CYC-Online 88 MAY 2006
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The sacred moment and its pain

David Pithers reflects on love and its place in child care relationships

Either this sacred moment is used or it is wasted. If it is wasted the child's belief in being understood is shattered. If on the other hand it is used, then the child's belief in being helped is strengthened. (D. W. Winnicott)

About one thing let us be clear. Love is something better done than spoken of. Whilst most people, if pressed, would assert or acknowledge the reality and even the necessity of loving in at least some aspects of human experience they are likely to become uncertain or confused if pushed to be more specific. Despite the relief to be obtained from the range of available clichés, strange things tend to happen when we talk of love. Statements become either pious and heavy or sloppy and sentimental and quickly take on an uncomfortable detachment from reality. As these abstractions become more convoluted we are attracted to pursue them in the false hope that clarity may be available at the other end of confusion.

The problem is that the intensity and volatility, the uniqueness and paradox of the loving relationship is probably inexpressible. Even the poets retreat before it. It will slip through even the most skillfully constructed web of words. Personal accounts are not very satisfactory either. When it happens it is unlikely that reflection is possible or, if it is, that it can be recalled intelligibly afterwards. Lovers do not so much speak nonsense to each other, as is often alleged. Rather they communicate in the manner of the moment. Language and action become an integrated experience which can be understood only by the participants. To even attempt to explain it would be hopeless.

So I realise that I am stepping into a trap to take this any further, but it may be possible to clear the ground a little so that I can speak directly to experience.

Whatever it might be, love is not a quiet or serene activity. It is disturbing and disruptive, it is unpredictable and furious, it is irreducible to specific emotions, although it may contain them all. Hate is not the antithesis of love because it may be contained within it. I have often thought that the statement “God is Love” means that He is everything that is – at a particular level of intensity.

The story of the God who is Love and became flesh carries with it a singular warning. It is extremely dangerous and can lead to agony. Perhaps that is why organisations like that for which I work will happily declare and even declaim the primacy of loving but will twitch defensively if it shows signs of becoming a reality. To talk about it is much safer, a defence and an avoidance. It is often quite incredible to hear the most exploitative and destructive relationships being duplicitously dignified in the rhetoric of loving. Indeed those who make such assertions deserve the suspicion and distrust which they so often evoke. Often they are consigned as hypocrites. But that is a fairly ordinary failing not, in itself, of great importance. Much worse, they are repressed zealots for whom hurt is not just foreseen but intended. To confirm their own self-righteousness they need to see others suffer. Perhaps love itself should never speak its name and live only in being seen and experienced.

In one of those profound contrarieties which are so central and essential in human experiencing, the only truly creative and healing activity, the loving relationship, contains within it the potentiality for pain and destruction. This acute contradiction is at the root of that chilling confrontation between the Grand Inquisitor and the returned Christ in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The inquisitor bitterly points out that if love were to be applied, in the way it is expressed in the Gospels, there could be no stability and no certainty. No ethic and no polity can be constructed on so unstable a foundation. It is notable that under his verbal assault Christ remains silent. He does not rise to the defence or claim any justification. For Him there can be no argument and the love which even the hardened sensibilities of His interrogator responds to is experienced only through His eyes.

At a rational level the case cannot be won, only the example can stand against the words. That final loving gesture, the kiss, with which Christ leaves the prison cell remains, to those who insist upon rationality in all things, one of the strangest and more equivocal acts in all literature. It is irrational, there is no sense in it “but it works. The inquisitor bore the experience of that kiss for the rest of his life. He was right to say that love is disruptive and dangerous but what answer can there be to the act of loving itself.

Because it is generated in instability and finds its movements in reaction, love is essential to the lively and uncertain processes of growth. The disturbed child is not one that is going off in the wrong direction but one that is not moving at all, in at least some aspects of her experience. They go around in circles or phrenetically mark time. The headmaster of one of our special schools recently observed that, looking back on his years of experience, it was the most disruptive and unco-operative children who seemed to have made the most progress, both inside and outside school. This may not stand as an accurate generalisation but there is some humane truth in it. At least the naughty child is prepared to take the world on: he has not yet been induced to give up on it. Indeed the recovery of the ability to get angry is often the first step towards independent life for the miserable child. Love can look beyond the immediate advantages of conformity and apparent tranquility to the unsettled and possibly violent processes of disordered growth.

