During May and June I was helping one of my sons revise for his exams in chemistry, biology and physics. I was struck by how often these subjects are concerned with the universal phenomenon of substances and systems continuously regulating themselves in order to achieve some sort of stability, balance or equilibrium, and the upheavals and changes that go on endlessly as part of this regulating.
We can see this process play out in one individual life. This is often part of therapy: reflecting back and seeing a bigger picture of how one part of us was attempting to keep us safe and stable, even if the ways that this one part tried to do so sometimes took us down some very painful paths. We can forgive ourselves – and help our clients to forgive themselves – for addictions, neuroses, or a lack of skilful behaviour, when we can see all the above as attempts at self- regulation that went somewhat awry.
It can be harder to see that the same process of attempting to restore equilibrium or balance may be playing out in things that are bigger and more complex than one individual, such as a whole community, a nation, a region, or even an entire planet. It is not easy to ponder what is going on in a system as we consider many lives, or many interlinked systems, when we see difficulty, confusion and upheaval manifesting on a macro rather than micro level.
These days, thousands of images, reports and film footage of huge systemic upheavals, in the form of shattering events across the world, are poured directly and immediately into our phones, computers, radios, televisions and newspapers. And after a certain amount of exposure to this, a potent mix of despair, anger and terror can begin to overwhelm us. This mix is what I have observed in many clients over the last few months, as, in addition to their own individual difficulties, they have needed to talk about the impact on them of such matters as the conflict and suffering in the Middle East; Boko Haram’s kidnap of young women in Nigeria; vans deliberately driving into pedestrians in cities; the deaths in the Grenfell Tower fire in London; the pollution of our seas and atmosphere, and the continuing extinction of animal and plant species. They have needed to talk about famines and droughts; multi drug-resistant bacteria and the effects of global warming; about two young gay men in Indonesia being dragged from their bed and flogged publicly, as punishment for their ‘sin’. The list could go on and take up the rest of the column; but I don’t want it to.
Nor do I want to protect myself or my clients from overwhelm by simply minimising, or rationalising – naively trying to soothe with assurances like, ‘As one door closes, another will be opening’, or, ‘The Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity’. Panaceas won’t really cut the mustard when we are facing the reality that if humans in the industrialised parts of the world cannot find and implement more sustainable and fairer ways of sharing the planet with other humans and other life forms, then the pace at which a catastrophic loss of resources, habitats and life takes place is going to relentlessly speed up. This is not a time for putting our fingers in our ears and humming a cheery tune to drown out the cries of human and non-human anguish throughout the world. But nor is it a time for sinking into a pit of helplessness and paralysis.
In the experiments and theories my son was revising, there was always a tipping point, after which something radical took place. The lead-up to a tipping point could be prolonged and gradual. But there was always a point of no return: a point at which one phase of a process definitively ended, and something entirely new entered the frame.
In a titration, if an acid is dripped gradually into an alkaline solution, there is a point at which the pH balance of the solution suddenly changes and it is no longer alkaline. If small amounts of a mineral are dissolved in water, for a while the water can take in more and more, but at one point, it becomes saturated, no more mineral will dissolve, and then that solution can give rise to the formation of crystals, which was not possible before.
If I let myself open up to the hope that all things can – all things have to – change, then I find my heart feeling open again, and that something is flowing around my body a bit more freely. Then I can grieve for the losses and the suffering in my life and the life of the world, without feeling that grief will shatter me, or that such grieving is ultimately useless.
One of my clients (who has given me permission to refer to this in my column) used to vow each week that he would not cry in his session. When he did, he would berate himself for this. We ended up talking about his tears. About how tears can be a sign that a tipping point has been reached, as a system regulates itself. He began to trust that his tears are part of what helps him to somehow regulate his individual system, so that he can feel able to begin another day, with some sense of resilience and hope. And hope and resilience are things we all need if we are to stand for what we believe in times of trouble.
Sarah Van Gogh is a counsellor in private practice in south-east London and for Survivors UK, a charity that supports men who have experienced sexual violation. She is also a tutor at Re-Vision in north-west London.