Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Monkey and the Fish

As the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, Inc, a contemporary training program, gears up for classes to begin September 21, 2011, I often muse about how to convey to candidates and students an open attitude toward patients, an attitude which often includes ‘letting go’ of the bastion of [pejorative, accusatory] interpretation in its attempt to rid patients of “defenses” as if we are the authority on what is best for a patient.

My colleague, Horacio Arias, and I have, more than once, discussed the idea, captured beautifully in his pithy statement ‘there is no such thing as pathology,’ that patients have established their ways of being in the world (whether nuanced and called symptoms, defenses, transference, organizing principles, RIGS, relational paradigms, etc) for very good reason, and, as such, we therapists best be respectful of the necessary purposes these serve to maintain the psyche’s functioning, however precarious or constraining that functioning may be (or seem to us). Rushing in to interpret may not be at all fortuitous, and may create a less safe –and inadvertently humiliating-- psychoanalytic space, or even result in bringing down a house of cards.

To bulwark my patience, I remind myself of a little story told on Mt. Gorongosa in central Mozambique about white colonists and modern philanthropists who thought they knew what is best for the local African people. It is the story of The Monkey and the Fish and it goes like this:

A monkey was walking beside a river one day and notices a fish in the water. The monkey thinks to itself, “Oh, no! That poor animal will drown! I must do something.” The monkey scoops up the fish and the fish begins flailing in the monkey’s hands. The monkey says to itself, “Look how happy I have made it. It leaps for joy.” The fish dies, and the monkey thinks, “If only I had gotten here sooner, I might have saved its life.”

I try to remember to not be the monkey in this story when I am tempted to think I know what is best for my patients to do, like when I think they should give up drug use, leave a battering spouse, or stop being so stubborn.

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