different cultures, different ways of understanding things. Usually we sort of ad lib. We select one or the other. But what makes us think of this or that or the other?
And then what is stress, what is distress, what is suffering? Why suffering? These are operative in everything that we do, but we don’t think about that; we take them for granted. Then we are focusing on our theories that we are interested in, and we get excited about that. But what precedes that is our epistemological formulation of those situations in the first place, in a sense, what is the actual nature of human beings, it’s so fundamental.
If I were to define what I’m really focusing on, I would say that the societal discourse on mental health care is in effect the sum total of implicit epistemological presuppositions that lie behind the explicit theories and precepts of the various professional and psychotherapy schools about all the related phenomena to health care. They have profound implications on how we conceptualize not only our problems and the expected inspired solutions, but also our very lives, and they are of vital importance because, as I keep repeating, its impact is defining and yet is not noticeable.
Therefore our task, as I said, is to develop an epistemological acumen or an epistemological agility to discern these societal discourses, these dominant narratives which form these presuppositions of the mental health theories that are propagated that we follow or criticize. This is really the epistemological cycle which we take for granted, because basically we start from our epistemological position: What do we see in the first place? How do we understand that? That will position us—position is a verb—in a certain position that will have implications of where we can locate this understanding. And that will help us, or that will dictate, really, the range of possible actions that we see.
What usually happens is that if the action does not work, we try a different action and a different action, or we try another technique, another theory, another school. But perhaps what this diagram suggests is that basically we need to go back and see: Have we conceptualized the question correctly in the first place? Because if we haven’t, then we just carry on replacing one theory with another, and then we will still be in the same place.
I want to start specifically with what St. Silouan tells us once. I’ll mention one incident that is in his writings. There’s an incident when he’s saying that he was eating fish, and he got a fish bone in his throat, and that was really, really very sore. Also at the same time he had headaches. St. Silouan makes a distinction. He said he prayed for both of these discomforts to go away. If we read carefully what he says, he says this—it’s a long story, and I really urge you to read it; this is a very beautiful story: how he prayed and he realized that what he had to do was cough it out, and he did cough and some blood came, and the fish bone came out, and he was cured from that—but the headaches didn’t go. So St. Silouan says what? He says, “Aha, aha. God cured my sore throat, but he didn’t cure my headaches. Therefore there is some meaning in my headaches.” And he felt—“God feels, his will is that I should have that headache.” So he makes a distinction between certain suffering, so to speak, that we can get rid of and have a better life, and another suffering that has other meaning.
What we usually do, we try to say, “Well, what was the meaning? Why did God want him to have that?” You don’t ask that question. You can ask me, I can ask you about that, but how do you ask God about that? You open your heart up to that. You don’t just simply say, “Tell me why I have a headache,” and you formulate a logical question and answer. That’s the difference. So he’s making an epistemological difference between two types of suffering. Do we? Do our therapists? Do our societal discourses or mental health? Any discomfort we see as something we should get rid of.
Here is the fish bone and the headache, and they are very defining to tell us right from the beginning. So now you see how I connect the epistemology with Orthodoxy in this context. It’s providing us a different epistemology: How do we conceptualize that suffering? There are different ways of conceptualizing suffering.
If we want to tease it out a little bit—I think you got it, but in effect I think I can say St. Silouan’s epistemology says all events create discomfort, which is obvious—we’re human beings—but not all discomfort needs to be avoided or eliminated. Within a wider context and perspective—not in terms of my own comfort and avoidance of suffering—a degree of discomfort or adversity can be helpful and instructive. It may aid us to transform and widen our epistemology to locate us in the wider context of God’s creation. And this is, in effect, what metanoia means. Metanoia is changing of nous which is not just simply the intellectual part of our being, but is the way we conceptualize affliction, our whole epistemology. This is what creates the conditions to be open and receptive to different ways of conceptualizing our affliction. So this is St. Silouan’s epistemology with this distinction.
