Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Remembers 10 years later

Today is the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church had a series of readings about forgiveness.  The first reading was about Jacob, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers.  The brothers approached him after their father’s death and told him – though it wasn’t true – that their father’s dying wish had been that Jacob would forgive them.  Moved by the brothers’ request for forgiveness, Jacob wept and gladly forgave them, especially as his having been sold into slavery had part of God’s plan – Jacob had been able to influence the Pharaoh on behalf of the Jewish People.

The second reading was Paul’s admonition for Christians not to criticize each other’s religious practices as each is trying to accomplish the same goal.  The third was from Mathew and was a parable about forgiveness.  In the story, a slave, who has accumulated great debt, is to be sold to repay the debt to his master.  The slave begs for the debt to be forgiven.  It is, but then the slave demands payment of a debt to him from another slave.  The master is angry about this, as Jesus says God will be if we ask for forgiveness but have not forgiven others.

The minister, an eloquent and thoughtful man who is able to articulate complex ideas in very ordinary and approachable ways, said that his thoughts were too scattered to be able to offer a sermon, so he read a letter from the Bishop.  The letter called attention to the readings and noted the complexities of the situation, but also asked us to offer forgiveness to those who had done this.

I found this message to fall short.  September 11, even for those of us in the Midwest, left us foggy.  We were scared, felt under attack without quite knowing for what or by whom.  On September 11th itself, as a number of campus administrators gathered to figure out how to respond to the situation, I realized that we were a bit off our rockers when the campus police chief suggested that we cordon off the new basketball arena to protect it from terrorists.  As proud of it as we were, I was certain that it was not on any enemy’s list of top 1000 targets and I began to return, ever so slightly, to feeling less vulnerable – less personally under attack.

It took considerable time, though, for the feelings of being very personally attacked to clear completely.  It took considerable time to create enough room in my head to realize how elegant the attacks had been.  Symbols - of what?  of our might?  of our technological superiority?  had been successfully attacked.  Those gleaming towers, that huge building of military control, had been attacked using stone age technology; our naïve wish to save the life of a stewardess, and our own technological wonders – our planes, had ultimately become the weapons of destruction.  Our technology had been turned against us.  And this had been done, not by a nation with a population of its own to protect, but by a band of men united by an idea – an idea of us, of the United States, as a, again, what?  I think if we follow our feelings, we get a sense, perhaps, of what they believed us to be and therefore what they were trying to communicate, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, to us.

I think they were trying to communicate what they themselves were feeling.  I think the powerlessness we felt on that day may have been a sort of replication of the powerlessness that they were feeling.  I think the vulnerability that we felt paralleled the vulnerability that they felt.  And I think the rage we felt paralleled the rage that they had been feeling.  I believe this in part because of the concept of projective identification, a concept that I have lived through with many patients in their most primitive moments.  At these moments they do not feel that communicating with words is adequate.  They use actions to convey their feelings by doing to us; their treaters, their families, or their friends, as they believe they have been done to.   And when this happens we feel what they have not put into words.  We feel rage, we feel helplessness, we feel fear.  And often, sometimes years later, we are able to communicate with each other about these moments and to realize that what was communicated was what they were feeling.  We felt their feelings.

Clinically, I believe that our patients resort to this means of communication when they feel out of touch with us.  When they feel that we are not connected to them in a real, vital and humane way.  At these moments, I don’t believe they perceive us as another person, like themselves, but as an other, someone who does not get them and about whom they, at least on the level that they are operating from, do not care about.  Of course, if they truly didn’t care, they would not communicate with us at all.  If we didn’t matter to them, they would ignore us.  But we do matter to them, which exacerbates rather than ameliorates the situation.

When this occurs, we are confronted with the most difficult of treatment situations.  I think the terrorists have confronted us with this type of situation.  They have used our openness, our trust, against us.  They have used the connections that we have with each other as a means to induce chaos.  And we have responded, as we do with our patients, by withdrawing.  By becoming inhibited and fearful, closing down the connections that allow us to communicate efficiently and effectively.  When this happens, the terrorists have won.  When this happens with our patients, the treatment is at an impasse.

The terrorists, unlike Jacob’s brothers and unlike the slave, have not asked for forgiveness.  They do not believe that they have attacked humans, they do not believe they have injured people with whom they are connected.  They have killed an enemy about whom they have powerful feelings – feelings of powerlessness, mistrust, and anger.  

The minister ended his sermon today talking about the effects of a thunderstorm when a tree across the street, struck by lightning, fell on the electric lines attached to the church and pulled some of the stones loose from its façade.  He noted that we are all connected.  In fact, I think we should all be connected, but we are not yet.  Until the terrorists feel that they are connected to us and we to them and that a blow to us is one about which they should feel guilt and ask for forgiveness, they will continue to strike.  And I believe that our forgiveness, as well intended as it may be, is only going to further alienate us.  It will not connect us.  It will not bring us into solidarity with them. 

The process of connecting with a terrorist or a potential terrorist, just as the process of connecting with a hurt and angry patient, is a difficult and perhaps even foolish undertaking.  Malpractice attorneys recommend against my trying to treat the most damaged people with whom I work.  The consequences of not connecting with those patients, as difficult as that is, just as the consequences of not connecting with terrorists, are equally problematic, however.  To see them as humans, and to help them see us as humans is likely to be a long, difficult and terribly vexing task.  It is, though, ultimately, our human connectedness – having a meaningful relationship that will allow us to truly apologize to each other for whatever it is that we have done to each other, and to recognize the humanity within each other.  That is, I believe, likely to be the only lasting cure.

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