The Space Between: The Church of “And…”
In college I had a therapist who used that word way too much, in my opinion. I’d say something, pretty much anything it seemed, and in response I’d hear: Interesting. “What does that mean?! It’s so neutral…Take a position, damn it!” My inscrutable therapist just found my protests…(you guessed it) “Interesting…”
Fast forward fifteen years. I’m standing before one of my psychology heroes, James Hillman, founder of the Jungian school of Archetypal Psychology. It’s the end of day one of the conference, and I’ve just answered his invitation for an audience member to step forward and present a question. Taking the microphone in slightly shaking hand, I unleash my question, one that has been nagging at me as a therapist for sometime: “What does it mean ‘to heal’? What do we offer our clients that is ‘healing’?”
Hillman responded that healing comes out of being interested in what the client shares, approaching the situation with a genuine and generous interest in the experiences being related. He went on to tell me the Latin root for the word “interest”: inter esse, which means to be between…
All identities (whether individual, familial, or cultural) tend to get stuck in isolated perspectives, like psychological bubbles that can only take in the information which fits the ideas already established inside. It is the essential healing task of therapy, therefore, to venture into, beneath and beyond the fixed ideas and stories we each carry. The participants in a therapy are there to get into it, to get interested and be between. To risk the fixed and familiar in order to let the space between them open up and reveal a new possibility. Interesting…I guess my college therapist knew what she was doing after all.
As you may have gathered, by inclination and profession I’m of a more psychological persuasion. Nonetheless, recently I’ve considered founding a church… I’m thinking of calling it: The Church of And. You’ll be seeing our bumper stickers showing up around town: “No more of the either/or!” and “I’m quitting splitting!”
“Splitting” is the psychology-speak for black or white thinking. We humans seem to do a lot of it. Splitting within ourselves (good/praiseworthy parts vs. bad/shameful parts), splitting amongst ourselves (my way vs. your way), and splitting the world itself off from the possibility of conscious personhood (I, and those that look like me, are conscious beings vs. everything else, which are just “things” without the possibility of consciousness). These are all defenses against the ambiguous, middling nature of life. We may not like it, we might perceptually choose not to admit it, but the fact remains: We are always in the middle. Life is lived in the space between, just as a river flows between it’s banks, or a road is traveled between its shoulders.
“And” is so small a word, so humble, so common. And yet! Lil’ old and is the bridge, the stairway and the doorstep, inviting us through to what comes next. “And” holds the tension, refuses finality, augurs the arrival of new possibilities – just beyond what can be known from the seemingly fixed spot on which we stand.
The author and shaman Martin Prechtel reports that there’s no verb “to be” in the Mayan language. From the Mayan perspective, you can’t just be something. You’re always changing, never just one thing. You are a mix of elements in constant flux. Ironically the hard-nosed and unsentimental approaches of science have arrived at the same conclusion. Every living organism is a biological, electro-magnetic vortex in which elements and elemental forces are interacting, with birth-death-and-rebirth happening all the time. Even our bones, the most seemingly static part of us, are constantly changing and entirely replaced every 10 years.
So why do we resist and repress our shape-shifting nature, permitting ourselves only one right answer, one right path, one true God? Why not allow ourselves to flow with mercurial power through the many changes of life? Why are we so intent on being this one fixed identity, dogmatically and relentlessly attached to it even when it makes us miserable? Must we be so tragically neurotic that we would rather be “right” than happy??
Therapy offices regularly witness the painful collision between rightness and happiness. Couples, for instance, will often come into therapy to work on their communication. When describing their experiences of stuck conflict they invariably come to a place of “my way vs. your way”, “your version of events vs. my version of events”. One of the techniques I offer them comes from improvisational theater (let’s face it, intimate relating is an improvisational art form par excellence!) I introduce the beleaguered couple to the power of “Yes, and…” When your partner speaks, don’t block your partner! Build from what they are saying, don’t undermine and contradict it. Use the phrase: “Yes, and…” (Note: stay with the “yes” about three to four times longer than you’d like.) “Yes, I see you, I hear you, and I respect your perspective and experience. And I ask for space to include my own.” Initially, it’s frustrating not to arrive at a consensus that acknowledges the rightness of your experience and the misguided hurtfulness of your partner’s. And yet living and loving requires balancing the tension of multiple perspectives: it’s the only way to keep the dynamic moving and evolving.
You don’t have to have studied psychology or spent years in analysis to move through the stuck places in your life. First and foremost: Get interested in what’s happening… And Just Feel It. Start with a willingness to simply feel, resisting the urge to have things fully explained and figured out. It’s not easy, and it’s harder if you try to do it all on your own. Emotions flow most powerfully when we feel and express them with others.
So find someone who has the capacity to be with you, someone (or some ones) willing to meet you in that wild and mysterious space between, and take the journey of relating together. That’s where life gets interesting.