If we are really Orthodox and we follow this or that psychological theory, whatever, I would ask: Does it make that distinction? If it doesn’t, be careful. I would say that dealing with adversity, from an Orthodox perspective—and this is not mine; I mean, this is my understanding of what the Church Fathers tell us—is that essentially—I’m really sorry I’m sort of summarizing basic points of a highly complex situation and understanding of these issues, but I would say that basically Orthodoxy tells us very clearly that God is good—that’s not negotiable; God is good—and God allows only a type of adversity, in terms of quantity, quality, or timing, that he knows that will not destroy us—but not unconditionally: provided that we open our hearts and follow his will and not our own will, that expands our own perspective and time-frame. Then adversity not only will not harm us but actually it will enrich us. I would say that this is the summary of what the Church Fathers tell us.
The challenge, of course, is that: What is our will? Our will is actually the way we define the problem to begin with. And that we don’t even question, usually. We will question 20,000 things after that, but the very definition of why we consider that as a problem… Alexandra was saying, “That is a problem that we’re incompatible,” and I was saying to her, “Is it? I don’t know.” She took it for granted, and she was looking for solutions. Remember the three spheres. With that epistemology, it was looking for solutions everywhere, to be told how to deal with incompatibility. Perhaps she has to live through incompatibility, and that will tell her something.
Our will is defined… So I’m trying to translate this in reality. Our will is defined in terms of the way we define the problem and the range of solutions. The way we assume what well-being is, which often is defined mainly in terms of material and social gain, happiness, and avoidance of suffering, etc.
And in terms of time frame. How many times in our own lives we go through some real adversity, and after that we say later, “Well, actually, that was good that that happened to me”? So we have no patience. Not only do we define things in our own way, but we want to see it now, like all the instant coffee and instant gratification and instant everything. We want it now. We cannot wait and sort of see what happens, where this will lead us to. Alexandra wanted a solution now, and that was her problem. The idea of seeing things through or creating conditions to see things differently was not there.
This is a tangible way for me to understand how our will is. Our will is manifested in the way we define things. That’s scary. Can we talk about God’s will? Of course, we don’t know God’s will, but we can, I can surmise certain things. That will be the unexpanded perspective, trusting what we said earlier, that we are God’s creatures and that he has a plan for our salvation. Now, this is actually serious. If we are Orthodox and we believe that, that’s actually very serious, that he has a plan for our salvation. We do not believe in a God that created the universe and just left it there and we are full of suffering and all of that. He cares for you and me every day. How do we put that, our therapies, in that context?
We don’t know God’s will, but if we can orient ourselves, if we can expand our epistemology to somehow include that perspective, then not “we will know God’s will,” but we will be able to get outside the narrow confines of our own will. Of course, well-being defined beyond our own concept of happiness. And the frame is quite expanded—expanded, I mean, every day we say, “...unto the ages of ages.” What does that mean? When we live and we want… My throat is sore from this; I want it to be cleared now. What is the meaning of a different and expanded time-frame? Not only for later in our lives, but even possibly even later?
When I’m thinking of that, I’m thinking of some of the work that I do—you hear I do work in different parts of the world with reference to different traumatized people from political violence and disasters, etc.—this is some work that I’ve been doing in Sierra Leone, because I think some of you may know Fr. Themis, Fr. Themistocles. That’s an interesting context, where you go there even for a couple of weeks, and you come across death almost every day. People come that you have met within a couple of weeks; they say, “My brother died.” “How did he die?” “Oh, he got ill.” “But what did he die of?” “Oh, he got ill. If you get ill, you die.” That’s a different perspective. Life is so unpredictable. We are so sheltered by our own security and safety and everything, and we have insurance for everything in case something goes wrong. It’s different to live in a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen in the evening. That kind of unpredictability, that kind of insecurity opens you up in a different way. I learned a great deal from all these wonderful people that I meet in different parts of the world.
