Growing Up Rugged: Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy
The late Ernest Becker was an internationally known author and lecturer in the fields of psychology sociology, and anthropology, and was greatly respected for the clarity and profundity of his thought His many books include The Denial of Death, which won a National Book Award, and The Nature of Evil. His works, along with those of Norman 0. Brown, probably did more than any others to introduce to lay audiences the existential or life/death dimensions of psychology. Fritz Perls, Of course, was the founder of Gestalt therapy perhaps the most popular and influential of the modern psychotherapies. The following talk -- which both summarizes Gestalt therapy and sets forth Becker's own existential perspectives -- was given at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, on November 13, 1970, under the auspices of the Centre for Continuing Education (Sol Kort, Director), and is transcribed and printed with the kind permission of Dr. Becker's widow, Marie Becker. The style has been kept conversational to preserve both the ease of Becker's delivery and the poignancy of his message. This talk was first published in The Gestalt Journal, Volume XVI, Number 2 (Fall, 1993)
I say genuinely that I'm sorry that Perls couldn't be here tonight. I think it's awful that we almost always commemorate people after they've died. I remember a French movie where a widower is going to get married to a very young girl, and he says, "The only one who will be missing, alas, will be my poor departed wife, who loved weddings so much." Nonetheless, what I want to do tonight is give you a two-part overview of Perls and Gestalt therapy. One of them is an appreciation of Perls, a view of Gestalt therapy. The second is what I think are the shortcomings of Perls and Gestalt therapy generally -- all therapy, really. I'll start with a brief view of Gestalt.
The question we ask of any psychology or any psychologist, of course, is what is his view of man. For Perls this was a very easy question to answer. Perls's basic assumption was that the body and its total processes are somehow anterior to and bigger than the mind. Gestalt conceives of the mind as an interference, as a way of blocking the total momentum of the organism in some way. Not only that, but the mind is not even the noble part of the organism that we always thought it was. For most people the mind and the creations of the mind work against the body. They work against the best interests of the total person. As Perls would probably put it, mind is not the center of the person, but the center of the dishonesty that the person has about himself. In order to come of age, in order to become an adult, the child has to distort his awareness of the world and become somewhat dishonest about himself. He becomes dispossessed of his own senses; he is fragmented within himself by the mechanisms of defense; he is cut off from reality; and he doesn't see the real world as it is because he has a certain stake in seeing it in a somewhat distorted way. And apparently it all starts in childhood, where the child tries to exercise his own activity but comes up against two people in his environment who in some ways continually block his own movement and his own satisfaction. They block the child's assimilation of experience. This has been known, of course, since Freud. The child is blocked by the adult in the pursuit of pleasure. I won't say that he is blocked always for his harm; he is blocked a lot for his own good. If the child goes to walk into a fireplace, the adult has to stop him. If he tries to eat poison, it's a good idea not to let him do so. If he tries to walk off a cliff, you try to grab him. So the child finds that he is blocked by the adult at certain times. A lot of times he is blocked and frustrated by adults so that he can learn self-control. There is a sense in which the child has to learn proper self-control. These things we admit. But the thrust of the modern theory of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and all of Perls's work, is that a lot of times the child is blocked in his experience because of the anxieties that are not his and because of threats that are not really there. These are the anxieties of the parents, the anxieties of the adult. His hands are dirty, and you make him wash before dinner because you are afraid of germs. He doesn't know anything about germs, and anyway, how much chance would there be of his becoming ill? Very little, really, unless you're on a P & 0 liner. (I came up to Vancouver on a P & 0 liner and I will get my revenge for that trip for as long as I can.)
