CORONA VIEWED FROM A GESTALT PERSPECTIVE

Recently I read an article by Pietro Andrea Cavaleri, working at the Institute for Gestalt HCC Italy. In this article he tries to present a point of view on how to look at the pandemic from a Gestalt perspective. He describes the background to the pandemic, its complexity and the many contradictions of our globalized world. And about new means of living, of contact with our environment. An exciting article to share, that is why I have translated it into Dutch. Have fun reading!

A Gestalt Therapy Reading of the Pandemic

The article aims to give a reading of the pandemic from a Gestalt perspective. It analyzes first
of all the background from which it emerges and its complexity. It is defined as a sick planet
(see Pievani, 2019) in need of new forms of sustainability (see Bellina, 2019). Human
vulnerability, made still more actual by COVID-19, is then proposed by the author as a
permanent existential condition (see Foucault, 2005), capable, however, of generating new
creative adaptations and new potentials (see Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1994). Placed in
this frame of meaning, the pandemic can be a challenge for every single person and for larger
communities.

Keywords: figure, ground, emergency, vulnerability, adaptive strategies

A first aspect of the pandemic that Gestalt therapy can help shine a light on is the
figure-ground dynamic (see Cavaleri, 2003) that stands between the novel coronavirus—
that could be singled out as the terrible enemy to be defeated as quickly as possible—and
all that lies behind it and of which it might be a product, a final outcome. As is always the
case, from a Gestalt perspective, the figure emerges from a ground, and it is there that we
need to look to identify the key elements that can help us understand and make sense of
the figure (see Spagnuolo Lobb, 2013, 2015). We need to grasp that complex and essential
dynamic if we want to understand the experiential field, of which we are coagents and
coconstructors.
In the collective imagination, the pandemic immediately emerged as the dominant
figure, in which fighting the pandemic has become all-out war and the coronavirus the
great enemy to be defeated. But is that really the case? Are we really so sure that
coronavirus 2019 is the true enemy to be targeted? Or, rather, does it represent the
symptom of a much more complex disease, one we urgently need to learn to recognize and
counter for the benefit of the entire planet?
Some researchers claim that once we defeat the coronavirus, it is highly likely that
other viruses will jump from animals to humans (see Barbera et al., 2020). It seems that
intensive, and highly polluting, animal farming on the industrial scale has given rise to a
number of pandemic diseases, which in the near future could jump species to infect humans, bringing with them scenarios even more dramatic than what we are witnessing
now (see Pievani, 2019). Other scientists (Travaglio, 2020) who specialize in climate and
pollution are, from the other side, producing evidence of how in large urban centers and
in high-density industrial areas, the coronavirus has been spread by particulate matter as
well as by the higher rate of immunodeficiency and respiratory diseases in the population.
If the abovementioned studies are correct, an evident correlation might appear to exist
between farming, industrial production, pollution, respiratory diseases, immunodeficiency,
and pandemic. Moreover, the coronavirus would appear to have spread more
rapidly in areas in which health care and prevention services are less widespread and
lacking in coverage (see Capobianco et al., 2020). In countries in which health care is
private (like the United States), many poor people have had no access to treatment and
care and have died as a result, to then be buried anonymously in mass graves. In countries
in which health care is public but dysfunctional (like Italy or Spain) because of disinvestment
in recent years, treatment has been denied to elderly patients. The effects of
pandemic are obviously correlated, besides other aspects, to the economic management of
a nation, social inequality, and material poverty.
From the facts and reflections exposed so far, the coronavirus appears as the nonrandom
outcome of a complex chain of causes; it emerges as a figure with a sick planet as
its background. Perhaps the real problem to be solved is not only the figure (coronavirus
2019) but, above all, the background (sick planet) from which it emerges. Finding a
vaccine will not suffice to resolve our problems and cheerfully restore us to the security
of our former normality—We probably need to focus on more structural changes in the
management of the planet. The essential lesson that we can learn from the pandemic is that
we cannot and must not return to the world of before. We are called to realize new
possibilities of social justice and solidarity, centered on the human being and the natural
environment in which we live.

