“This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form
that wants to become a work through him not a figment of his soul but
something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative
power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being.”
–MARTIN BUBER, I and Thou.
The practice of clinical psychology does not have much in common with the creative process. Clinical psychology is a science. That is how it has defined itself, and in an effort to be believed, it long ago made a decision to pursue the objective, measurable behavior of human beings as its focus, leaving the mysteries of consciousness to other disciplines.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when philosophers and psychologists were easy to spot as being from the same family. It was William James, who is considered to be “The Father of Psychology,” who originally conceptualized psychology as a science primarily concerned with the study of subjective mental experience, or consciousness. The method of inquiry being introspection. Then, in 1912, John Watson introduced behaviorism and, to put it simply, that was that.
In my daily work, I think quite often about this schism between the objective, physical, measurable aspect of an individual action and the internal, meaningful, lived experience of each person. It is said that the ability of the mind to think, reason and process information is what makes us distinctly human. But, perhaps it is also the very thing that most separates us from our true nature.
I work with patients who have dementia, and the illness directly impacts their ability to think logically, problem solve, reason, process information. The very stuff by which we define humanness. My patients have started to wander away from the objective material world that most of us inhabit everyday and into a different space altogether. It is a space in which dualism begins to break down, discursive thought begins to lose its hold, communication is less about labels, judgments, narratives, and instead, awareness turns to things that can’t be spoken because there is no language. It is the experience of one’s personal internal conscious being, unfiltered, direct, filled with meaning. It is the land of archetypes, symbols and synchronicities.
My patients have all “been somebody” in the world they are leaving behind. They have been mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, lovers, teachers, thinkers, dreamers, artists. They have all been doers. The doing is clumsy now, where it’s possible at all, and so, they are becoming, to greater and lesser degrees, planted only in being.
Let me say that I did not always know this to be true. For the longest time, I was practicing good clinical psychology, observing, measuring, monitoring, essentially colonizing my patients. I wasn’t looking for internal lived experience, symbolic meaning or conscious being. Those things aren’t measurable, and they weren’t things that I either knew how to or thought to share with the people I worked with. It was one of my patients, an artist of some renowned in her day, who taught me the thing that I was missing.
Martha was a painter. Now, she resides in a skilled nursing facility. She is 92 years old, a sturdy woman. She uses a wheelchair to get around and does so easily. Her hair is fully grey and straight, a bowl cut shapes her rounded face. Her hands are arthritic, and she wears rectangular gold wire framed glasses, but they don’t help much now. She smiles nicely twice, once when she knows that you are actually interested and once when she talks about her paintings.
One day, after I had finished measuring Martha, I had some extra time. So, I started reminiscing with her about some of the paintings that she had hanging on the wall of her room. Because they were difficult for her to see from her chair, I took one down from the wall and brought it close for us to be able to see together. She held it for me the way she might have held open a book to read to a small child, and she invited me into the canvas.
Martha has dementia, and her ability to encode new information, or to recall recent events, or to accurately place herself in the world is poor, but she vividly and imaginatively remembers everything in her painting. It is a living present moment for her, as it would become for me, too. At first, I understood her simply to be describing the scene depicted in the painting. “This was my sister’s cabin in Maine...and this little building here was way back in the woods, and they rolled it seven miles...and just over this little hill here...”
After a few minutes, she pointed to a tree in the painting. It wasn’t a particular focal point; nothing about it would necessarily draw the eye, but it became clear to me that this tree was more than a tree to her. So, I made an effort to listen, less with my thinking mind, and more with my awareness. And she went on. “And you see this tree here...this part...its trunk...it was hit by lightning...here...so, now there is just this bow...in its trunk.”
She was pointing to the tree that she had painted all of those years ago, to a place where she had once observed how a lightning strike had removed a large chunk of bark and wood from the trunk of a tree, and how it was now stooped over, like an old woman, as a result of its wound. I realized she was telling me her story as she was telling me the story of this tree. Martha had had a stroke. She was stooped and no longer able to walk, and she experienced constant pain from her wounds. She and this tree had the same lived experience. They knew and understood each other, and now she was helping me to understand them both.
She paused for a moment and I asked her, “What happened to this tree?”
“Well, it got struck...and then it just...tied its branches into bows…”
“And carried on?” I offered.
“And carried on,” she affirmed with a nod and a smile.
There were no other words between us that morning. We sat still and waited together, contemplating, in the way that one might absorb a poem, or engage a painting, or know a flower. And then, when it was time, she lifted up her arms high above her head, tied her branches into bows and got on with her day.
This is an excerpt from "All The Doers".
Paige Parsons has a BA in English Literature from The University of the South (Sewanee), Sewanee, TN and a PhD Clinical Psychology, Walden University, Minneapolis, MN. She practices Clinical Geriatric Psychology in Upstate New York, working primarily with elderly patients with dementia.