I am not going to tell you many different things here; I am going to remind you of some of the treasures of Orthodoxy which are incredibly revolutionary. What St. John Chrysostom says that no one can harm the man who does not injure himself, it’s staggering. Basically, whatever happens to you, it’s up to you how you’re going to see it. Nothing to do with the external misfortune. If you’re going to receive it in a certain way, you’re going to damage yourself, nothing to do with the way society defines it or our own wish for clarity and for permanence and for comfort, etc. That’s an incredibly revolutionary statement. Of course, it’ snot just a statement; it’s a whole teaching, it’s a whole culture. This is what I’m thinking. Yes, I’ve been training clinical psychologists, family therapists, Jungian psychoanalysts, etc. What is close to this? There isn’t anything close to that. Everything is defined by our own societal criteria.
St. Dorotheos of Gaza: We had a beautiful, beautiful presentation earlier, and I wish we would hear more, but anyway, I go to Lebanon, so I’ll get in touch; we’ll discuss things more. He says that the grace of God comes swiftly to the soul when endurance is no longer possible—when endurance is no longer possible. Alexandra did not have any endurance. Endurance is not a virtue that we even use today or understand or value. Endurance: we see it as passive, we see it as wimpy. We want to be active and do our own will, etc., etc. This is the culture that we live in. But the idea of endurance, and when you come to the end of your endurance, St. Dorotheos says then God’s grace will come to you. We don’t even get close to that.
I don’t want to go too much on this, but St. Nicholas Cabasilas is talking about the trauma and I will very quickly sort of run through this. In choosing to live autonomous from God, man distances himself from God and sins—in other words, the distance is the sin; whatever you do after that is sin. Sin has two elements: the act itself and the trauma—trauma means the mark. I teach a lot about trauma. Trauma is the mark from being pierced, from being harmed.
In this way, the habit of sin is created. The act creates the trauma-passion which becomes in man a second nature. Sin like a second nature covers man with its darkness, drowns him in the depths of forgetfulness, and makes him disappear.
Beautiful words, but conveying something completely different from the usual language and conceptualizations—not just language, conceptualizations—of what current mental health care attends to.
What is distress and what is disorder? When is the headache of St. Silouan a disorder of pathology, and when is it just simply a distress that our life is full of distresses? When we are talking about distress, we are not just talking about psychological, psychiatric, and mental health and pathology. That’s a very huge chapter. It’s a very important thing that we need to consider as mental health professionals. Society seems to have chosen psychology to interpret everything that is complex and is difficult for them to understand. Is that psychology? When people experience this kind of distress, it takes a much wider… These are existential, ontological… When people are traumatized in whatever situations that we’re talking about, they are shaken to the core of their beings. It’s not just simply some discomfort. Spiritual, epistemological, ontological—these are important considerations. Usually we sort of say psychological. There’s a shooting somewhere, we send some psychologists, some counselors to deal with it. Why don’t you send imams or why don’t you send priest? Why don’t you send bankers? I don’t know. Why do we send these psychologists? Of course, the psychologists—I’m a psychologist—we feel great, because we’re saving the world. We’re the new saviors. We love that.
If we go back to even Aristotle, even then he was making a distinction between two types of well-beings. One is—he called it hedonic, which is basically avoidance of suffering; the other, he called it eudaemonic, and demonic is to do fulfilling our destinies connecting with our good demons, but demons not in terms of Satan or devil, but sort of our creative nature inside us, according to ancient Greek word. If we look at St. Paul, we look at a couple of things of St. Paul talking again against the predominant epistemology of mental health today, when he’s talking about “my power made perfect in weakness,” “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,” and all that—completely different from our mental health perspectives today, completely different. So we go on Sunday, we read St. Paul, and the rest of the time we just practice mental health where it’s completely different from this.
“Out of weakness, we are made strong.” Astheneia is weakness, is illness, is lack of sthenos, lack of … listlessness; it’s sort of giving away. You don’t feel life in you. “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake.” This is a very important—I don’t want to go into Colossians 1:24, but again, it’s rejoicing in my sufferings. This is a completely different epistemology. Can we open up our hearts to try to understand what that means and how it relates to our everyday life in terms of mental health professionals?
