Pressure of time and the fragility of hope

Gestalt therapy values the client's emotional experience over the therapist's interpretations. It is only by (therapeutically facilitated) working through one’s own experience that the client truly realizes what will help them move ahead from other-directedness towards self-responsibility. This is the reason for the “here-and-now” principle at the heart of Gestalt therapeutic work: experience always happens in its particular present; in the place where it happens - any interpretation refers back to something that has already taken place. But it goes without saying that anything that happens occurs within the penumbra of a past which has sharpened or blunted one’s senses; helped to unfold emotions or inhibited them; either opened the mind to be receptive for new things or blocked it with prejudices. And the future, too, is always already alive in the present as a horizon of expectation within which in the here-and-now we plan and provide for what is to come or - more commonly - we assume that things will not be significantly different - the next moment, the next day, and the next year.

For an undisturbed contacting process, the shadows of the past are only relevant insofar as they allow us to experience “being different today compared to then”, which is constitutive for our sense of biographical identity. Beyond that, psychologically these shadows operate as nothing but a burdensome imprint.

A certain measure of trust that the world we inhabit is not going to be profoundly different in the foreseeable future seems to be an important buttress for our psychic stability. But this trust is being systematically undermined today. We are forever inundated with information and conjectures about all sorts of things that will soon be completely different (mostly of dubious value); changes attributable to practical constraints which supposedly we can barely influence. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, social development has been characterized by the perpetually accelerating speed of technological change which has gradually taken hold of all spheres of everyday life. Those overwhelming fears (for example when railways were introduced) triggered at the time are now forgotten. We remember well, though, the time when all changes marked progress towards a better future. Currently the digital revolution increases the acceleration of change processes even more, though concurrently they seem to worsen our quality of life at least as often as improving it. Hence the world seems ever more complex or frightening for the experiences gained in the past must be part of the present competencies to be effective in the now.

Whatever processes we are thinking about, concern must always be paired with hope: otherwise, such processes would trigger nothing but anxiety. Population growth; urban development; ongoing armament; a worldwide flow of refugees; the chemical and biological industrialization of agriculture; structural unemployment through computerized automation; dissolution of familial bonds; gene technology; the growing percentage of old and very old people; fundamentalist religions spreading worldwide, the rise of populism, etc. This list is arbitrary, and anybody could extend it further. Therefore, the assumption that conditions will be relatively constant, is no longer justified in any sphere of life, although we like to hold on to such notions. Heraclitus’ insight that “everything flows” seems to be a post-historical truth. For as far as human conditions and their impact on our planet are concerned, the gently flowing river has turned into a torrent with many cataracts, which does not allow any of us in any way to maintain the illusion of relative continuity.

The speed of time we experience is always relative to our own life span and the time we have already lived or have yet to live. In industrialized countries the average life expectancy beyond infancy has increased by a third. And still, social and economic developments seem to always overtake us biographically. Thus, all social planning increasingly becomes more problematical, as do individual life plans. Everywhere, it is simply the unexpected consequences of planned action which keep us on the run.3 For example, the population in the developing world does not rise as dramatically due to more children being born, but because Western medicine keeps them alive. But the search for a better life remains active in all of us, and so usually a failed or semi-successful action is followed by a new plan, a further aim.

Paradoxically, the accelerating motor is our deep-rooted longing for satisfaction, the point where having attained everything, no further effort is required. Wherever we are, soon we want to move on. go somewhere else: to another climate; a better job; a more beautiful home; a more satisfying partner; a more authentic experience. The more our lives are speeded up, organized and media-dependent, the more we hasten to find an exit point from this process of acceleration. The higher our expectations, the more we are disappointed; the more frustrated we are, the more we develop higher expectations and the gyroscope of our lives turns faster and faster.

Of course, the one still point is the axis of the gyroscope, the centre of the cyclone. The Archimedean point which allows us to completely revolutionize the situation (and we must use this chance!) does not lie outside of ourselves, but in the centre of the subject. The fulfilment of our longing does not lie beyond the contacting process but in the fullness of its climax, in full contact.