A lot of ways in which adults stop children occur because the adults themselves feel uncomfortable. He puts his feet on the sheets, you scream, "Get your feet off the sheets! I hate dirty feet!" Well, there's nothing wrong with feet on the sheets, really. There are very few illnesses you could get from that. This is not Calcutta, after all. He fondles his 'genitals; this makes the adult anxious because the adult has his own anxieties about sexuality. He breaks a glass, the adult becomes upset. He tracks dirt onto the floor; all of these simple things. I have a friend who went to beat his child for stepping into the roses. What are roses for except to be stepped on by children, in a manner of speaking? And yet, you can see where children have to take the burden of adult anxiety. The child internalizes anxieties that are foreign to him and artificial to his desires; unnecessary, we might say, to his own natural expansion into the world. The child needs the adults for one thing, really, more than anything else, and that is a feeling of value. He needs a feeling that he is loved, and a feeling that he is somebody of importance -- what we call self-esteem. And the only way he can get self-esteem is by accepting what his parents say and do to him. He accepts the adults' blocking of his actions because if he doesn't they will threaten him with abandonment and withdrawal of love. So the child is really trapped. He has to accept what the adults are doing to him, and he accepts it willingly. This means that he develops a certain world view where he tries, by putting a brake on his own action and his own pleasure, not to displease them. So as he shapes himself, he shapes himself into an image that is pleasing to others. So right away, you see, you have here the fundamental dishonesty of the childhood situation. He takes pieces of the parents into himself -- "You don't do this"; he goes to touch something -- "No! No!" "Bad! Bad!" "Good! Good." And the first thing you know, he's got a program, a conditioning, a superego. He comes to feel anxiety when he does "No" things, and he comes to feel pleasureful when he does "Yes" things. But these "Yes" things and these "No" things don't come from his own organism, they come in to him from the environment. So the child is actually a creature, you see, of his training. There is a tremendous sobering radicalism in that idea, which I think is the real reason for the discomfort of Freud, still.
So, the child, in order to maintain and build a sense of self-worth in what is fundamentally a tyrannical world, adopts these deceits. You see, the child has no power; if he doesn't do what you say, you will correct him for it. So he's living in a world of Stalins, really, and anything he does wrong he's "corrected" for. He's living in a world of giants; when you're a child you live in a forest of knees. We forget that very easily; we were walking around bumping into people's knees for a long time, and we have to watch out we don't get stepped on -- and sometimes we do. They say, "Oops! I'm sorry." There are all these feet coming down on you. You don't really see people's faces for a long time. And in order to live in that kind of world, you more or less have to knuckle under to it.
Now, in this viewpoint of human development, you can see that neurosis is inevitable; it's impossible not to be neurotic. Each person is in some way off-centered; that is, his aegis over his own action has been delegated to someone else. Each person is in some way, as close as we can put it, off-centered. He's not a responsible, spontaneous source of his own activity. Somehow that has been delegated to his environment. In some ways his awareness of the world has been blocked. If the parents don't feel comfortable with the child's genital area, he tends to not see it. He tends to think of it as a "no-no." If his parents are afraid of germs, he tends to be hypersensitive to his hands. And so on. He has to see only what they see in order to protect himself.
The neurotic style, then, and this is an idea that I think is becoming quite current now, is kind of a positive development since we all have it; we're all neurotic. The only problem with people who are neurotic is that they think that they're different. But everybody is neurotic, so we can all relax. Everybody feels guilty about sex, because sexuality means your body makes you guilty -- not necessarily because of what the church taught you, but because the body is a hindrance to your own free subjectivity. The body is a standardization of yourself, the body is a physical thing. Your own free person inside of your body wants to be something more than merely a standard product of the species. So, as Rank pointed out, we all feel guilty with our body. We're all neurotic.
I say that deliberately because I think there's a lot of bad propaganda going around about how not to be guilty, how not to be neurotic. As you'll see as my talk develops, this is pretty nigh impossible. Neurosis is a kind of dishonest style that helps people, all of whom are more or less crippled, maintain their sense of self-worth. It makes them oblivious about their own dishonesty. Here's an excellent example of this kind of obliviousness about one's own dishonesty (what we call the unconscious): A friend of mine, and 1, and another person were coming out of a movie theater. The third person was a dependent type who didn't have too much confidence in himself, but who was sensitive. I said, "How did you like the movie?" And he said, "Oh, it was a great movie, it's one of the best movies I ever saw, tremendous! The leading role, the acting, the images, the directing, the real good camera work, and the plot especially was particularly well integrated; you had a real feeling of suspense. It was really a first-class movie." And then I turned to the other guy, who was a very strong person with a lot of confidence but who was a little dull intellectually, and I said, "How did you like the movie?" He said, "Lousy!" Then the first person said, "Right, it wasn't very good." So he didn't have the courage, you see, to maintain that position in the face of the stronger person who said it was bad. But the interesting thing about it: I asked him afterward, "Do you realize that in the space of about one-tenth of a second, you went from a positive, enthusiastic opinion to a totally negative one?" He said, "I did?" There's an example of the unconscious as it works: the obliviousness of the person about what he's even doing in order to maintain his sense of safety and security and self-worth. So the neuroses that we all have are a kind of stupidity -- an inefficient and in some ways self-defeating self regulation. The person has given up awareness of himself and the world. He has given up authentic self-control and self-governing in order to have self-esteem and to somehow keep his action moving forward, even though his actions now reflect motives that are not his. but those of others.
