A Developmental Mess

by Christine LaCerva I hope you and your families are safe and sound in the aftermath of this horrendous hurricane. I live in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn, and we were quite lucky here. There was little damage — just a few trees down in the park. Most residents of the area were home, since there were no subways to Manhattan. The dogs and their owners said hello to each other as we walked around the park. The Social Therapy Group was closed for a couple of days so I was not on my usual packed schedule. I had the time and wherewithal to go slow, to watch the coverage on TV, to hear the conversations in the park and local coffee shops. I’m teaching an online class called “Therapy Play! Children and Families in Social Therapy,” and I had more time than usual to work on it. Halloween was a lovely night of children trick or treating. The local restaurants were packed and the Greenlight Bookstore was selling lots of books. People in the community were unusually relaxed. In a very strange way, it was quite peaceful.

Devastation
Devastation

After 24 hours it also became disorienting and disturbing. A few miles away, in Far Rockaway, Staten Island, Breezy Point, and the Jersey shore, people were without power. They had no food, and no heat, and it was getting colder. The housing projects had no electricity and therefore no elevators. The media began to change what they were covering. We began to see the rescue missions, the deaths, and the tragedy. People were hungry. Some had lost homes, their loved ones, or their children had died. People were screaming at the mayor that older people in these areas had no food or water for three days. And we were seeing the searing poverty that many New Yorkers live in all the time. It was enormously upsetting, and the contradiction of my experience was deeply emotional, painful. I missed doing therapy, where I am often engaged in life-giving conversations.

On Thursday, my internet came back and I saw many messages from patients. I began to call them and email them to find out how they were. I saw that the group members were talking to each other online, giving the details of what was happening and how they were feeling about what was going on. They didn’t want to miss their groups.

Getting Water
Getting Water

Two of my patients contacted me to say they had set up a conference call that could handle 60 people so we could conduct the group on the phone. I sent out the information to everyone, with the subject line “We Are Having Group Tonight. Crazy? You Bet.” I was so touched that they had taken the initiative to make the group happen.

I shared the experience I was having in Fort Greene, and the great deal of pain I was feeling about the state that our city and country are in. The group responded, and people were very emotional about what was going on. Many said they were feeling disconnected, or felt alone. Some asked for help to be more emotional. People engaged how the group was talking about all of this. Some people said they felt like “a mess.”

“Fine,” I said. “What’s the problem? This is a messy, painful situation. I think you and we need to decide what kind of mess you want to be. Do you want to be a mess that’s paralyzed and made powerless by the way this storm has exposed the fragility of our infrastructure and the horrifying differences between middle class, working and poor families? Or do you want to be a developmental mess?”

“A developmental mess?” someone asked. “What are you talking about?”

A developmental mess is somebody who is horrified and terrified at how people all over the world are suffering, who sees and fears the changes in this country that are destroying people’s lives — but who decides to find a way to do something about it, and keeps reaching out to others.

Long lines
Long lines

Being a developmental mess is creating the performance of working collectively with other human beings to do something about what is going on — we call this revolutionary activity. It can look many ways: working to create structural changes to our political system that is thoroughly dominated by the two parties, volunteering in programs for young people that help them get out of poverty and demand that they help to create a better world. It can mean not picking a fight with your boyfriend because you feel like it. It can mean teaching your children about the inequities of the world. It can mean making decisions that thoughtfully include their impact on others.

Can social therapy change the world? End poverty? Stop racism? No, it can’t. But it can create environments in which different kinds of people can come together and support the kind of human creativity and growth that doesn’t just adapt to the way things are. We are part of a community that supports one another in building with whatever exists — pain, despair, poverty, privilege, good will… Social therapy helps people build with the emotional impact of the contradictions and failures of our lives and of our country.

photographs courtesy of Cathy Stewart, Far Rockaway Nov 1, 2012