The Children of Israel 12: Martin Who? – Mutuality in the Closet

At the close of his monumental The Order of things (Les Mots et Les Choses), Michel Foucault pointed out that “Man” as we know him is the result of particular social and political contexts and will morph into some unknown form as these contexts change. In his 1971 conversation with Noam Chomsky he pointed out that it is not useful to anticipate this future man (Chomsky’s “anarcho-syndicalism”) since all anticipations still reflect the old contexts. One might say the same to Friedrich Nietzsche who’s “Man to come” (a translation of “Übermensch” I prefer to “Superman”) arises from the same contexts as the weary and burnt out familiar Man.

Skepticism regarding our ability to predict let alone direct social change impacts upon the question I opened in the last blog: what strategies are useful in changing the ways the needs of children are treated in Israel today? It should be now be clear to the reader of this series that I am trying to avoid two common pitfalls. The first pitfall is some kind of bombastic declaration of what ought to be. The second pitfall is despair, if you can’t change everything why bother? I am seeking a form of response that frees me to make moves that are inconsistent with the reigning governmentality and hopefully attract others to such moves. I do not have a grand plan for what is to be done globally but I would like to develop moves that are meaningful locally.

The key to this thinking is:  mutuality. During the 1990’s the feminist critique of psychoanalysis moved our way of thinking of child development. While “dependence” was a childish state that needed to mature, women pointed out that relationships needed to develop from one-sided to mutual. This replaced the previous “chauvinist” thinking that the goal of development was “independence” as men had developed their thinking for almost the entire 20th century. So it is not only the individual who moves out of relating (dependence) into glorious independence, but rather the relationships themselves develop from one-sided dependence to mutuality. A woman gets to be mature and still in relationships, and would suggest that men try hard to follow suit.

The (covert) source of this thinking goes back to Martin Buber’s 1923 classic Ich und Du (I and Thou). Buber’s move was inconsistent with the governmental dispotif. He suggested that moments of mutuality between people constituted each person’s deepest presence. In these moments people connected and actually changed each other. In these moments neither person is aware of anything but the mutuality of the exchange; neither can be simultaneously “outside” the mutuality to record what is going on while each is fully within the mutual meeting. This attitude gives significance to the as it were passive element of the mutual meeting, which is entirely “pastoral” but not “individual.” A woman is most herself while she is engaged in mutual change. In these moments the women’s presence, her “I” is directed to a second-person engagement (“I-You”) with the other woman. The rest of the time a woman’s presence looks to getting to know about, to make use of, the other woman, a third-person approach (“I-It”).  Real human life consists of a spiral of increasingly full I-You moments, while the intervening turns of the spiral metabolize these moments are prepare for the next moments. It should be clear that Foucault’s governmental dispotif privileges the I-It aspect of human life, while paying attention to the value of the I-You moments are a “pastoral” concern, widened by the understanding that pastorality includes giving privilege to not just the individual but to I-You relations between people.

Insisting on I-You moments, giving then privilege, Buber’s “wild swinging out” to the encounter with the other are acts that undermine the governmental dispotif by definition. After all, these moments cannot be controlled or “mined,” they do not increase security or wealth. They actually move towards a different definition of “Man” not just as an individual citizen let alone statistic, but as Man who’s deepest humanity is lived in close relationships that are by definition free. Small wonder Buber is often considered akin to anarchism.

Any human being who takes seriously I-You moments with children or with those who are responsible for children moves the realm of the child out of the vacuous governmental dispotif into something else not yet defined and inconsistent with the governmental dispotif. This is what I call “reception” and here I would like to present an illustration from my direct experience in talking with people who take responsibility for children. (The following is taken from a presentation I gave to the German Martin Buber Society in Heppenheim on November 8, 2015 and will form part of the to-be-published proceedings. The full manuscript and recording are available on my website.):

I will here describe this process as it was expressed in a group of two dozen senior guidance counselors with whom I met recently, for a total or 15 four hour sessions devoted to supervision of their younger peers. One of the earlier sessions involved reading parts of I and Thou together in my new Hebrew translation. Later Buber would come up only as the participants were moved by his writing.

I want to point to four components of this reception:

First, in the realm of control, of means and ends. It is no secret that the “mental health” professions have always been bedeviled with how to define the goal of treatment. In confronting Buber, the goal of treatment becomes to relieve or free people from their subservience to the “It-world” of third person relationships and to make room for the wholly free realm of second person “You” relations. The clinician does not construct or create; he breaks down limitations and sets the client free. As such, treatment is only a means, never an ends. The putative goals of many educational psychologists, to create a proper structure, to teach proper relating, to end a symptom or to solve a problem, “governmental” strategies, melt back into means, while all the problem solving or new structures either serve as a platform for I-You relating, or else they seem to lack meaning. And the therapist recognizes that the goal has to be one of release and freeing, because the I-You relationship is by definition completely free from control. The aspiring clinician is humbled; she cannot achieve her goal unless she relinquishes all aspirations to achieve it directly.