The interesting thing, you see, is that when we are trained as children, we are too young to know what is really happening to us. When you look at your children, you feel this particularly poignantly. They're running! They just run! They're moving; they move in that door and out that door. And you stop them on the way through and say, "Hey!" And they run by. And they're through again and then Bye. And you say, "Hey, where are you going?" and they say, "Hungry." "Okay, here, eat." "Yum-yum. Play, play!" And meanwhile, certain things are happening to them, and they don't know what's going on. In the first place, they don't have symbols; they don't have language for a couple of years, in order to understand what's happening. But they're getting a lot of messages from the environment: a lot of prohibition, a lot of patting on the head, and a lot of various things are being filtered into their neural system. And they don't have symbols in order to cope with this. And they keep running. Gradually, when you go over this process for about five years, it turns out that they can only keep running straight if they do a lot of things while they're coming through the door, which they don't know they're doing, in order to please you. So the result of the process is that when you grow up you're running, but you don't know why, and you don't have any idea of what happened to you while you were running. This, if I may say, is the tragedy of man: that he is that kind of an adult who runs without knowing that he is running, which is another way of defining stupidity. Our best theories of mental illness now, even the most extreme psychotic dimensions, are theories of stupidity: people who don't know what they're doing, because they don't know what happened to them.
In a way, of course, this has to speak for every one of us. None of us was born with language, scrutinizing his parents with a critical eye. I can't imagine such a monster. It would be a nice trick to play on the parents, when they look over and say, "Naughty, naughty! You wet the bed!" And the baby says, "Oh, it's only excrement, you know that's not bad, a baby's excrement." What if he could say that back to you, huh? And you say, "Look, but you did it on the floor!" And he says, "The floor is a foreign substance which is easily washable. I will feel no anxiety about that." But, of course, the child can't do that, which is what his problem is. He can't make a simple objective clarification of factual experiences, and say to his parents, "Call reality, as they say, the way it is."
Now the goal of therapy in Gestalt is to develop people's awareness about what's really happening to them, what they really want, what they're really striving for, wherever the organism is looking, wherever its attention is drawn. The goal of therapy is to make this possible by somehow giving the person back his own aegis over himself; his own re-centering of his powers; finding out why he blocks his perception, why he's not looking there. "Why are you not looking there? Don't you see that? It's obvious that person is smiling at you. Why do you think they are frowning?" There was an excellent case reported by a therapist of a woman who was in psychoanalysis for three years, and for three years the psychoanalyst smiled at her when she came into therapy, and she thought for three years that he had been frowning. And then she said, "Oh, you're smiling today!" -- the third year. And he said, "But I always smile!" She said, "You mean you've been smiling for three years?" "Yes." "Oh, my gosh." In other words, she had seen him for three years as a frowning man because her parents trained her to think of herself as being frowned upon. The organism perceives the world as it is trained to perceive it. Gestalt tries to cut through this, as I said , by letting people discover in practice their own activities in the world, giving them back possession of themselves, possession over their own motives, finding out what is unconscious to them, what they're doing unbeknownst to themselves. That's what I think is the whole point of Gestalt: take people who are conditioned and automatic and put them in some kind of aegis over themselves.