If we are talking about an Orthodox perspective, we are talking about nousethia. Again, you remember metanoia is nous again, and nousethia is nous again. Nousethia is the thesis, is the position of the nous, it’s placing the nous in its appropriate place, educating, nurturing, or forming, etc. Look at the usual translation of the King James Version of this—you know this is from Ephesians 6:4—“provoke not our children to rot, and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” No, there’s nothing about admonition; nouthesia Kyriou is the training and instruction, closer to that: that’s the New International Version. We need to be a little bit careful about translation of key Scriptures in terms of how much they follow the predominant discourses of our mental health discourse now. Metanoia, as we said before, is the change of perception.
Another thing that is of course very important is the understanding of pathos. Pathos, of course, simply means neutrally that which was happened and that which has befallen us. You know apathy, sympathy, and empathy and psychopathology, but we use the same word—I don’t know if… I’m sure you must have thought about that: we talk about the holy Passion, and of course we talk about the enslaving passions, exactly the same word, exactly the same process, the same suffering, which means it’s the way you construe it that matters. It’s only so that matters. And how do you construe it? We are back to your epistemology. What informs your epistemology to see it this way and that way?
Of course, empathy in Christian spirituality means involved in your bad passions, but of course in psychology it means, oh, you’re compassionate. They’re very interesting things that show us the clashes, fundamental clashes, of different paradigms.
I want to pause a little bit on this. Over the years, in terms of the different work that I do in different countries, etc., I’ve developed this greed that helps me, and helps others, to understand the complexity of the wide ranges of responses when people are exposed to adversity. Let me take you through these very briefly, and then we’ll see how they fit together. When a person is exposed to adversity, there is so much to say about that, even the confusion between the event and the experience. We say they have [been exposed to] a trauma. No, no, no: they have not [been exposed to] a trauma; nobody is exposed to a trauma. People are exposed to events, and trauma is the impact it has on them. It’s the way they experience it. We confuse even that, so much so that we talk about traumatic events. There is no time to discuss this, but…
We are talking about adversity. There are negative effects, and if we are looking at the individual, family, community, and society, there are negative effects in the way they respond to adversity. The most serious one is a psychiatric disorder, like PTSD, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder. Not everybody develops PTSD, but a lot of people develop various distressful psychological reactions, various symptoms, that do not add up to a psychiatric category. Or the overwhelming majority of people experience ordinary human suffering. Wherever I go, the overwhelming majority of people will say to me, “It was Allah’s will,” or “I’ve done something wrong, and Allah is punishing me.” They are not saying, “I am suffering from PTSD”; they have a meaning system that they understand their predicament.
That’s the negative. A lot of things, however badly a person has been affected—and our societal discourse just basically zooms there: everything is PTSD for us; everything is trauma. Everything is trauma; everything is traumatized. However badly a person is affected, even if they suffer from PTSD, there are a lot of positive and negative unchanged responses in that. There are a lot of qualities, a lot of relationships, a lot of functions that have not been affected. The positive ones is what we would call resilience. That is the resilience, resilient functions. We don’t say the person is resilient or traumatized; it’s crude. We’re talking about resilient functions and traumatized functions.
Of course, there are negative ones as well. A person may be suspicious of people. It may be before and is still after and hasn’t changed at all. But what I’m very interested in is this here, that in every—and I really mean it—in every situation, a person also, in addition to, not either/or, in addition to whatever negative response they have had—they have experienced their exposure to adversity—they also develop some positive responses to adversity. In other words, the fact that they have come so close to death, the fact that they have lost everything, the fact reorients them in a different way. That’s the endurance of St. Dorotheos.
Once they reach rock-bottom, they begin to see things differently. They will say that to us if we will create this space for it, but often we don’t, because mental health professionals, who are interested and excited only about this, because we are there to fix them and we are going to help them with their trauma, and we are not interested in what they learn from that and we are not interested in the radical transformation that has taken place in them as a result of that exposure to adversity. All their plans… When Alexandra was saying to me, “My life is ruined!” Yes, what does that mean now? What opportunities does that open up? In what way can you re-view your life in a different way now, because that has happened. That’s a unique opportunity, and usually, as mental health professionals, we miss it, because we are excited and we are there to fix their trauma.