This change brought with it new anxieties. Students asked, but am I not expected to make a plan, to run the program, to make things change? True, at this time in Israel, that is indeed the expectation – be practical, get results, and be quick and cheap (governmental, cost-effective) if you can.  So the students confronted a gap and felt the great responsibility of making a choice, choosing a destiny.

Second, in the realm of the engagement of the clinician as a person. After the encounter with Buber, students understood that personal “presence” is an essential and irreducible element in helping others towards mutual presence. The confusing questions about “loving” one’s patients were rerouted from “how one feels” to “how one relates.” To say “You” to a client was not only acceptable but necessary, and no one says “you” without the “I” of “I-You.” Since the “I” of “I-You” is neither controlling nor engulfing, since the “I” does not take from the “you” but rather both are mutually constructive, the therapist can join in mutual presence as a relationship that is freeing for herself as well as for her client – freeing from  the bounds of the secure It-world.  Through encounter with Buber, students were able to come  closer to the understanding that the therapist’s presence means that the therapist actually engages in personal change  in her encounters with clients, not professional insights or countertransference, but real personal change. They were even able to approach the notion that the most secure evidence for a mutually present encounter is the experience of change within the therapist. Students became less frightened of their clients, less protective of themselves, freer to engage in personal presence as a way to enlist the personal presence of the client.

Let me illustrate with a short story. Towards the end of the year, this group of seasoned school guidance counselors was discussing “impossible” cases. The discussion focused as usual on the difficulties with a belligerent and demanding mother who would not take no for an answer. We easily crashed into the corner, blaming the client and justifying the well-meaning counselor and school, and – finding no recourse. I asked if perhaps during the year anyone had ever tried something different connected to what we were studying. One woman hesitated and said that she found it hard to present her experience; perhaps it would seem not “professional” enough. There was such a father, and she felt that perhaps Buber would have encouraged her to speak directly as a person with this father about how she experienced herself in her meetings with him. She looked around, I thought, to see if such a suggestion would be considered unprofessional. Reassured by a room full of wonder, she continued. “I told him that I found myself dreading our meetings; that I felt attacked and disparaged.” She said this with evident emotion; she felt she was taking a risk, allowing this seemingly belligerent man to know that his belligerence “was working.”  The class was spellbound. Close to tears, she said that the father was surprised and silent for a moment. He said, “No one has ever said this to me this way. I can understand how it is for you. I am so troubled by what I have done, but I have never been able to hear it. What can we do to work together to help my child?”   The woman looked around the silent room apologetically, but met with eyes full of admiration. After a brief and pregnant silence, the woman who was presenting her “impossible” mother said, “I just had a new thought. Maybe I personally feel that I agree with this mother’s critique of our school’s responses, but I had been afraid to recognize this and speak honestly with her. How can I expect her to speak openly with me if I cannot be honest with her?” The “I” of “I-YOU” was being reborn yet again in real time.

The third component of reception is in the realm of the relationship of treatment to time. The temporal punctuation of experience is an area of confusion in world of emotional treatment. Clinicians since Freud have been suspicious of sudden change and have tended to favor a model of slow and gradual incremental alterations. This has led to a tendency for therapists to give privilege to content over process, focusing on what has changed more than on when and how the change takes place. Therapists assume a process of inner change in the client, invisible and untouched, that is at most stimulated, provoked or facilitated by the interventions of the therapist.

I and Thou creates a different punctuation of time. Here there are turns in a spiral between I-You and I-It moments. Privilege is given to I-You moments as the time and place in which real change takes place. This change is mutual and experienced by both parties. If we look at the example in the previous section, we will see that the woman who spoke of how she confronted the father spoke of a moment of mutuality, not a “treatment plan.” She was willing to see the value in creating a moment of mutuality, able to appreciate the non-linear character of such moments. Their existence has intrinsic value. This understanding allowed the group to develop moments of mutuality between members of the group, and between group members and the facilitator.

Fourth and intimately connected to the punctuation of time, is the realm of separation. Moments of deep mutuality are but moments. As one learns to enter them, so one learns to leave them. Here is the core text from I and Thou,

“But such is the sublime melancholy of our lot, that in our world, every You must become an It.”

Because the deep mutuality that we establish with others is fleeting, in the very entering into relation we take upon ourselves to suffer the pain of loss. For me, and for many of my students, this insight came as a deep and wonderful surprise, because it put into words what many have felt but did not know how to express. My students began to recognize more fully that both they and the people they work with undertake an important experience of pain together. One woman in the group asked, “Don’t our clients have enough suffering already. Who am I to add more to their burden?” Another asked, “No wonder many people avoid a deep meeting, to avoid the inevitable pain of separation.” Yet another, “I also have trouble with this burden, perhaps I avoid these meetings to spare myself the pain of separation.” She made this last statement to me, and she and I experienced the meeting and the separation in this moment.

Let this example suffice for now. In future blogs I will attempt to trace the place of such “reception” as experiences where the governmental dispotif crumbles, opening new and unchartered opportunity for addressing Childism in Israel.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. He is currently CEO of Family Instiute of Neve Yerushalyim, sponsoring a first fully accredited post-masters training in family therapy for the Haredi community. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.