Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Therapist Who Mistook His Patient for a Plant

Mistaking your wife for a hat, Oliver Sachs has explained, is a neurological disorder. See: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales.

Mistaking your patient for a plant is a cultural disorder. It has devolved onto psychotherapy from the great tradition of Romantic Poetry.

Of course, it's a metaphor, but when people take metaphors for reality, consequences ensue.

Here I am thinking of a therapy that would promise to facilitate your organic growth and development. It would see people evolving, flowering, even blooming, attaining a kind of beauty that is normally reserved for petunias and elm trees.

Such treatment would help patients to heal by getting into closer touch with their natural selves, not their animal spirits, but their inner plant.

Of course this sounds bizarre. So examine the therapeutic process through the prism of this metaphor.

How does therapy facilitate growth and development? First, patients are going to receive the healing waters of empathy, a few times a week. Then, they are going to absorb the vitalizing energy of sunlight, aka, insight. Finally, they are going to allow their growth to be fertilized by the past traumas that others have condemned as useless excretions.

Have you ever wondered why therapists want you to integrate your past traumas into your personal history, and why they like to say that these can make a positive contribution to your growth and development?

Does it not make more sense to try to forget experiences that have no real relevance to who you are?

It would, unless you have adopted a vegetation narrative where fertilizer can contribute actively to your vegetational well being.

At the least, it explains why Freud was so interested in the anal phase of human development. It wasn't his repressed coprophilia; it was his understanding of how fertilizer is necessary for growth.

Therapy has thus set itself up as a facilitator of the natural human process of growth and development. It assumes that if you remove impediments to growth, this marvel of vegetational humanity-- that would be you-- will become what it was intended to be, a fully actualized plant.

Comparing us all to plants does have certain advantages. The metaphor promotes certain values while dismissing others.

By all appearances, plants do not compete; they do not engage in conflict; they do not work. They are fully in tune with nature, with its rhythms and variations.

Moreover, they do not have genders; they do not copulate; they do not form families, societies or civilizations.

Therapy did not invent the metaphor. It really came down to us from Romantic poetry. Romantic poets loved organic metaphors, especially those that turned us all into human vegetation. They were also known to exclaim in wonder at the organic flowering of their own poetry.

How better to get in touch with nature, to escape the horrors and ravages of human civilization, than to allow ourselves to grow and develop as though we were plants. Feeling the splendor in the grass and the glory in the flower-- to coin a phrase-- will lead us to discover the basic goodness of our human nature.

Need I say that this vegetational vision of humankind precludes all human interference and intervention. That means, it says No to agriculture.

You recall that discredited Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, when called upon to denounce the Holocaust, opined that it was the logical consequence of industrialized agriculture.

Only within a fictional world where humans are being compared to plants could Heidegger compare the Holocaust to agriculture.

If you are a plant you do not have to work to grow. Plants grow naturally. They do not make mistakes; they do not have to admit to error; they do not have to correct themselves. Of course, they do not have freedom; they can never become something they are not. They follow nature's laws and nature's dictates.

If civilization is as negative a force as Freud and the Romantic poets thought it was, how better to escape its horrors than by living as though we were plants. They we could grow into the fullness of our being, and stand tall like an oak tree or radiate beauty like an azalea bush.

And plants do not commit crimes; they do not fight wars; they do not, for the most part, murder and eat animals.

Compared with this seemingly effortless process of vegetative development, character building seems like something of an effort.

Nonetheless, that is what coaching aims at: helping people to work to build their character, even though the process does not feel like it is getting them any closer to nature.

After all, plants do not build anything. They do not get things wrong; they do not have to make things right. Perhaps more pertinently for some therapists, plants do not feel shame.

You may have noticed that therapists often tell people that, whatever they did, whatever happened, they have nothing to feel ashamed about. It was natural, it was normal, you did nothing wrong.

Therapists want you to embrace the fullness of your natural being. They want you to feel good about yourself, no matter what.

Shame makes you feel bad, and therefore we must banish it to allow us to integrate all of the different aspects of our human experience.

If we want to build character, however, we must make selections. We include the good and discard the bad. So, therapy that offers natural growth and development cannot really involve this form of character building. It will consider shame to be its enemy.

I was reminded of this while reading a review this morning in the Guardian. Link here.The reviewer, Stuart Jeffries, was heaping considerable praise on a book I have not read, Kathryn Schulz's: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

I was struck by a concept that Jeffries found in Aristotle. The philosopher once said that, however bad it feels to feel shame-- and it feels very bad, indeed-- if we are unable to feel shame we are wicked.

Or, as the therapy world would have it, the inability to feel shame makes us sociopaths.

Anyway, Schulz elaborates a point I have discussed at various times in various places. Namely, that when shame tells you that you have done wrong, made a mistake, or committed an error, you should use this information to mend your ways,  improve your character, and become a better person.

You may recall that in prior posts about sluthood, I said that if a woman feels ashamed of something she has done she should take the opportunity to change her behavior. The shame is trying to tell her not to do it again.

You might also recall that certain people of the feminist persuasion took vigorous exception to this concept, declaring that when a woman takes the walk of shame she should really feel proud of her accomplishment, because, after all, she was just doing what came naturally.

Isn't sex just a natural and normal part of human being? Why would anyone feel ashamed of exercising a natural and normal function? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that we are human beings, that we live in human communities, and that we all feel some degree of shame.

In other words, we are not plants and should not aspire to live in a fictional world where we can live as though we were.

6 comments:

enowning said...

"Only within a fictional world where humans are being compared to plants could Heidegger compare the Holocaust to agriculture."

Besides plants, agriculture includes livestock.

If I google "like cattle" and holocaust, there are over 15,000 hits, so Heidegger's not alone.

sss said...

"You may recall that in prior posts about sluthood, I said that if a woman feels ashamed of something she has done she should take the opportunity to change her behavior. The shame is trying to tell her not to do it again.

You might also recall that certain people of the feminist persuasion took vigorous exception to this concept, declaring that when a woman takes the walk of shame she should really feel proud of her accomplishment, because, after all, she was just doing what came naturally."

Neither shame NOR pride should be felt when doing something that "just comes naturally".

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comments.

As I recall Heidegger introduced the analogy to agriculture when he was trying to deflect responsibility for the Holocaust.

Being a believing Nazi himself he did not want to say that Nazis were responsible, so he shifted the blame onto technology, especially industrial, agricultural technology.

Most observers considered that his remark betrayed a severely diminished moral sense.

As for whether or not women should feel pride in doing something that comes naturally, as some feminists have suggested, it doesn't seem unreasonable that they would believe that following what they consider the call of nature would produce pride. Wouldn't they then be doing the right thing?

I assume that you are challenging my logic... even though it is couched in irony.

sss said...

The plant analogy is not unique to that Nazi. It is a metaphor often used in various Eastern Wisdom Traditions.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Do they use it to refer to genocide?

sss said...

No, they use it like how you described:

"Here I am thinking of a therapy that would promise to facilitate your organic growth and development. It would see people evolving, flowering, even blooming, attaining a kind of beauty that is normally reserved for petunias and elm trees.

Such treatment would help patients to heal by getting into closer touch with their natural selves, not their animal spirits, but their inner plant."

... as a metaphor for personal and/or spiritual growth.

And there is competition amongst plantlife, actually.