Perls did an excellent job as a thinker of appreciating what was good in Freud and what was bad. He was a theorist of a very high order, I think, and those who saw him deprecatingly as a guru, I think are very much mistaken. You have only to read his books to see how well he understood theoretical issues in the history of psychiatry. The interesting thing about Gestalt is that it didn't carry over any of the false ideas of Freudian psychiatry. All this business about the id, the superego, the ego, all these fragmentations -- as Harry Stack Sullivan pointed out, if you want to give yourself a headache, you'll start to think in those terms. Perls didn't want any headaches, and he had a view of the person as a whole, acting in his world and trying to assimilate his experience. Perls saw that if the person works against himself it is not because of the necessities of evolution, as Freud had thought. Freud said that we were strapped with instincts; that since we were animals, we were born with instincts of sexuality and aggression, and that these instincts of sexuality and aggression determined our lives. Perls saw that, quite correctly, there were no such instincts, which modern research is bearing out. Oh, there's a lot of aggression in people, and there are a lot of sexual problems. Everyone has a sexual problem by definition, you see. If you're a human being who has to justify your life existentially, and you have a sexual body, you will automatically have a sexual problem. It's impossible not to. Since you've been saddled with a body, that body becomes a focus for negotiating your existential problem, which then gives you a sexual problem. So when you sit looking at your neighbor and say, "I have sexual problems and he doesn't," rest assured that he does, too.
So the organism doesn't work against itself by the necessities of evolution; it works against itself by the tyrannies of its own experience, by its childhood situation. Perls understood this. And he threw out a lot of Freud's theories in the process. The idea of the death instinct, the idea of the archaic unconscious, and all of these ideas Perls was able to get along without. I don't want to go into the technicalities. But I think it's important to place Perls historically, and that would lie in his appreciation of the fact that the body works as a whole, and is anterior to the mind.
The interesting thing about Freud, and this was Perls's criticism of him, was that Freud was a mind man, who didn't pay any attention to the body. [Editor's note: Eros and libido, for Freud, were psychic, not somatic, energies; hence the term "psychosexual."] Freud thought that it was enough that you explain to people why they're doing what they do, and once they understand it, they will stop doing it. Perls saw that this was not true (as did Wilhelm Reich). If your childhood situation is one in which you have been conditioned by your trainers, you're not conditioned mentally, you're conditioned physically. Every time you go to touch something and you stop, that's not a mental thing, that's a physical shock, a physical blockage, so that your neural circuits actually are what are conditioned. One of the Pavlovians (who, on the whole, I don't particularly like) said that the body is a museum of antiquities, conditioned reflexes that are no longer applicable to experience. Many times you'll feel a sense of anxiety and a little bit of heartbeat in a situation that you're no longer afraid of and you don't even know why you feel it. It's because your body was conditioned to feel it, many, many years ago. You've forgotten the event, but your body has not forgotten the conditioning. Perls understood that your body and your mind function as a totality, and that you can't talk only about a mental unblocking, which is why you see a lot of physical acting in Gestalt therapy. Perls says to people, "What do you feel like doing?" "Well, I feel like swearing and spitting." So he says, "Go ahead." As they actually spit and swear and bite, you allow them to do their own therapy. They act it and they live it. A person who has never said "I hate you," and has never spit at anybody in his life, really undergoes a physical reworking of experience as he's able to spit at somebody, and say "I hate you." It's a very important thing to be able to do, the expression of anger.
The interesting thing about this idea was that, in the history of thought, it had a predecessor. A long time ago, John Dewey, the great American educator, wrote a book called Human Nature and Conduct, in which he criticized psychoanalysis for the same thing that Perls did a half century later. I want to quote a little paragraph from Dewey, because I think it's important for the history of thought. Dewey wrote:
Some support that there's a separation of mind from body; that mental
or psychical mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily
operations, and independent of them. So deep seated is this notion
that even so scientific a theory as modern psychoanalysis thinks that
mental habits can be straightened out by some kind of purely physical
manipulation, without reference to the distortions of sensation and
perception, which are due to bad bodily sense.
(Editor's note. The above is the quotation as Becker read it
during his original talk. Thanks to Jay Zeman, we have
determined that the actual quote is as follows:)
Refusal to recognize this fact [that “the design and structure of the agency employed tell directly upon the work done”] only leads to a separation of mind from body, and to supposing that mental or "psychical" mechanisms are different in kind from those of bodily operations and independent of them. So deep-seated is this notion that even so "scientific" a theory as modern psycho-analysis thinks that mental habits can be straightened out by some kind of purely psychical manipulation without reference to the distortions of sensation and perception which are due to bad bodily sets (p. 27, John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 1922:
The Middle Works, 1899-1924, v. 14, ed Jo Ann Boydston, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois U Press, 1988. The earlier Modern Library editions read the same as this; quotation marks are as in Dewey).
