Listening and Disruption

I read this aloud as part of a “round table” at the zoomed annual spring meeting of the society for psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy (division 39 of the american psychological association), scheduled for march 2020 and finally delivered in march 2021:

I was growing up in suburbia with white college-educated Goyish parents, and the perpetual “Arab-Israeli conflict” seemed to me an inscrutable hyperobject, stressful, threatening, hurtful, and far away. Why wasn’t this conflict sorted out and stabilized into the tranquility I presumed of the world, with or without mediation? A half-century later, the diabolical onset of the Iraq war had led to me toward more active initiative in sociopolitical analysis. I began to realize how much I didn’t know of either current affairs or their contradictory histories. Learning with others and on my own, I could retain enough details to begin to connect some dots, linking problems and phenomena with systems of diverse kinds, such as capitalism, colonialism, militarism, patriarchy, white supremacy, abusive resource extraction, degradation of the planet’s ecology, and other complex forms of domination.

I still couldn’t understand what motivated the increasingly oppressive, violent, expansionist occupation. I also wondered how Palestinians cope with its challenges to their daily lives and psyches, as well as family and community security. How do they deal with having lost their homes and living more than half a century in refugee camps, within what had once been their undisputed territory? How do they maintain sanity through the humiliations, arrests, home demolitions, tortures, and fatalities meted out by the Israeli Defense Forces? How do they support one another through ongoing trauma, re-traumatization, pulls toward depression, mistrust, paranoia, and rage?

Three years ago I saw in the Division 39 Section IX list serve an invitation to join in an affordable educational tour of the West Bank for mental health providers. I made this my vacation travel plan for 2018, to see for myself, as well as I could, some of life on the ground there and how at least a handful of Palestinians and Israelis articulate their circumstances and responses.

To listen attentively was the crux of this learning. Visiting several cities over ten days, we heard from a wide variety of speakers, respected professionals and working people. I took in diverse experiences and points of view, along with conceptions I might synthesize as to how this human crisis is kept in deadlock even as it continuously escalates. Acknowledging my own fears and sympathies, I did not have to demonize anyone in particular. I tried to question with compassion and interest, how various parties’ needs were recognized and addressed across perspectives. Despite a mind unsuited to scholarship, my learning persists. Biases and assumptions persist as well, which I must question and keep in mind while learning.

When we share in dialogue and thinking-together, breakdowns are discouraging, sparked by misunderstandings, triggerings, and instances of naivetee. Erupting conflicts often lead to self-righteous and competitive dynamics. Mistrust and splitting ensue. Defensiveness spurs counter-aggressions and fight-or-flight reactions that shut down our prefrontal lobes, foreclosing our reflective, sympathetic capacities.

Ideally, listening deeply, attentively, could foster among us a psychoanalytically-informed receptive processing, empathic, intuitive, relational, informed by reverie, sensitive to one’s countertransferential entanglement in any encounter, no matter the medium. One might observe closely one’s own reactions, projections, biases, distractions, and assumptions, as well as those of the writer or speaker in dialogue, without presuming to know all of their motives, background, vulnerabilities, or needs.

The sustained, mounting terror, damage, and precarity within Palestinian lives and the conflicted defenses rampant in Israeli culture against acknowledging such existential anguish burden any conversation on this crisis. Along with implicit intergenerational traumatic legacies of both Palestinians and Israelis, these emotional stresses will continue to result in dissociative enactments such as we have struggled to acknowledge and reconcile on listserves and in discussions with our familiars.

In the culture of clinical psychology in contemporary Palestine, a virtual diagnosis of “perpetual traumatic stress disorder” is often considered normative, rather than pathological, in its legitimate reaction to unrelieved systemic and situational stressors so difficult to cope with. Treatment for perpetual traumatic stress disorder (which is not to be “healed”) is most effectively pursued there through community-based group interventions, wherein discussions and psychoeducation lead to mutual recognition and solidarity in programs and activities to address community-wide crisis conditions and political realities.

If dialogue and shared attention among psychotherapists in this country and internationally are to develop toward a conjoint potential for reconciliation across conflicted identifications, sympathies and alliances, I believe we must devote mutual attention to enactments as opportunities for acknowledgement, witnessing, and repair. Disruptions and stalemates will have to be identified as openings to shift gears, breathe deeply, and discover possibility, wherever a standoff or radical misrecognition occurs. Taking anything for granted will be fatal to such a project of shared understanding. Assuming the authority or good intentions of our ostensible leaders will undermine our resourcefulness in making common cause. This project requires commitment and imagination, as well as sacrifices by those empowered by the status quo. A stable reconciliation may or may not be possible.

I question whether such dialogue can take place on the ground either within Israel or within the United States, which overwhelmingly serves and partially shapes Israel’s military and political dynamics. Both these settler-colonial states depend on arguably continuous state policies of genocide and racial supremacy throughout their respective histories into the present. Both nation-states pursue abruptly shifting prejudicial policies on visas and immigration that can endanger or exclude clinicians from many predominantly Muslim or Arab states, jeopardizing their access to international conferences held in person. Protest against locating an IARPP conference in Israel without likewise protesting locating them in the United States now appears ethically untenable and defeatist. What is to be done?

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