Emergency and Vulnerability as a Permanent Human Condition

When you think you are invincible and believe the society you live in is safe and
secure, to be faced suddenly with the exact opposite is for many an experience of
discontinuity that is extremely traumatic, especially for people with a high level of
emotional fragility and the need for stable contexts (see Frewen & Lanius, 2015; Taylor,
2014).
Confronted with a traumatic event, the human brain often reacts by interrupting the
neural circuits that connect the more archaic and instinctive areas of the brain with its
more rational and evolved areas (see Van der Kolk, 2015). An impending threat to our
very existence leaves us no time to reason because the autonomic nervous system takes
hold and with its instinctive reactions and archaic automatisms seeks to keep our life safe
(see Panksepp & Biven, 2012; Porges, 2017; Taylor, 2014). And so it happens that, with
a pandemic in full swing, for all the technological advancement of our society and the
enormous strides made by scientific progress, we unconsciously consign ourselves to the
most instinctive irrationality (see Anders, 1992; Galimberti, 1999). How is all this
possible? Is our society really so safe? Maybe, generally speaking, people intuit that they
are not safe in this society.
The Gestalt approach and its vision of human existence can help us, in no small way,
to orient ourselves in the actual situation. To understand the experience of emergency, we
need to understand its opposite, that is the experience of normality. As Michel Foucault (2005) has written, by attributing omnipotence to science and to individual genius, modern
culture— of which we are all a product—has led us to believe, until now, that everything
can be controlled, predicted, and steered by scientists. The illusion that normality is solid
and scratch proof is fueled by the deeply rooted conception in our dominant culture that
all of nature, that which surrounds us and in which we live, can be kept under control by
scientific knowledge (see Galimberti, 1999). If we consider that the human condition has
always had its (sometimes tragic) fragilities, it would be wiser to take emergencies more
into account when we think to our normality.
To understand in concrete terms how fragile and vulnerable human beings are, it is
sufficient to look at the ecosystem we live in—to the problems tied to pollution, climate
change, deforestation, and continuing natural disasters (see Pievani, 2019) but also to wars
and migration flows (see Braga et al., 2020) and to pandemics themselves, such as the
pandemic that is shaking the tranquillity of our lives. To develop a wider awareness of our
human limits, let us try to rethink what is meant by normality and what is meant by
emergency (see Foucault, 2005). In the narcissistic horizon of modern culture (see Lasch,
1981), emergency is all that which only momentarily or fortuitously escapes the omnipotent
control of science. The life of our human species has always been a continuous
becoming, a constant emergency that is never normalized and that exposes us to continuous
and frustrating vulnerability. But what can the vision of humanity developed by the
Gestalt therapy tell us in this regard?
Following closely in the footsteps of Otto Rank (1990) and Frederick Perls (1969), the
main inspirer behind the Gestalt approach, considered the experience of vulnerability,
together with the experience of suffering that it entails, as an entirely unavoidable step in
the path of human growth itself (see Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1994, p. 85 ff.). When
the human being takes an “open” stance and even an attitude of abandonment toward
vulnerability, that itself promotes a healthy growth process and leads us to overcome more
rapidly the experience itself of fragility and pain (see Perls et al., 1994, p. 133 ff.).
On the contrary, a “closed” stance toward vulnerability, or the rejection of the
suffering it entails and the spasmodic quest for “victory,” for absolute control over reality,
is the equivalent, for every human being, of shunning all vital growth processes and
fueling our neurotic aspects (Perls et al., 1994, p. 163 ff.). Thus, for Perls it means
forgoing forever the typical certitudes of neurotic control over reality, to acquire in their
stead an adequate adaptive strategy to deal with the limits of the human condition, a
mental well-being that comes solely from a disinterested relationship with the other, the
environment, and life (see Cavaleri, 2003).
In Perls’s view, the only attitude able to foster a “healthy” adjustment to reality, even
in the most difficult and problematic of conditions, is that of “creative disinterest” (Perls
et al., 1994, p. 179 ff.). It is from disinterest, from an acceptance of the risk of losing, that
creativity and mental well-being paradoxically emerge and not from victory over oneself,
over the other, and over reality in general. It is only such disinterestedness that brings us
into full contact with the surrounding environment, sustaining our most authentic creativity
and enhancing our capacity to grasp the strength, energy, and even vital eros that are
hidden in vulnerability.
In the Gestalt therapy vision of the human condition, vulnerability always conceals
within itself an unexpected and extraordinary strength. It is only by opening up to the limit
of vulnerability that such strength becomes accessible to us, enabling us to take possession
of it and turn it into a driving element for growth, transformation, and life, even in such
a dramatic and unsettling context as a pandemic. If interpreted and experienced creatively
(see Rank, 1990), the current pandemic crisis could turn into an opportunity to change the management of our planet. For example, economic growth could be harmonised with
social inclusion and environmental protection to achieve sustainable development (see
Bellina, 2019). This integrated vision and sustainable development would also help to
resolve the social and cultural contradictions that fuel racism today.

