First and foremost, I admit, I am not Jewish but for this blog I do want to talk about a concept that is familiar to Judaism. If I mess this up in anyway, please forgive me for my ignorance and feel free to educate me on my mistaken understanding.
I recently read of this idea, Chesed; it is essentially the love that God has toward us and the love that we are meant to have toward each other. But, it is an active love. It is a love that is meant to bear witness to pain, suffering, isolation. It is the type of love that brings God into closeness with us and brings us into closeness with others. It is the love that gives suffering meaning. According to myjewishlearning.com, “Acts of chesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract.” It is for this reason– the engagement in a social contract– that I intend to draw a parallel between Chesed and the works of the ethical therapist.
The role of the therapist, undeniably, is to enter into an intimate, non-sexual relationship with his/her clients. This aligns well with the purpose of chesed as I understand it; “service [or chesed] is one important answer to the individual’s search for meaning and desire for true relationships.” There is a sort of symbiotic, reciprocal nature to the therapeutic relationship, to the relationship between sufferer and helper or witness, that I believe we far too often ignore. We deny the existence of this symbiosis because it threatens the ethics of the counseling profession. Counselors are meant to hold the needs of the client above their own needs. They aren’t mean to counsel as a way of having their own needs met but according to chesed, that very thing leads to true relationships. Are you seeing the problem here? I think this is part of what leads to so much hurt in the therapeutic relationship; the fact that we are denying reciprocity. It is okay that the therapist has certain needs met in the relationship. If they don’t, there is no way for that relationship to be true and to be healing.
The second part of this equation is in how the relationship is built between sufferer and healer. They are two equals, two people who have known suffering, but in times of need the other offers to bear witness to that person’s suffering so that they might both be transformed. This, to me, aligns well with Alice Miller’s notion of the enlightened witness, which she defines as “an understanding person who helps a victim of abuse “recognize the injustices they suffered” and “give vent to their feelings” about what happened to them.” That’s it, just give vent and offer understanding. It isn’t to change things. It is just to get down to the truth of what has happened. It is to acknowledge and accept that suffering is a part of the human condition. It doesn’t make sense. There are no easy answers. But, we are all in this thing together.
Without the enlightened witness our suffering can have no meaning, neither for the sufferer or the intended witness for “the meaning of suffering is in the opportunity for the other to respond to that suffering, to embrace the sufferer and, through doing so, bring God into the world. […] When we respond to the other at a time of need, we fulfill our humanity and can find existential meaning in life.” Again, mutually reciprocal. So, why do we pretend that the therapeutic relationship is one-sided? Why do we perpetuate this power differential between the well-therapist and the ill-client? Why, when we are all humans who suffer? This stance of false superiority denies the therapist, denies the enlightened witness the opportunity to be enlightened. It causes irreparable damage to the relationship.
I would like to posit an alternative to the current model. The therapist as enlightened witness needs to own up to their own hurts and how those hurts impact their ability to provide meaning to a person’s suffering. They need to allow their clients to see their vulnerability. They need to own when they make mistakes, when they have stopped acting out of love and have acted from some other place. It is okay to engage in acts of kindness and expect monetary return, that isn’t inherently wrong, but to make chesed about money seems like a bastardization of the true meaning of the term. In offering shelter to the suffering, in offering to listen, to embrace the person in pain, to accept them for who they are, to not make them feel like they are “too much” for what their suffering has turned them into, that, to me, seems like the true meaning of chesed. That, to me, feels like what brings God into the world.
If therapy were more like this, if it were based on service meant to build true relationships with people, how many people would still be walking away re-traumatized? How many people would still be hurt by well-intentioned therapists who just don’t get how to build authentic relationships within the scope of their code of ethics? Is it a solution to the problem? Maybe not, but maybe it is a start.