As the pressure of all developmental processes accelerates, society is dominated by “scarcity of time”. Modernity’s linear sense of time has a tendency to dissolve “time spaces” of experience into the “points in time” of sequential appointments. This gives a sense of breathlessness to the moment, an always-waiting for the next date, the next encounter, the next holiday, the next round of looking at whatever, a permanent rushing from one goal to another. Psychologically it is almost impossible today to gently allow-things-to-arise-and-come-to-me. But there are even more profound connections between the pressure of time and certain social developments. Since the Industrial Revolution, the time perspective through which families experience and define themselves has shrunk significantly from an intergenerational continuity, where family extended from the dim past to an undefined future, to the parent-child unit.

This seems to be one of the causes for the carelessness with which we treat the environment. We can no longer understand and intuit the kind of world successive generations will inhabit or would want to inhabit, and thus as a society we are lacking the traditional psychic basis for considering the needs of our children in the future. Of course, since the development of advanced civilizations people have ruthlessly exploited nature - but it was “wild” nature (as the rain forest appears to gold diggers and land seekers as they burn it down) and not their own land, worked on by themselves or undisturbed land offered by God’s creation - and they had no idea of the devastating consequences (Weeber, 1990; and Ringhofer, 1988).

In any case, traditional family structures are disintegrating worldwide, and this process of erosion has not stopped with the nuclear family of parents and young children. Sociological research shows again and again that under the pressures of individualization couple relationships are losing their character as an institution intended to last long - even for life - and marked by sharing an oikos, a home (Beck I Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). Instead, a multitude of different arrangements with very different degrees of stability and commonality seems to prevail, and children can expect less and less to be raised by both their natural parents. And yet most of us secretly believe that it is still possible to achieve an ultimately satisfying relationship and so we keep on seeking it. A kind of serial monogamy is the rule, but psychically we are not geared towards coping with this change, and many people suffer from the threat of separation or from one that is actually taking place.

Similar conditions prevail in the other central component of human life: work. Most biographies show significant breaks in the continuity of their work-life aspect, and this trend will strengthen in the future. Public institutions like schools, career counselling services and pension insurances often still reflect an impression of continuity in working life, something which in fact no longer tallies with the actual conditions of production. Instead, what matters today is professional flexibility, a readiness to be mobile, imaginative and above all ready for life-long learning. In the best-case scenario, a working person can expect to have a career lasting about 45 years, achieving its high point twenty years before reaching pensionable age. As soon as we recognize this situation, a new restlessness is triggered; renewed searching; a midlife crisis. In the worst case, a person loses their job after ten years and is forced to relocate and re-train. But still the hope for achieving a goal, a state of having “accomplished it” lives eternal; hope for a situation where the deepest desires are fulfilled, where one would finally be able to lean back with ease -and here, too, the greater the hope, the greater the disappointment.

On average we now live longer and have more time than ever before in history (Imhof, 1988). And yet subjectively, nobody has any time - apparently for two reasons. Firstly, because most of us want to be somewhere else most of the time, want to do something different, want to be somebody different than where and who we happen to be just now; and secondly, this experience arises from the immense acceleration in the rate of change in our lives. But both these phenomena are interdependent: our endless search for self-fulfilment powers the flow of industrial production as well as our social life to the point where this acceleration of action sequences becomes self-generating and a property of the social sub-systems of which it is part. From that point onward, developments become more and more removed from our needs - to the point that it becomes obvious how vain are our hopes for attaining identity or restfulness. At this moment in time the pervasive goal and growth orientation of our lives and of our society becomes questionable - hollow.

Gestalt therapy therefore rightly insists on an uncompromising concentration on the here-and-now of sensory experience. It is the experience and sensory perception of this specific present alone which liberates us from the pressure of time and opens up the creative treasures of existence. Only through such processes does it seem possible to return to ourselves - not in contemplative seclusion, but - as a self forever waxing and waning in perennial contacting processes - with sensual awareness.

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