Much of my free time I spend with my geniuses. Quiet and ready they weigh down my bookshelves. Borges, Nietzsche, de Saint Exupery, scores of geniuses, all are there, all are mine. Above them all, always towering in my supplicant mind stands delicate and tall my ultimate advisor: Franz Kafka. In a letter to Oskar Pollak, on November 8, 1903, he wrote:
“We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell”.
I cannot think of a more disheartening statement for a psychiatrist. I read his words when I forged my first hesitant steps into this formidable field. I literally agonized over the thought: what if Kafka is right? What if I set myself for a futile chase of the eternally inaccessible? As a physician, I am totally prepared to stand before the other reverently and lovingly. I understand the hellish nature of emotional pain. But will you never be able to explain to me your inner world?
Years into my practice, I have understood the lesson of my great genius teacher: we are inherently incapable of expressing to the other what takes place in our inner world. As a psychiatrist, I cannot expect you, my patient, to explain to me your inner world, much like you cannot describe what is going on in your spleen or thyroid. You can explain to me your symptoms, but as Kafka said, all I know is that hell is hot and scary. That is not enough to be profoundly effective. In order to understand your inner world I have to visit there. I have to imagine your life and experiences as they appear to you. In other words, instead of “putting myself in your shoes,” I have to become the other even if for a split second – and suddenly everything is so clear.
It took me a long time to learn how to lose my judgment at each psychiatric encounter. Like Yoga or any other spiritual discipline, it is a long learning curve and one never masters the technique to full perfection. I certainly am often reminded of my limitations. And, as opposed to Yoga, no “muscle memory” is permitted. We may be predictable in the outside world, among our fellow humans, but inside our most intimate sphere, our experience is unlike others’. And so, despite the years of experience, I often need to exert myself intellectually and spiritually with every person as if they were my first. But once the moment of clarity occurs, when the glow of understanding illuminates another’s inner world, it is forever revealed in all its intricacies.
I have been thinking about communication this week as I was scheduled to give one of my Men(ual) seminars. I created the workshop some years ago, responding to my work with couples. Typically, a focus of a couple’s work is improvement of communication between the two. And yet, at times I realized that even with “simultaneous translation” the man and woman sitting with me are unable to understand each other. They want to listen to each other. They are attentive to each other. They love each other, and want their relationship to work. But they do not “get” what the other is trying to explain.
This is the juncture where I reach for “my Kafka”. Is there a way for someone to express their deep emotional needs, even when their words betray them?
I have developed my Kafka method to find alternatives to dialogue, alternatives to verbal communication, if you may.
Together with your partner, identify an issue that is very important to you even if it seems insignificant to your partner. We all have those “hang-ups” – pet peeves that can drive us mad even if we ourselves can recognize that “it is not a big deal”.
True, it is not a big deal in the outside world, but it is a big deal in our intimate, deeply veiled, inner world. Why? There are as many possibilities as there are people and hang-ups. And, when working on your relationship with your partner, you need to focus on the dynamic and understanding between the two of you. Disagreement on “small things” is in fact one of the most destructive and erosive force in marriage. People can torture themselves and their partners over the most inane issues. And often it takes the form of a “ritualistic dance” where the couple acts like well-rehearsed actors in a play. I assume you must have experienced it. I certainly have.
Now think of Kafka’s words. It is important to be reminded that sometimes we cannot explain the why in our heart. It is just there. And, while difficult to explain, it is important to you nonetheless. And yes, you can ask your partner (especially your partner) to accept that importance without you having to explain. (And perhaps if both of you stop bickering about it you would be able to become more flexible yourself.)
Some behaviors, or feelings, or needs, might be impossible to explain. But they are there, and very powerful. My Kafka method can help us accept the fact that we may never get an answer why. Once we overcome this hurdle, suddenly the road to a loving partnership becomes clearer. Simple? Perhaps. But it is not too simple to be effective.