This is really Fritz Perls fifty years ago -- the idea of the body, and the bodily sense. I think what Perls did, really, was to make a closure on this whole tradition of thought, of the separation of mind and body, and to show that as far as therapy is concerned, we are now fully in the post-Freudian epoch. We cannot talk about people's minds without talking about their bodies. When you read the number of books that have come out recently on the body, and the importance of the body, and techniques of Rolfing, yoga, and sensory awareness, book after book on the betrayal of the body and the body as the body-- all of these things, reminding us that we have a body: I think that this is a reaction to the mentalism of Freudian psychiatry for the last 80 years. So I think we could say, really, that Perls did something very important in the history of thought: he took the body and he brought it finally into the therapeutic enterprise.
It's very important for the person in some ways to begin to live for himself physically before he can really become a new person. It's not enough to think mentally. Part of the whole sexual rebellion of youth against their parents and against society is an attempt to use their bodies for themselves. Part of the whole feminist movement -- "We have the right to abortion" and so on -- is the right to have one's own body and use it as one will. The question is, "Who owns your body?" Do you own your body, or does the state own your body? If you live in the Soviet Union or in China the state owns your body. There's no question about it. Your body is the state's, the state will let you inhabit it for a while. But be careful with it, it's government property.
So, one of the things that youth tries to do with sexuality is to lay claim to their own bodies. And one of the things they are trying to do now with macrobiotics and dieting is to start eating for themselves for the first time in their lives. Eating their own food, choosing their own food, tasting their own food. When you think about the situation of the child in relation to food, you can see that, really, that's one of the things we almost never do: eat and taste for ourselves. The child is eating, but he never knows he's eating. Usually, he's eating at the family table, which means that he's competing with his siblings, he's trying to get your attention, or he's trying to get extra attention, so the food serves as a barter for him to get more attention, or less attention, or compete with his siblings. "You gave him two grapes, and you only gave me one." "OK, here's two." "His is bigger." "All right, here's a little one." "He's got three and I've got two." "Yeah, but yours is bigger." "His is better." You know the kind of thing that goes on around the dinner table-- around all tables. Anything but eating; I mean, you don't eat at family tables. There are some family tables where the atmosphere is so somber, and so constricted, that you may as well be in a padded cell. That cold atmosphere, constricting silence; you can hear yourself chew, as you gulp your food with all these personages in various degrees of hostility to you, or in various degrees of too much love, too much attention, too much solicitousness -- nothing is ever right at the family table. And I'm not blaming parents for that; please, I happen to be one myself, and I think we can be absolved, for at least the reason that we don't know what we're doing either. And I say that advisedly. We are not guilty. It was Nietzsche who pointed out that only God is guilty, because he's the only one who has real freedom of action. People are not guilty. How could people be guilty, when we don't know what the hell we're doing?
Anyway, you'll often find that people liberate themselves from the family and in fact from their own alienation by coming to eat for themselves. I think the whole macrobiotic, vegetarian, Zen diet and so on is that kind of thing. Picking and choosing for yourself, feeding yourself apart from any other influences on you, making your own way in the world. It's an important thing, and I think it bears out a lot of what Perls had to say on the nature of hunger and oral aggression.
So I think Perls's place in the history of though it is secure. He has given a synthesis to a lot of currents in the history of thought and psychiatry, and he's given it well. I think Perls's distinctions of originality, if I may be permitted to say so, are perhaps not terribly important or outstanding. He belongs in a tradition with people like Adler and Reich, and I think he's certainly not one of the major figures from the point of view of innovation. But, from a point of view of having taken Freud's theory of the mind and Dewey's theory of the body, and fused them together into a practical therapeutic orientation: that is lasting. And I think it's something that will become a secure part of the history of thought and action; from that point of view Perls's name will be remembered.
Now that I've shown you that I'm very secure in my appreciation of Gestalt and I'm very Perlsian in my basic orientation to psychiatry, I want to get into a bit of a critique of Gestalt, and of therapy in general. I want to talk about two great questions of life that Perls does not -- that Gestalt does not -- answer. Or if it does try to answer them, it doesn't answer them well; it skirts around them. They are what we might call existential questions.
