Let’s say you’ve made a habit of arriving at therapy 10 minutes before the hour begins. You use the extra time to luxuriate in relaxation and solitary reflection…maybe grab a magazine to help relax and assuage your anxiety. But wait, you have forgotten one thing. There’s a recurring force that’s been interrupting your peace. For the past 6 weeks, from 5 to 8 minutes till the hour, a stranger has has been arriving, intruding on your space, in order to wait for his therapist. Per usual, he takes a seat across from you, disheveled with the aroma of cigarrette smoke. Worse, he exhibits a harsh clearing of his throat every 10 to 12 seconds. You are repelled. Nevertheless, you decide to “make the best of it,” and see if making contact with him might help him achieve a more pleasant demeanor. You give him a slight nod and say “hello.” No response. As if you didn’t exist. And he heard you. You're sure of that. Understandably, you are offended. You sigh and long for the solitude you had six weeks ago, before he began impinging on your space.
Stepping back for a moment, I’d like to ask what should be the relationship between these two strangers--or between any two otherwise unrelated individual. In her 2011 book The Suffering Stranger, American philosopher and psychoanalyst Donna Orange suggests that each of us are profoundly connected to the other by way of our individual suffering. Orange adapts the work of the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas to address the question at hand—what is the nature of our relatedness to one another? Through the suffering of the other, we come to understand the infinite value of each person and that we are infinitely beholden to them.
It follows that the unpleasant experience with the stranger should not to influence the way we act toward him. However difficult it may be to get beyond our initial impressions, we become oriented by a far greater calling--our responsibility to someone of infinite value. Now, this is a remarkable claim. A stranger has stepped into your space, disrupted your tranquility, and then rudely ignored you. And then you are asked to privilege his internal world above your own?! Levinas makes such a position compelling through his argument that our essential being lies in our responsibility to the suffering other—that is, their suffering precedes all else that calls upon us.
How do we then understand the behavior of this stranger in the waiting room? Orange offers that we adopt what she calls a “hermeneutics of trust.” Orange was profoundly struck by an insight from psychoanalyst Berndard Brandschaft, “Resistance is the attitude of heroes in the face of oppression.” To use the stranger in the waiting room to illustrate this point, suppose he had refused your attempt at connection precisely because of how much he would like connect. And his refusal was a pre-emptive precaution against feeling attached and (presumedly) rejected. For him, rejection has only been felt as catastrophic. So he is acting to protect a delicate part of himself. And his anxiety about his upcoming session likely makes the interaction all the more sensitive. One can see how a generous and empathic interpretation has the potential to transform the entire interaction.
Previous schools of psychotherapy lent themselves to what Orange calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” With some exaggeration, a traditional Freudian view might suggest that the stranger is a seething cauldron of sexual and homicidal impulses. Not quite someone you’re gonna want to greet. There’s a more general attitude of suspicion in most enclaves of our culture. And to go with that, an indifference to the plight of others. It might be said we live in a world of “everyman against every man.” “What’s in it for me?” is the operative question. In fact, the lion-share of psychological literature bears the powerful stamp of “self-help”, without thoughtful consideration as to how one’s relationship to the “other” effects one’s own well-being. Many psychotherapy patients have recieved a powerful prohibition from therapists against interactions with others in the waiting room. Following Orange and Levinas, such a prohibition would guard against our coming to value what is most important.
Levinas and Orange understand their insight not as a simple matter of subjective taste, but as an ethical reality. Ethics are traditionally removed from systematic psychological inquiries. Therefore, in a sense, Orange's work is revolutionary. When an ethical position is articulated, it can then be reflected upon and put into a dialogue. I don't believe Orange an Levinas are presenting an ultimate ethical reality. But I also think there is something that cannot be disregarded about their work. With regard to the waiting room, once we begin to realize the suffering of the stranger, a connection begins that cannot be forgotten.