This is what I mean by resilience: I mean the existing positive characteristics that we retain from before the adversity, and what I call adversity-activated development, development that has been activated specifically from adversity. Some of you may know post-traumatic growth; it’s not that. We don’t have time to discuss the difference. Post-traumatic growth means that actually trauma has taken place and the trauma has stopped, etc., etc. What I’m talking about is adversity-activated development: development that has been activated explicitly from their exposure to adversity.
The synergic approach, in a sense that I feel it’s important for us to understand, is synergy between, first of all, their strengths and our strengths, but also with the Source of strength. This is the challenge for us: to introduce that in our work every day. In the context of our weaknesses, their weaknesses, and the One that justifies those with weaknesses. A key to an Orthodox way is what is said in the tonsuring: “Nai, tou Theou synergountos, timie Pater,” which in English unfortunately is translated, “God being my helper.” No, this is synergia: You being synergic with me, God.
Therefore, I make a distinction between, crudely speaking, what I would call technological interventions with synergic interventions. The technological ones is that I know I’m the expert because I have five degrees on the wall, or two or three or 20, and I went through trainings, and you don’t know. That’s a technology. That’s the same thing as “I fix this.” If your car is not working, you will give it to an expert. We are governed by the society discourse of the expert, where we buy our responsibility—we give them money to take responsibility and fix something. It’s another important societal discourse, the societal discourse of the expert.
It’s at the core of the mental health professions, whereas synergic interventions, in a sense, both of us know something and we don’t know something, and we’re there to embark, both of us, to find out. This is not fixing an object that offers no response, no feedback, and here I’m collaborating with a person that can relate to and interact with you. Here I’m using general laws and principles that I learned in my trainings; and here I’m focusing on the uniqueness of this person. I’m fixing a deficit in the field of pathology; I’m attending to the negative facets. Of course I’m attending to the negative facets; that’s what I’m there for. But in the context of the totality of that person, that naturally includes positive facets. My expertise in fixing you, my expertise in collaborating with you, identifying your weakness and strengths and working synergically. I’m focused on fixing just you; I’m also attending to the wider contexts.
This is what in Matthew 25:35: “Xenos emin kai synegagete me; I was a stranger and you took me in.” No, sir. Nobody took anybody in. In Greek it doesn’t say that. Doesn’t say that at all. We didn’t take them in for anything, no. Synago means usher, guide, carry, move, to walk along together, to accompany, to bring together, etc. Synago comes from Latin, of course, and it’s accompanying, walking along together. This is what Christ is saying. Synegagete me means you walk along with me, you accompany me. It also means gathering and also means containing. It’s a beautiful word, synago. It’s not taking me; you are not taking them into anything.
Where is the compliance and resistance here? I don’t have time. I need to stop here with one example. St. Silouan—I have the great blessing of going to the monastery at Essex for the last 40 years with Fr. Sophrony; we grew up with St. Silouan—when he’s talking about “keep thy mind in hell and despair not,” that’s not a joke. First of all, hell is hell. Hell stinks. Hell is painful. It’s not just simply a word. It’s saying, “Despair not,” because there is another epistemology. There is: put things in wider context and not just simply in terms of a hedonistic idea of removing suffering or giving it meaning according to some interesting theory, but it’s in terms of putting it in some context, in terms of the creation, that we’re part of the creation. God has a plan for you and me.
I want to finish with this, but admittedly I don’t want you to look too much on her, and I’m going to move this back to this. So I’m going to finish with this example of some person that I was working with that’s in Yemen. Just outside Aden there is a slum area, a slum called Bassatine. That’s a few years ago. Now with the war, of course, it’s impossible to get there. The suffering there is just unbelievable in Yemen now. She’s a Somali woman. She crossed from Somalia to come to Yemen. It’s a long story. If you know what happens when they cross the Gulf of Aden there. They are brutalized, they are raped, they are killed, they are thrown over by the traffickers, etc., etc. Those who survive come to Yemen, and the good thing is that immediately they are given asylum; the bad thing is that actually Yemen is one of the poorest countries on earth, and you have never seen such poverties in your lives. This woman has nothing, and she’s sitting on the streets and begging. She is raped continuously, and she has two children from begin raped, and she is pregnant now with a third one. She is threatening and goes to the UN, United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and other NGOs, and is threatening to burn herself and her three children because life is unbearable.