The first question is, how much can a person be centered on himself at all? This is not an abstract question. The question about how much an individual can stand alone without relying on something that transcends him, the question about how much a person can be self-sufficient, is a very real question in psychology. My opinion is that it's impossible for a person to stand alone. It is impossible for a person to be completely free and self-confident, and to stand alone, and at the same time have the kind of self-awareness that Perls says people should have. The one kind of person who can do that -- and even then it's not possible -- is a megalomaniac paranoid like Hitler. Even then, he'd have to have a bunch of people playing his game -- so he's really not standing alone. He's sadistically dependent on a large number of people to do what he wants, and as soon as they stop doing what he wants, he has a breakdown anyway, as we see from Hitler and others.
I think people are unconsciously always rooted in external powers, what we call transference in psychiatry. Transference is the reliance on somebody else, on an outside source of power, in some way. And the interesting thing about Gestalt is that it seems to gloss over this fact. Perls actually seems to assume that people can stand on their own feet, if they're given the possibility to do so. I think people can stand on their own feet to a much greater extent than they do, there's no question about that. The question is, how much they ever can. And it seems to me a certain dishonesty when you tell people that they can be absolutely self-reliant when actually they cannot ever be quite self-reliant.
This is one of the places that psychiatry and religion meet. As the great Paul Tillich put it: "Where are you going to draw the courage to be if you can't draw it all out of yourself?" You have to draw it from something. You have to draw it from manipulating another person, you have to draw it in some kind of transcendent idea: in God, in Big Brother, in the flag, in the proletariat, in the fetish of money, bank balance -- whenever you feel insecure you look at your bankbook. Whenever you feel insecure you think about how strong Father was. I'm not saying these things deprecatingly; these are true facts. As Thomas Carlisle put it, "My father, the stone pillar in the ground in which I stand." I think whenever he walks, Father follows him around, sort of a mobile stone pillar.
In the last line of Perls's autobiography, which surely must be a telling point; I mean, imagine you're writing an autobiography, right? About how great you are, and what a tremendous person you are, which we all have to do anyway, at least before we die. But we usually die before we get a chance, which is fortunate for the libraries. The last line -- what do you put as the last line in your autobiography? Something really vital. Something at least self-revelatory. If you're dishonest, you put in a bid for posterity; if you're honest, you put in a statement showing your open and human feelings. Perls, an honest man, put in his autobiography as the last line, "Will I ever learn to trust myself completely?" Now this can't possibly be an afterthought, you see; this must be the dilemma of his whole life.
Here I want to get on to the really basic insight, I think, of modern psychiatry and existentialism and a couple of thousand years of Western thought, as Kierkegaard analyzed so shatteringly in his work on the concept of dread, the existential dilemma in back of everything we do: this terrible anxiety we have about who we are and what we're doing on this planet, what it means to have our name and our face; we keep running to the mirror to look at that face -- we don't really know who that person is. And we don't like the face, usually, mostly. We look in the mirror, we say, "That's not my stupid face, besides it's getting old." So we run back and we take a pill or we take a drink, or we read a book, or we make love, or we call our mother long-distance, or something. We don't know what we're doing here, what it means to be named John Smith, to be born on Elm Street. These are sources of great anxiety for us, whether we admit it or not.
The other thing that bothers us is that since we don't know who we are, we don't know how we came here. You don't know where we came from -- oh, I know, you say "the sperm and the egg." Sperm and the egg! Where do babies come from? "Sperm and the egg!" Idiot answer. It's not an answer at all, it's merely a description of a speck in a causal process that is a mystery. We don't know where babies come from. You get married, you're sitting at a table having breakfast -- there are two of you -- and a year later there's somebody else, sitting there. And if you're honest with yourself, you don't know where they came from. You've made contact with them at the hospital, but that was another step on the causal chain. They just came, literally, out of nowhere, and they keep growing in your environment. If you stop to think about, which you don't, because it's annoying, it's upsetting, then it's a total mystery. And if a child said, "Where did I come from?" you don't know. So you can't answer honestly.
I got in a lot of trouble, I remember, in San Francisco, where we belong to a nursery co-op. They found out that I was a professor and that I knew something about psychology, so they asked me to come and talk about the problems of child development. So I went there and we talked. There was some really bright psychologist from one of the universities around San Francisco, and the question was, "Should we tell children where they came from?" So they talked about it. "Well, sure," he said, "you have to tell children where they came from -- the sperm and the egg!" Explain it to them all, tell them. "Well, you grew up in your mother's belly, and you came out of your mother, and this is why you're here and that's how it comes!" So they said, "Well, very good." It was all very nice, and he described the whole thing, how you tell children honestly; after all, you don't want to lie to children because they're riot stupid. And if you're lying to them, they'll know you're a liar, and parents don't want to be liars.
