A Gestalt counsellor's view on.....rules, risks and relationships
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
The proposition that "there are no rules" is one of Gestalt theory's most famous aphorisms. In my view, paradoxically perhaps, this statement is far from being a clarion call to anarchy. I see it as an invitation to the individual to own his experience, conduct, positions and beliefs. In families, a "rule" is often used to supplant the integration within the family system of painful feelings. Many of us, growing up, have been forbidden (implicitly or explicitly) to mention a particular, absent family member, perhaps one who died under traumatic circumstances or one whose actions are considered unacceptable and are therefore a source of shame.
I grew up with a grandfather who had been seriously wounded in the First World War but who had gone on to live a relatively full life. During my childhood, as he aged, he struggled with the consequences of his earlier injuries, and everyone in the family knew it, but the prevailing orthodoxy was that “it did not affect him”. We knew never to ask about his war service or his injuries and never to discuss them.
As I write this blog, the subject of "rules" and compliance with them is arising all around us in the varied contexts of UK politics, international relations, sport and the Coronavirus pandemic. I am thinking, for example, of the Prorogation Case, the EU Withdrawal Agreement, the ending of Osaka's and Federer's participation in the French Open and the potential lifting of coronavirus restrictions on 19th July. You will be able to draw up your own list, I am sure.
On a personal level, during the pandemic, I have felt let down by friends whose rules for living in the midst of the pandemic have differed from mine. Since March 2020, I have been content to travel, meet people and socialise as far as the rules and guidance allow at any given time. I have been willing to take a degree of risk, within the rules, in order to have some social contact. Some friends of mine have taken what seems to me to be a zero risk approach and have been unwilling, despite my suggestions, to meet me even though it would have been permissible, within the formal rules, to do so. This has left me feeling upset and disappointed and questioning our relationship. I am questioning the value which my friends put on my friendship and what I am willing to do in order to maintain it.
Once the formal coronavirus restrictions are lifted (whether or not this happens on 19th July), we will be faced with the need to make our own "rules" regarding the risks we are willing to take in the midst of what will remain in some parts of the world an epidemic even it ceases to be a pandemic. In addition, risks from the coronavirus will remain in the UK - the vaccines are not 100% effective and the possibility of further variants of the virus emerging is real.
The contexts described above in which the subject of rules has become figural are not merely sources of arid, technical debate. As in the case of the family context, they all have at their heart a relationship - the relationship between the Crown, the Executive and Parliament, the relationship between the UK and the EU, the relationship between the stars of a sport and the bodies which govern the sport, the relationship between the government and the people who elected them. And they engage the management by those involved of risks which they perceive to their interests. I see in these examples a shift towards narcissistic individualism and away from responsibility towards something larger than the individual.
Both my grandfathers experienced loss and trauma in World War I. They made rules about what could be talked about and what could not in a way which helped them to navigate the suffering which they were experiencing in the conditions which existed at the time. Today, we are more open to talking about loss and trauma and there is, in very general terms, more support available for us to help us to deal with it. The rules about what can and cannot be discussed changed as the generations passed, knowledge and understanding of trauma increased and social attitudes changed.
As we approach the post-epidemic era in the UK, I feel that we are challenged to evaluate and own our attitudes and to strike a balance between risks and relationships as we devise the "rules" which we chose to live by going forward; a balance which takes account of our individual needs but which does not, in doing so, ignore the needs of others, a balance which integrates our experience of the pandemic into our future lives and does not invite the atrophy which will surely follow from suppression of that experience .