Bridging the gap
Wright, N. (1995) ‘Bridging the Gap’, Carer & Counsellor, CWR, Vol 5, No3, pp7-11.
In a previous article[i], I attempted to compare counselling and community work in such a way that would highlight commonalities as well as differences between them. A model was presented which identified inter-relationship between God, an individual and the community of which that individual is a part. I drew attention to the fact that counselling tends to focus on the individual with community as a backdrop, whereas community work tends to assume this perspective in vice versa.
Having defined the disciplines in polarised terms, however, distinctions between counselling and community work in practice could be described more appropriately in terms of emphasis than of mutual exclusivity. Allow me to elaborate. Imagine a continuum with individual influences and dynamics on a floating scale alongside community influences and dynamics. There are no hard and fast boundaries delineating one from the other and this permits the practitioner some degree of freedom of movement back and forth along the scale.
The degree to which this ‘floating’ principle is appropriate and effective will depend on factors which include (a) the rigidity of the theoretical framework within which a practitioner (and/or his/her team/agency) operates and (b) his/her skill to change focus along this continuum as and when needs dictate. It is, in fact, the ability to change focus in the way described – to look at situations from a range of different perspectives and, as a result, to act appropriately – which I hope to address through this article.
I will attempt to do this by exploring something of the interface and interaction between a person’s (a) intrapersonal (internal) and (b) contextual (external) experience. Clearly, it is inadequate to talk about an individual or community, except in abstract terms, without bearing in mind the question of context since no individual or community exists, in reality, ‘out of context’. I will use this word, however, in a sense which includes notions of historical experience (a ‘time’ dynamic) as well as current experience; including the geographical location, political system, social structures etc. within which an individual person finds her/himself living.
Furthermore, there appear to be striking parallels between the experience of an individual and that of a community, since at any given time both may exist within the same context and be subject to the same influences, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.
I saw the phenomenon of parallel experience and, in this case, subsequent response between an individual and community most clearly demonstrated in the life of a colleague from Northern Ireland. I noticed a pattern in his response to situations of conflict and stress which paralleled the ways in which the community of which he was a part had learned to respond to situations of a similar nature. In other words, the response of his community to external pressures at a macro level was being outworked in his own pattern of behaviour at an individual level.
The behaviour of the group may be replicated in the life of the individual and vice versa. Difficulties arise, however, when the imbibed patterns of behaviour are inappropriate to a new and changing context. This is, of course, where problems of ‘culture conflict’ become most apparent.
It is within the complexity and day-to-day reality of this contextual experience that the Bible depicts the Lord interacting with humanity in dynamic relationship. When the Lord moves within a community, the individuals in that community feel the impact of His presence. In other words, as individuals and communities are changed, the context of which they are a part is correspondingly changed too.
Allow me to explain further. As an individual experiences and responds to his/her context, change is brought about intra-personally which brings about a subsequent change in that person’s context. This is because the individual is, in fact, part of the very context to which he he/she is responding.
The question of how a person or community experiences its context is very important. Indeed, helping an individual or community to reflect on, make some kind of sense of and respond to in an appropriate way to its context is a key task of both counselling and community work. I am reminded of Ellis’ ABC Theory of Emotion[ii] in which he posits that how a person subjectively experiences a situation depends at least partly on what that person believes about the situation. The person’s beliefs will grow out of historical experience which could include received teaching, experience of similar situations etc. and will be affected also by contemporary and future considerations.
For example, in my previous article I introduced Jane, a single parent living with two young children in a one-bedroom, high rise flat. The Local Authority moved her into the flat two years ago but, since her children were frequently sick, she had little opportunity to get out and meet new people. The flat was damp and, in spite of her requests to have the necessary repairs carried out, the Local Authority had taken no action. Over recent months, she found herself feeling increasingly depressed and, at times, violent towards her children.
It would be fairly easy to attribute Jane’s feelings of depression to her unsatisfactory housing situation but I am quite sure that some would be quick to point out, and rightly so, that others live in similar circumstances without experiencing feelings of depression. This, then, begs some deeper questions about the causes of Jane’s feelings. Could they be, for instance, linked to unfulfilled hopes (future considerations) or reverberations of earlier painful experiences (historical considerations) of disappointment and frustrations, powerlessness and hopelessness? Is there something about Jane’s historical distress which is, somehow, causing her to transfer feelings into her current experience to negative effect? The ABC theory would seem to support this view.
Questions such as these are perfectly reasonable as a means of intra-personal exploration and analysis and they may well provide valuable insights into how and why Jane is experiencing her context in the way that she is. This line of thought is, of course, a valid approach within counselling which describes itself as, “above all an approach which tries to understand what goes on inside people, and how internal difficulties can stand in the way of change, rather than looking at external factors or external solutions.”[iii]
However, a method of investigation which focuses exclusively on the intra-personal will only provide limited insight and, furthermore, an inadequate basis for action if unaccompanied by consideration of wider contextual dimensions. This is because the conclusions drawn from such an exploration will have a determinative effect on the form of intervention considered appropriate by the practitioner. Diagnosis determines intervention. In other words, if the source of the problem is located in Jane rather than in her external context, the practitioner may focus on her internal world to such a degree that external precipitatory events or circumstances are seen as little more than incidental.
I encountered this over-emphasis most recently in supervision with a counsellor who presented the case of an unemployed woman living on an urban housing estate and suffering from feelings of anxiety having done, whilst feeling low, a bit of ‘retail therapy’ and, as a result, acquiring debts amounting to some £800. This woman was involved in a dysfunctional relationship with a violent live-in partner and worried about her own future, as well as that of her two young children (by a previous relationship). The counsellor’s primary concern was with the woman’s feelings and how she could learn to work through those feelings in such a way that would help her cope more effectively within the situation.
