Meeting Review & Response: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Wholeness


People don’t like to think that Freud was right when he described them – us – as walking pinball machines of contradiction, our paths the sum-total of the many forces within us that amplify and cancel each other.  Nor do they – we – want to think of psychic distress/anomaly as a continuum-in-flux, a wide umbrella under which we stand with those who disturb and inspire us.  But then, there’s so much that we don’t want to think about, unless we are moved through dialogue with others to transcend ourselves.  The title of this year’s ISPS-US annual meeting, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Wholeness,” points to the fact that the conference did its job in multiple dimensions, by capturing not only the content of the event, but its process as well.  Here was a group of people striving to generate vitality, freedom and wholeness through talking about vitality, freedom and wholeness.  As such, the meeting hovered within that nexus of education and transformation that constitutes true learning, as a conference should but often fails to do.  

Given that there’s something un-summarizable about the ISPS-US conference experience, I wouldn’t even be emboldened to try were it not that the dialogue had already been started, by Peter Simons, of the MIA-UMB news team.  His MIA overview of the conference,“Filling the Crack in the Liberty Bell,”has subtly functioned as something of an agent provocateur among our group, and for this reason, seemed to me to call for an answer.  Its narrative arc which, in drawing upon the conference’s use of the Liberty Bell as a symbol, moves from crack to bell, did not do justice to what I see as our imperfect, tension-filled, iconic cast mass of copper and tin, arsenic and gold and silver and …air.  Unwittingly, Simon’s account worked to reinforce a schism, an us-vs-them divide between practitioners and their patients that in fact had no last word here.  Rather, to my mind, the conference itself strove to embody integration above all, and what Berta Britz, our keynoter, described following Friere as “the invention of unity in diversity.”  As she reminded us, “sameness is not a prerequisite for unity.”  

There is, indeed, a problem embedded in the tension between the expert by experience and the professional, but our whole reason for being as an organization is to transcend this divide, even as we acknowledge it, recognizing the opportunities for healing that arise when we challenge this distinction rather than reify it.  I’d be tempted to diagnose Simon’s synopsis as too-much-crack-and-too-little-bell syndrome, except that I find diagnosing in general according to our standard sets of categories to be often less than useful, and since what I want to do is to highlight the inseparability of bell and crack, of metal and glowing vein.

It’s important to emphasize that wholeness is not something we have, but something we pursue, if we’re lucky, throughout our lives.  And the primary path of pursuit is through talking and especially listening, listening to ourselves via listening to each other, failing to understand ourselves and each other, having the humility to admit that we’ve failed and the courage to try again.  Admittedly, I did not attend several of the sessions to which Simon refers in his essay, so I cannot speak to their usefulness, their transcendent aspirations or lack thereof.  But I felt the pursuit of wholeness everywhere I turned on that November weekend; There wasBrian Kohler, attempting to anchor our appreciation of the transformative mutuality that characterizes a healing psychotherapeutic relationship, showing us that this quest has a long history within the disciplines of psyche.  Noel Hunter invited us to untangle the twisted threads that bind extreme states to trauma.  Jim Gorney moved some in his audience to tears by speaking about his efforts to reach a tortured soul in his practice across a bridge made, literally, of music, and speaking of music, John Thor Cornelius and Charlotte Jevins bemoaned a failure on the part of organized psychiatry to recognize the experiential surround of the so-called “first break schizophrenic,” just as, in an observation often attributed to Nietzsche, “those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”  John and Charlotte were there to offer an alternative way to evaluate and engage that did not turn complex individuals into chronic “mental patients,” by teaching practitioners to hear the music that forms the context of each patient’s unique life. Bert Karon’s insights have been formative for an entire generation of clinicians who are devoted to listening to what their patients are trying to tell them so that they can speak to the deep hurts that otherwise grow into psychic fissures between what one is not supposed to know and what one knows, between the desires to remember and forget, between who one is and the fear of becoming.  There were Mark Richardson, Robin Belcher-Timme & Joseph Lesko, straining to listen within the godforsaken landscape of prison walls to people who were told by every aspect of their lives that their stories were not worth hearing, that their strengths were not worth noticing, let alone valuing.  I understood Berta Britz’s entire talk as an effort not to vilify those who had misunderstood her by allowing fear to close their ears, nor to forgive them, but to see their impulses to objectify and pathologize as voices within her as well as outside of her, as the echoes of a family history of trauma and terror which had been planted in her mind by parents too afraid to hear themselves and a culture that reinforced their impulses to destroy curiosity and memory.  There was Francoise Davoine, showing us how she allowed herself to bring her own ghosts to meet those of the people who came to her with theirs.  Her presentation highlighted our shared nature as beings-in-context, inherently meaning-making historians and memoirists of broken generations.  There were our experts-by-experience, telling their stories of suffering and liberation, sharing with us the schisms between themselves and themselves, between themselves and the world, and, by sharing, transcending, and bringing their audiences with them as they went.  There were family members, who spoke of terror and hope, of the ways in which the struggles of their relatives became in some respects their own.  Those were the liberty-bells I heard ringing throughout the conference, in which the cracks neither muted nor extinguished the force of the music they made.

Were there times when listening stopped, when meanings were imposed, when objectification, power and denial had their say as well?  Of course there were.  Those forces were everywhere too, but they existed within the contexts of life stories, and of the efforts of each of us to listen and be moved.  That, more than anything, is what the conference was for.  There were descriptions of encounters with systems of intransigence, of the sort that rob so many of hope, but there was also a sense that the reception offered by gatherings such as ours, as we listened to these terrible encounters, showed how even in darkness, connection was possible.  Our collective presence was a testament to the fact that the denials of experience, the failures to listen, the fears of understanding and the misuses of power might be addressed through empathy, growth and collective action.

I have devoted a good part of my life to learning (and of course to being in) psychoanalysis, and have come to believe that the power of listening is the power of revolution, so I found it fitting that I had the opportunity to hear so many stories of striving, integration and development in the city built upon those foundations.  As Adam Phillips says in his preface to Equals, “calling psychoanalysis a talking cure has obscured the sense in which it is a listening cure (and the senses in which it is not a cure at all).  Being listened to can enable one to bear – and even to enjoy – listening to oneself and others; which democracy itself depends upon.  Whether or not the whole notion of equality was invented to make it possible for people to listen to each other, or vice versa, listening is privileged in democratic societies.”  In that regard, ISPS showed itself to be striving towards democracy in Philadelphia this fall, and I’m grateful that I had the chance to be there, and to listen.

Nancy Burke

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