Tatjana Votjakova (Russia). The Experience of Philosophic Listening
Can we listen? Do we genuinely hear our client, so as to understand what he/she really wants to say? Alice Holzhey-Kunz, disciple and colleague of Medard Boss, claims that, for it, we need to listen in a special way – philosophically. Only by listening with the “third, philosophical ear” can we distinctly hear to which ontological given a client is “particularly sensitive”. By listening philosophically, it is possible to discern ontological ingredients in a client’s complaint, to understand what he/she is particularly sensitive to, to what desire this is related, and by what means he/she tries to fulfil his illusory wish.
…A husband and wife came to the first meeting. The spouses told about the unruly behaviour of their five-year-old son provoking in them anger and irritation that were hard to contain. The spouses were unanimous about the need to change their behaviour, but could not agree on the issues that concerned the nature of their son’s disobedience.
The presence of both parents rejoiced me, while simultaneously creating additional pressure, because, paradoxically, a very masculine man looked more vulnerable. Besides, from the very beginning it was emphasised that the couple had decided on the need for appointments with a psychologist for the mother, Natasha.
Due to Natasha’s high motivation and openness to changes, in view of mutual sympathy and her evident trust in me, the future work seemed to me pleasant and relatively uncomplicated. I anticipated short-term work consisting of consultations and could not even foresee that this was the beginning of an almost year-long journey.
…Natasha had been preparing her son to the birth of a sister, and it seemed to her that he had accepted her appearance in a friendly way. However, after a while, an obedient, relatively self-sufficient boy became restless and interfering with everything; although he did not say openly about his jealousy and did not show any aversion to his little sister, he evinced all markers of age regression, striving to be a constant object of the parents’ attention and care. He became more prone to conflict and complaint, showed his helplessness and demonstrated negative attitudes. The young parents expected that with the passage of time their son’s behaviour would get normal again. However, the ongoing changes were far from positive. They shook Natasha’s belief in herself, which she had developed since the beginning of her life independent of her parents, and caused her to feel that she was a bad mother.
The sense of parental incompetence seemed particularly acute and hard to bear if the son’s caprices occurred in the presence of the grandmother, who often accused Natasha of raising the children incorrectly, invariably adding: “When you were little…” Natasha was depressed by her inability to ward off her mother’s interference, she accumulated offences and, simultaneously, her sense of guilt of the anger and irritation she was experiencing.
Natasha’s idyllic ideas about family life were being daily shattered not only due to her own inability to manage her son, but also due to disagreements with her husband; these conflicts, which initially arose over the issues of the children’s upbringing, gradually spread over other aspects of family life.
Natasha either dared not to express her accumulating discontent with her husband or tried to express it very cautiously, because the claims co-existed with a paralyzing anxiety about the life and health of her husband, who was employed as a law enforcement officer. She felt she was growing increasingly distant from her husband and was, at the same time, ashamed of negative feelings towards him.
The only relief in this whirlpool of powerlessness was offered by a female friend, relations with whom gradually became dominant over all other contacts. However, five months ago the friend tragically died in a car accident. With her death, the joy of life was irretrievably lost for Natasha. Gradually, she became sad, tearful and apathetic, having lost interest in everything save her children.
However, her care for the children became painfully impassioned and full of anxieties for their life and well-being. With the pain of loss, Natasha firmly felt a sense of emptiness, hopelessness and joylessness, with the sense of injustice and unreliability of the world being exacerbated. Only petrifying horror of the possibility of losing her relatives evoked strong feelings in her and, for a while, restored her to life.
…Thus, Natasha’s story which was revealed over our meetings, completely destroyed my notion of short-term counselling. At the same time, my efforts to listen to the client with a “philosophical ear” grew and gained strength. Following the ideas of Alice Holzhey, which were very attractive to me, I persevered in my quest for what was hidden behind Natasha’s fear of the death of her relatives, to which she was particularly susceptible.
Overwhelmed by confusion, I presented my problems to a supervisor and once again checked opinions of existential philosophers and therapists. Such search and reflection brought back the phrase by Emmy van Deurzen that “largely, it is due to experiencing fear that we “awake” to the possibility of our existence. Anxiety is the key to our authenticity.”
Natasha’s anxiety about the sense of her life was implicitly represented from the very beginning of the therapy (the general background to her complaints was vague discontent with the events in her life), but only supervision enabled to articulate it clearly. After that, our meetings contained a space for studying Natasha’s needs, desires and ambitions, there were questions linked to the existential meaning of her anxiety about the life that she was failing to live to the full.
Supervision helped me to come back from the “hustle and bustle of doing” to the shared existence with Natasha in this face-to-face confrontation with the world that offered no hundred per cent security insurance, to clarifying and reassessing the meaning of anxiety in her life. It became obvious that, under the guise of anxiety about death, Natasha was solving the issue of how to make certain changes in her life, and her anxiety about the death of her relatives was a substitute for her anxiety about the meaning of her existence.
What was discussed many times during therapy and what on the surface seemed fear of death, the injustice of the world, where death ravished near and dear – was, in Natasha’s case, an answer to her peculiar sensitivity to what Martin Heidegger described as the call of consciousness. “Consciousness causes the self of presence from absence in people,” writes Heidegger. It tells us that our presence happens in the mode of inauthenticity and reminds a person about his/her capacities. To silence the piercing silence of the call and avoid feeling guilt for refusing to choose, a stronger voice is needed. What can be more deafening than the fear of death?
Alice Holzhey’s ideas inspired and, I would say, even spiritualised my relations with Natasha. Searching for an answer to the question to what ontological given the client was particularly sensitive was not simple and took a lot of time, making me reconsider the facts and events of Natasha’s life, how and through what she lived, how she responded to existential challenges. I used to remember Alice’s words that “listening with a philosophical ear requires openness to the givens of existence, necessitating substantial courage. It is not granted us from birth, it is earned slowly and laboriously, through the process of becoming acquainted to our own sensitive and our limitations during a process of personal learning analysis.”