When I go and offer trainings in places, I go back and I supervise and I consult, etc., and also I ask them to select their worst case that they find difficult to work with, and I work with that. So they brought me her. It’s a long story, but again we don’t have time. I’ll tell you very briefly what happened. Basically, I sat there, and she started telling me… She started screaming at me. I thought she was going to tear me apart. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re just coming from Britain, and now you think you’re going to help, and nobody can help me! I can’t bear it any more! Who’s going to look after me? I have nothing!” etc., etc. I was just sitting there and taking it all in. It was just impossible.
Then I was sort of feeling: “She’s right. What can I help with for this woman? There is nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can do.” So I started feeling absolutely desperate. We had a camera crew to sort of record this for training purposes, so I was just feeling absolutely awful. When I was beyond my endurance, I thought, “Aha, well now I have a close glimpse of what this poor woman is feeling.” Okay, let’s talk about transference now. “Put the word: now you know what’s happening.” Then I said to her, in a very natural way, “Well, what I see in front of me… I’m just so impressed and full of praise. If I were to experience half of what you have experienced, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m impressed by your strength.” That’s true. That’s a reality. When you see a person like that who perseveres after so many knocks all the time, and she’s still there, I mean, it’s amazing. Yes, you can see a traumatized person, but can you also have the epistemological agility to also see something else there? Remember the Greek? In addition to her trauma and whatever else, also she has some strengths. This woman had remarkable strengths.
Then once I started thinking about this, about her strengths, I started actually going back, sort of scanning my mind—my mind-computer going click-click-click-click-click-click—Ah, yes, she was talking about her children’s future. This woman, who has absolutely nothing, she cares about her children. She cares about education, completely uneducated herself. So she has a vision for the future. That’s another important thing that you don’t… If you are focusing on the square of the trauma, you don’t see anything else. You stay there and you try to fix it. Instead, I tried to see her totality. I saw all these strengths, and then at the Tavistock Clinic, I spent 25 years, I was in the child and family department, I know how to work with families and children. This woman was a remarkable mother. Although it was a complete chaos there with all the cameras and all that, her two kids were walking around, and she had a remarkable way of containing them and giving them freedom. They would sort of run a little bit around, not crazily, and then she would call them and then they would come. I said, “Wow, this woman has remarkable parenting abilities, remarkable mothering abilities.”
I was there to fix her. So what did I say to her? I said to her how impressed I was by her strengths, and she was completely surprised. Nobody ever saw that, not even herself, because within the mental health system, we are focusing on her damagedness. Then I said to her, “I am so impressed, I would very much like”—because I knew in the refugee camp we had expectant mothers and new mothers—I said, “I would be very grateful,” in all honesty—I wasn’t bluffing; I wasn’t playing a game—“I would be very grateful if you could kindly accept my invitation that you would help us in educating young mothers, because you are an incredibly good mother, and you have skills, and I would like you to help them with that.” Talking empowerment. Usually we use the word “empowerment” easily. We empower people by saying some fancy words to them. This is empowerment: discerning her strengths and creating conditions for her strengths to be activated. So you can imagine what happened.
This was my intervention. I’m an expert in trauma counseling. This is what I did there. I’m a director for the center for trauma for Somali refugees. I train people who are working with trauma. This is what I did there. Translating into Orthodoxy, I did not forget that that human being in front of me is God’s creature. I could not forget that she had some strengths, she had some beauty—that nobody saw. I saw it as my task to see if I could develop an epistemological agility to hear her pain as well as also look at something else in her. That’s all I did, and that woman’s life changed, as you can imagine, completely: the way that she was seen by everybody, she started getting some money, etc., etc. Her life changed completely.
This is not magic. Anybody can do that. It’s just a question of having an epistemological framework that allows you to see beyond the traditional mental health perspective that society and our theories give us.
I can say many more things. I am aware that Philip is waiting like a hawk there, and I don’t want to exceed. But I will be here today and tomorrow, and if you want to continue this, let me know. Thank you very much. [Applause]