Too often our NYC therapy patients (and all of us) conflate equilibrium with happiness. Equilibrium suggests a sort of inertia or balance (a term especially revered these days) but we can just as easily have a problematic, counter-developmental balance as we can have a growthful one. In everyday terms, we get stuck in a rut–one that is, perhaps in some ways, easy to perpetuate but none-the-less painful or dysfunctional (perhaps functionally dysfunctional).
Psychologist Jean Piaget: How we learn (and how we grow)
The seminal 20th Century child development psychologist Jean Piaget outlines a process of development that highlights an experience of growth we all know intuitively (even if we frequently forget it).
“It is clear that one of the sources of progress in the development of knowledge is to be found in imbalance as such which alone can force a subject to go beyond his present state and to seek new equilibriums.”
In order to expand our conception of the world we must first go through a period of puzzlement with our current understanding of it. In this sense, holding on to “knowing” (as in: “I know who I am, how the world works, what’s needed to move forward”) is antithetical to growth. Of course in our ordinary wanderings about town, as we meander our way through our chores and routines, it’s fine to “know” just how things work, but puzzlement is a necessary precursor to developing a new understanding of things and that is essential to growth.
Recasting catastrophe and trauma therapy
What disrupts an unhealthy equilibrium? Picture a spinning top, or a an elaborate, high-performance engine. Then imagine throwing a stack of golf balls at either. The disruption isn’t subtle or quiet.
In practice, a good deal of arriving at good help by virtue of being in a position to seek and make use of therapy comes on the other side of catastrophe, often in the form of trauma. This is in no way to glorify trauma, or to bright side, but rather to bring honesty to an understanding that it may simply be an unavoidable part of what it means to disrupt an unhealthy equilibrium. That disruption is almost inevitably messy. It’s cantankerous, clumsy, uncomfortable and usually inconvenient.
And often it’s exactly what we need.
“You’re freaking me out!”
There is an episode of the popular NBC television show from the 2000’s, the West Wing, where C.J. Cregg is forced by her boss to take a meeting with a group called the “Cartographers for Social Equality.” As the meeting begins she is already poking fun at this stiff collection of map makers–“What do maps have to do with social equality?”
A lot, it turns out. The Mercator Projection (above) is the world map most of us (the fictional C.J. included) saw displayed in the classroom and on the back of text books in school. As the cartographers point out (convincingly) it projects northern countries as having more landmass and southern countries as having less landmass than they do in reality, thus perpetuating regional economic biases. They are meeting at the White House to advocate for the U.S. Government to build support for the Peter’s Projection (below) which displays an accurate distribution of landmass.
This is news to C.J. (as it was to most of the audience, I suspect). What makes it dramatically interesting (and a particularly good example of the sort of disequilibrium that comes with good therapy) is that C.J. didn’t know what she didn’t know. It never occurred to her that maps could perpetuate bias or that there could be different ways of displaying an image that was so familiar to her. When the Peter’s Projection slide is displayed, C.J. remarks, “What the hell is that?” Setting up the response, “It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”
The most meaningful disruptions are the ones that occur in parts of our lives that we haven’t thought much about. Something as taken-for-granted as the proximity of Germany to the Middle East suddenly needs to be rethought. So it goes in therapy.
Moments later the cartographers take things a step further, pointing out that the placement of North on the top and South on the bottom is also entirely arbitrary. They display the opposite orientation on the next slide over C.J.’s objections. “Yeah, but you can’t do that,” she insists. “Why not?” “Because it’s freaking me out!”
So it goes in therapy.