‘I have a theory that theories are destructive.’ Carl Whitaker
Despite Carl Whitaker’s iconic status, and his success in challenging psychological orthodoxies, nearly half a century later we find ourselves no less mired in theory.
For many, theory and increasingly formula, in the guise of theory, offers the hope of a prescribed way out of the uncertainty and anxiety of a disintegrating relationship. That we should find ourselves reaching for such formulaic devices is not surprising. In times of increased anxiety our natural inclination is to crave peace through the safety of the known.
However if the theologian Bonhoeffer is to be believed, we are unlikely to reach peace through safety; for peace, says Bonhoeffer requires, ‘the opposite of security [and is] itself the great venture and can never be safe.’ As a family therapist, Carl Whitaker like Bonhoeffer, was committed to the cessation of war with ‘another.’ Whitaker while widely admired for the efficacy of his work was a maverick. It was this embracing of the unconventional that lead the family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe Whitaker’s approach to family therapy as ‘dazzlingly creative’, and ‘unpredictable.’ Which is to say unteachable.
Unfortunately today, as in the 1960’s, most therapeutic modalities are, to a lesser or greater degree, taught, copied, repeated and held in a way that robs them of their original vitality. In other words they lack the vital spirit of adventure that would have them bring any real and meaningful change. The result in its most brittle and dead(ly) iteration, the formula, usually takes the form of painting by numbers: seven ways to, nine steps to… Which surely explains, if not in its entirety at least in part, the woeful state of therapy and its ability to improve the lives of others.
If then, the formula’s promise of the ‘known’ and by inference the ‘safe’ will not save the relationship, will not take it and us toward a peaceful and loving relationship, what if anything will? Are we to simply cross our fingers and hope that somehow things will work out for the best?
The good news is there is a recipe to peace and with it the cessation of war with another. Unlike the formula, this recipe requires us to step out from under the safety of theory and into mystery.
This stepping out is an invitation to travel somewhere we have never been before and in doing we open ourselves up to an experience that changes our lives. I say ‘our lives’ because the recipe requires the active participation of both. The relational dance, if it is to provide any meaningful change, cannot be choreographed. In a meaningful relationship no two dances are ever the same.
The degree to which we can embrace and hold a loving relationship with mystery determines the extent to which the relationship can grow and change. When this happens we give ourselves permission to move from being good partners to loving partners. In doing so we embark on that loving relationship, one which is in Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘‘itself the great venture and can never be safe.’