Regression as a Response to Complexity and Human Potentiality

In recent years, the liquid society theorized by Bauman (2000) has been a highly
authoritative conceptual paradigm of reference, helping us understand some of the
disturbing aspects of globalization, in particular individualism, social isolation, and
relational fragility. During the pandemic, seeing the solidarity that emerged in many
different forms, some were quick to pronounce the dawning of a new era and the end of
the liquid society (see De Giovanni, 2020). But unfortunately, this was not the case and
the way humans reacted to the pandemic proved to be very varied, liquid precisely. The
reactions, quite naturally, have been many and vastly diverse, to the point of touching
antitheses. There have been those who have sacrificed their own lives or have consciously
given it to save others; those who have shut themselves away in their homes and in their
solitude, like a cocoon, remaining entirely indifferent to what was happening around them
and desensitizing themselves to the pain of others, or even seeing them simply as potential
spreaders of plague; those who risked being infected by the virus to be at the service of
others; and those who obsessively isolated themselves completely, behaving with irrational
rationality and creating around themselves a sort of sanitary cordon giving them the
illusion of controlling the virus and being invincible.
The diversity of reactions has characterized not only the behavior of individuals but
also entire local and national communities, trade union leaders, industrialists, and heads
of state. How can it all be explained? What insights can the Gestalt anthropological model
offer to better understand the vast range of human reactions to the pandemic?
The anthropological model developed by the founders of Gestalt therapy (see Perls et
al., 1994) highlights not only the positive aspects of the evolution of the human species
but also the traps and dangers that it contains (p. 85 ff.). In their view, whereas initially
our forebears were capable of fully merging the old and the new, former ways of living
with later, more evolved ways into an integrated whole, at a certain point in time,
especially with the arrival of abstract thought and symbolic language, their mental
capacity for integration was left significantly undermined by the excessive complexity
with which their minds were then faced.
For Perls et al. (1994, p. 85 ff.), the inability to handle such extreme complexity in what
is new brought about a neurotic turn in human evolution, a powerful urge to fall back on
antiquated, although safer, forms of adaptation (see Molinari & Cavaleri, 2015). So instead of
continuing to merge the new with the old, the mind of our forebears learned to produce a
neurotic split between the animal part and the human part of the self, learning to respond to
the complexity of evolution with regression and flight back to forms of life that were more archaic but simpler and more tolerable. Confronted with the stress of having to integrate ever
more complex aspects of reality, the human mind learned to activate two different adaptive
strategies, one regressive and neurotic, the other creative and generative of new potentiality
and new forms of integration between the old and the new (Molinari & Cavaleri, 2015).
As Gestalt psychology has taught us (see Wertheimer, 1945), both in macrosystems
and microsystems, the same reality can provoke different responses in the observer. On
the basis of how it is perceived, it can induce a return to the old or creative tension toward the new. As psychotherapists we cannot intervene in political decisions nor act on macro
social systems. However, following in Perls’s footsteps, we can with every effort support
the vitality and creativity of our patients, the travail of their change, and the novelty that
is emerging in them.

Conclusion

To conclude, the pandemic has laid bare the extreme complexity and many contradictions
of our globalized world. For human beings, it has meant not only dealing with the
fear of death but also opening our eyes to a complex world that has suddenly become
difficult to manage and control. Faced with this, some have responded with regression,
seeing enemies everywhere, closing borders, and raising walls; others with creativity,
conceiving new things and generating new forms of life, inclusion, and solidarity. In our
pandemic-hit society, just like in the setting of a independent practice, Gestalt therapists
are called to be an agent of change, capable of promoting and supporting new potentiality
and human forms—all those things that can be but are not yet.

Saudade Guidance & Advice en helps people with psychological problems Eindhoven and surroundings. My practice is at home, in Veldhoven. With coaching or Gestalt therapy we restore the balance and contact with yourself and your environment.

Are you scared, do you have questions? Feel free to contact.

 

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