Clearly, the woman presented in this case did need emotional, spiritual and psychological support. Furthermore, the counsellor was helpful in alleviating some of the feelings of anxiety and distress. However, following counselling the counselee was still left coping with the same life circumstances as before and I couldn’t help wondering whether she had, at root, been simply helped to adjust to what amounts to a seriously maladjusted situation.
This question of where the ‘maladjustment’ (or, in Biblical terms, ‘sin’) is located is a key one since this will, in the final analysis, dictate the focus of the practitioner’s intervention, as intimated above. The question begged by this case is whether it is, at the end of the day, ever appropriate and biblically-sound to help a person adjust to such a situation.
Rev. Martin Luther King, civil rights leader in the 1960s, argued this point forcibly while campaigning against injustices endured by black people and subsequent appeals from the white authorities for calm when black people protested. I quote:
“In a sense, all of us must live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxury to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence. It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.”[iv]
I can almost hear Jane asking herself, “I wonder whether I ought ever to adjust myself to inadequate housing while my children and so many other people like us are forced to live in conditions such as these…” Rev. King’s thesis rested on the idea that the feelings of frustration and rage being experienced by the black community were a proper response to the situations of injustice and oppression that they were forced to face on a day-to-day basis. He question for Rev. King was not one of how to ameliorate those feelings but, rather, how to harness them in constructive, collective action to end injustice at personal, socio-economic and political levels.
The question naturally arises of how a counsellor would have responded to a black person entering the counselling room at that time and in that context, expressing feelings of frustration and rage. Would the counsellor make the connection between the experience of the counselee and the wider experience of the black community? Under such circumstances, what form of intervention would the counsellor consider appropriate?
I trust that, by now, the difficulties inherent in discerning the precise location of a ‘problem’ and, therefore, an appropriate response are becoming increasingly apparent. In view of this, the interface between intra-personal and contextual experience may be more adequately conceived of in terms of a complex and intricate pattern of interweaving lines, constantly interacting and developing, than of clear and static lines delineating one from the other. The internal and external worlds of an individual are dynamic and inseparable. This does, of course, lead us to the agonising question, “So, where do we go from here?” Allow me to offer a few tentative suggestions.
Firstly, the Bible presents us with a description of humanity which as intra-personal, communal and contextual dimensions. A cursory glance through the Psalms, for example, will draw these dimensions into sharp focus. The reader will notice, also, the way in which these things are thoroughly interconnected and intertwined. It is precisely within the complexity and ambiguity of this life experience that the Psalmist and his people encounter the Lord.
In light of this, the Bible provides us with a responsibility and authority to act at all points on the scale. The startling words of Jesus Christ expressed in the parable of the sheep and goats (Mt 25:31-46), echoing powerfully the words of Isaiah 58, militate against a purely intra-personal approach. “I was hungry an you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (v 35f).
The Lord himself brings healing and forgiveness through practical caring actions – ministering to whole people and whole communities – and, through such actions, helps create the conditions under which the recipients will be open to receive of the Spirit. The words of Proverbs 31:8f call for an approach to social action which extends beyond the realms of individual pastoral care: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
There are questions here of ‘justice’ and ‘defending’; acting as advocate at a socio-political level on behalf of those who suffer injustice. A call to humility, solidarity and alliance with those in need fills the picture in more detail: “Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.” (Prov 16:19). The Bible calls us to stand alongside those in need at all levels of human experience and to minister the love of Jesus “with actions and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:16ff). The reality is, it seems, that in light of Scripture it is not possible to separate neatly ‘individual-pastoral’ from ‘social-political’.
Secondly, there are at times observable parallels reflected in the experience and responses of individuals, groups, communities and, on a wider scale, nations.
Culture and symbols as expressions of individual and collective identity play an important part in this process. Consideration of the experiences (historical and current) of any one of these ‘layers’ may provide valuable insight and understanding into one or more of the others. This is particularly helpful when presented which seems, in its own terms, inexplicable and ‘out of place’.
Thirdly, intervention at an intra-personal level will ultimately have implications at a contextual level, and vice versa. This leaves both counselling and community work professionals with a dilemma. In order to tackle this, should workers in the field train eclectically across the disciplines or, at least, include within their own training programmes elements dealing with each others’ insights and expertise? It seems quite feasible that trainee practitioners would do placements with workers from a different field. This principle would be extended post-training to develop on-going contacts on an ad hoc basis, or even local inter-disciplinary teams on more of a consistent, integrated and strategically-planned basis.
It would be naive to assume that practitioners from the counselling and community work fields will automatically feel comfortable with each others’ views and approaches. This is, of course, equally true of adherents to different models within each of these professions. However, there is much room of discussion, exploration, understanding and, I hope, active working together; with God’s grace to help oil the wheels of this process.
Indeed, working together in the ways described here may well bring increased potential for realising and extending the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.
[i] Wright, N (1993). The Great Divide. Carer & Counsellor. Vol 3. No 2. p20ff.
[ii] Ellis, A (1975). New Guide to Rational Living. A sequence of factors that determine emotional responses to an experience: A (event) → B (belief about significance of event) → C (consequent emotion).
[iii] Jacobs, M (1982). Still Small Voice. p6.
[iv] King, M. quoted in Washington J. (Ed) (1986). Testimony of Hope. p89.