Then they said, "Dr. Becker?" So I said, "Well, if you want to lie to them." Everybody in the room turned and looked at me. They said, "What do you mean, lie to them?" I said, "Well, you don't know where they came from, do you? Sperm and the egg is only one step in the causal process that remains fundamentally a mystery, right? You don't really know where children come from." They didn't like that. They really didn't like it. They thought it was dishonest to tell them it was a mystery. And yet, you know, the one thing we're learning about children is that when they ask you questions like that, they really want to know what they're doing here. I mean, they really want to know. Children ask religious questions that we repress. And we refuse to give them religious answers which really are the only ones that mean anything. Naturalistic answers don't answer questions; we haven't succeeded in answering anything really vital naturalistically. So they're asking us, "Who am I?" The kid wants to know who he is, what he's doing on this planet. And we don't know, so we lie to him and we tell him how he came to be here, which is not really how he came to be, since we don't know. And the one dangerous thing that we do with that, however well-intentioned we are when we do it, is we eclipse the dimension of mystery. We make the kid think that there's no mystery in the world. The problem, you see, existentially, is that. And the other side of the problem is not only why we're here, which bothers us, which we try to forget and try to repress and build our whole life trying to ignore or trying to justify -- the other side is that our whole life is a beating of other people over the head to try to convince them we know why we're here. To try to prove to them we're here because we're special and good: look at me, love me, admire me, look what I'm doing, look how good. Yes, yes, you deserve to be here, great. If we said that, they'd say "What do you mean?" Now the obverse of that existential question is, what about death? Which is really, of course, the spooky question. The fact is that we die. And we know it. Every once in a while you dig somebody up and all you have is a sack of bones. And you think about all the people that have been buried on this planet since it was here, the whole thing's fertilizer -- it's a graveyard of fertilizer. Human fertilizer. We're all going to go that way and we don't know what it means. And we try not to think about it.
So that is the paradox, the existential paradox, that Kierkegaard talked about; it is one of the foremost problems of human life. As a matter of fact, the great psychiatrist Robert Lifton has said, in effect, that the problem of death is the problem of modern psychology and should be the central concept of modern psychology. A problem that we have repressed. Now, in Gestalt therapy, it's Laura Perls, Perls's wife, who is also a Gestalt therapist, who has made the paradox, the existential paradox, central to her thought and work. And she's given us a very good phrasing of it, which I'd like to read. She says, "Speaking strictly for myself, I am deeply convinced that the basic problem, not only of therapy, but of life, is how to make life livable for a being whose dominant characteristic is his awareness of himself as a unique individual, on the one hand, and of his mortality on the other hand. The first feeling, that is, feeling that we are individuals that are unique, gives us a feeling of overwhelming importance. The other feeling, that we will die, gives us a feeling of fear and frustration. Suspended between these two poles, man vibrates in a state of inevitable tension and anxiety." It seems to me very important that we see that there's a sense in which Perls himself was limited. I don't think he had this awareness. I don't think that it meant terribly much to him. He tended to simply overlook the haunting anxieties of the human condition. Where are you going to get support for your painful self-consciousness? How are you going to answer the question of the mystery of yourself? How are you going to explain who you are? Where are you going to get the equanimity to face your own death? Are you going to get it from therapy? There's simply no answer to that question. therapeutically.