Love is not an attitude or a feeling or a set of feelings, or a particular behaviour or set of behaviours “it may be revealed in a widely disparate variety of ways of doing things. It is never pure and I would go so far as to say that corruption is inherent to it. The loving relationship provides tough work, it taints as well as refines and this is at the centre of its power. It may be that it is the reaction of good and evil within it that generates its energy. When a soiling child needs to be cuddled and comforted our feelings and attitudes are likely to be in disarray. This the child will experience. But the over-riding reaction will derive from the inescapable fact that, against her sense of badness, she is being held.

Those who would wish to practise this impracticable, confusing and acutely painful art of loving must know what it will exact from them. It is always done at a loss, we always have to give more than we can ever regain. Of course, at the outset it is impossible to know how great the price will be – that compounds the risk. It means relinquishing certainty and accepting confusion; it means letting go of defence and becoming vulnerable; it means abandoning security and embracing fear. Here I advise nothing and prescribe nothing. Those who will do it are fools, and it is not possible to advocate such foolishness or to censor those who are unwilling or unable to do it. It might even be easier if the risks were ours alone. For us they may be onerous enough but we are likely to be better equipped to withstand them than those we seek to help who are already damaged.

I am often asked whether the healing relationship involves the danger of adding more hurt to the pain. Of course, it does. Even to contribute to removing the analgesic of defence is to open wounds and to become responsible for the pain “even though we did not cause it. Perhaps it is not therefore surprising that love is often expressed as a form of madness.

The only genuinely healing relationship is the loving relationship. As my friend David Wills once said:

We must so conduct ourselves that they will come to see in us something they have hitherto not known, and which it is no sin to covet for themselves. They must be loved in order that they may learn to love. That is not only Christian teaching; it is sound modern psychology.

That is a typically uncompromising way of putting it, but I agree.

There may be many important child care tasks which can be performed without the burden of this commitment, but nothing else can heal. Recently I saw a young member of staff, who had been injured in a particularly nasty way by a particularly nasty child, holding her and comforting her. When she was having her injuries treated she insisted that the child have the opportunity to be with her so that she was not left to fantasise about what might be happening. She then defended her against a moralising attack from the head of the unit. She may be young and foolish – but I hope she never grows out of it.

There is a lot of talk these days about being a profession. I do not regard this as something that you belong to, a special interest group protected by jargon and bureaucratic organisation. Like the religious we ought to make our profession. This is not a statement or an article but a way of living. We can make a profession of loving.

When he wrote his seminal book Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry Winnicott did not use the word “sacred” lightly. That is, he regarded that part of the therapeutic encounter as transcendental – it goes beyond its elements and it is not reducible to them. It cannot be planned for, or imposed or expected. It overcomes the distances of age, experience or position. It dissolves barriers and evaporates prejudice. It is the central moment in a loving relationship. That relationship will bruise and disappoint us as it has to be sustained through the rough territory by which the hurt child is defended. The child may have given all she can to the moment and be further depleted as a consequence. You cannot give from what you have not got and that is why the relationship replicates the earliest experience of nurturing. On the one side it is unconditional giving with no thought of getting anything back; on the other it is filling up so that ultimately there will be something to give. This occurring at what Balint has called “the level of the basic fault.”

It is important now to address the real lest we float off in any particular direction on the hot air of abstraction.

Those who have the care of disturbed and difficult children will continue to be badly chosen, inadequately supported, poorly managed and exploitatively controlled. We may hope that this will change, we may seek actively to change it, but there is no point in waiting for it. The more commitment is shown the greater the opportunities for exploitation and yet the signs remain that personal commitment is still a central feature of much practice. There can be no expectation of respect or admiration, people will continue to be condescending towards or dismissive of what we try to do. We might though, and as a final work on professional loving, profess in the words of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound;

To suffer woes which
Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker
than death or night;
To defy Power; which
seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope
till Hope creates
From its own wreck the
thing it contemplates.

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