The interesting thing, when you thicken up the theory of personality, from the point of view of existentialism, and not merely of Freudianism, you understand the early formation of the child as an experience in which the child tries to deny, with all his might, the anxiety of his being in the world, his fear of losing his support, his helplessness, his afraidness. The child has to, at a certain age, come to explain to himself or to rationalize or to repress the idea that he is finite and that he is going to die. And you can see in the development of children this period that they go through, what we call a "phobic period," where they have these terrible anxieties about the neighbor's dog, or about the lady in black, or about whatever it is. The child is actually terrified of life, and of death, his own death, which he doesn't understand. And I think, from my point of view, a large part of what we call character, the human character, the mechanisms of the defense, and so on, are really a style that we build to deny our own mortality. To deny the fact that we are so fragile. So that as you grow up, you can feel pretty much confident that you are somebody and that you are moving along in this world under your own control, that you control your own life and death. The sign that you're a mature person is your belief that you control your own life and death, if you work at it correctly. You wash your hands to avoid germs, you drive carefully, you perform in the corporation, you put a certain amount of money into the bank, you try to get good seats on the airplane, you're juggling constantly. In the background, of course, is the fear that you don't. So you may try to get into the orbit of a stronger person, who throws over onto you some of the aura of their own strength, so that you don't feel exposed. So when you're walking with somebody strong, you don't even look to see if any car is coming. You trust them, you walk across the street with them.
I think character structure, the human style, is the dishonesty that attempts to elude the existential dilemma. I think this is a chilling revelation about human beings, and I think is the real reason that we still strain against Freud and against psychoanalysis generally. I think that underneath everything that is at stake in human life, the thing. that is really at stake is the problem of the terror of this planet, if I may say so. After all, this planet is a terrifying place. As Thomas Carlyle pointed out, it is a mystic temple and a hall of doom. If you don't see it that way, I think you're fortunate; but I think you're fortunate because you've built defenses against seeing it as it is. After all, you cannot allow yourself to walk around terrified that death lurks at every corner, that your life could be over in a minute if you drink from the wrong glass, if you step off the curb in a thoughtless moment, everything you've worked for and achieved is nothing. If the New York stock market were to go, people would plunge off tall buildings because the numbers in their little bank books would be changed to different styles -- from nines to zeros. Masses of organisms using that particular technique to deny their mortality would be helpless. If you took a reading of the planet, you'd see masses of people in China and Russia in a technocratic sort of mindless automatic slavery; you'd see children dying of hunger in Africa and Asia and South America; and every once in a while they put a picture of them into The New Yorker magazine so that we can feel guilty, as if we can do something about it. They hold up little skeletons of babies who are starving while the government pays several million dollars to the wheat growers not to plant wheat. You see the madness, "the dance of mad despair," that takes place on this planet.
I don't want to burden you with this because I don't think you can accomplish terribly much by talking about these things -- the point I want to make is simple. This is really the whole brunt of my argument about therapy. We're on a great joy, happy, body, free-love, sex-is-great kick today. And everybody's going to live and enjoy himself, and therapy is supposed to help all that. But when you go into therapy expecting that you are going to be saved, that you're going to be reborn, you want to have a new life of joy and plenitude, I think you'd better beware. Because the one thing that therapy does for you is to peel away the lie of your social defenses. Your smiling lie. Your bank balance lie. Your manipulative fie. Your look-at-me, I'm-so-lovely lie. All of the lies that you surround yourselves with, your social lies, your corporation lies, your look-at-me, I've-got-a-big-new-car lie, all of the lies of your life. What therapy does is to take that away from you. As Freud points out, "We cure the neurotic of his symptoms only to introduce him to the common misery of life."
So I think I would have to say in this sense caveat emptor -- buyer beware. If you're thinking about therapy, think about Gestalt by all means. Gestalt is an important new way to come into some kind of aegis over yourself, but if you imagine that it's not going to lead you to a further sobering awareness of despair, I think, then, you had better think again. As one of the theorists whom I very much admire pointed out, "A person who's had therapy is very much like a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. They live feeling a little bit lucky that they've gotten to the point where they are a little over their illness but they live with humility because they're never quite sure about themselves, or about the world. They have been ushered into a new kind of awareness, and it's no longer a happy, stupid, blocked awareness about how joyful it is to clip corporation coupons and drive your new Ford Galaxy. He's a different kind of man, with a different kind of stamp, a lonely person who has been in effect rejected from paradise. A person who has come to see the conditions of life on this planet as they really are."
I think from a point of view of social philosophy, it's the lie about the world that is killing the world. Everyone lies about how the world is as a defense against reality. And the crazy games they play as they lie to defend themselves against the world! Whether the world would be a happier place if some people were walking around with therapy in their hearts, I don't know. But if you peel away your lie, you can start looking at things a little more pristinely; you're no longer so driven. And then there might be a possibility for more authentic awareness at that point, and I think this is Perls's great idea and lasting contribution.