Susie Orbach wrote, in a beautiful article (from 2016) on the poetry of therapy, that “Words are the most exquisite example of the unity of mind and body”. They are also powerful; language matters. “The limits of language are the limits of my world”, wrote Wittgenstein. The meaning of words is in the use we make of them, but our language is not only the filter through which we see the world, but also, linguistic relativists would argue, the structure that circumscribes the limits of what it is possible for us to conceptualise and think about. Language is deeply cultural – which is one reason why the notion of a ‘private language’ – one that can only be known by myself – is impossible. It is cultural at the level of nations and of tribes; but also at the level of families, and within an individual home. To those who are alien to a nation, tribe, or family, the lack of a shared language and way of being, is a key factor in the sense of not being at home.
In the film ‘Arrival’, the aliens (literally, beings from another galaxy), far from home, build a relationship with linguist Louise Banks through shared efforts at communicating and acculturating – learning each other’s languages, and making adaptations to compensate for the enormous practical difficulties involved when one species has a mouth and vocal chords, and the other looks like a giant squid! Unlike the poetry of therapy, there were no recognisable words being interchanged by both parties – but there was still a creative beauty involved in what was a profoundly personal and relational experience. An experience so fundamental to the process of language learning that it was essentially an example of neuroplasticity, and the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to new and different experiences. That rewiring was both a response to Louise’s immersion in the process of relational language learning, and also an enabler of the learning itself. The narrative element of an alien encounter brings home in a strangely believable way, the radical nature of the change that took place within Louise – an alteration in the limits of her world which she could never have foreseen and would never have believed possible.
By the end of the film the aliens have departed for their own home. Their arrival on earth was short-lived, though ultimately crucial both for their own the human species’ survival. And yet the film’s key arrival that we are meant to focus on, is Louise’s own – her arrival at acceptance of what her life-changing encounter has shown her about herself and her life. That vision was not a one-time gift – the changes in her brain are permanent, the language she has learned is now a part of herself, emotionally and physically; the limits of what is possible for her, forever altered. This is the power and poetry of language learning (in its broadest sense) through relationship, on an extraordinary and of course fictional scale. But within the tribe, family, or therapy room, its impact is no less life-changing. Susie Orbach writes that “The therapist’s language is particular to encounters with that individual. It is not therapy speak or psycho-babble. It is a bespoke relationship with a bespoke language. And within that bespoke relationship, as words are discarded and new words found, the therapeutic couple create an aesthetic with its own unique colour, temperature and shape.” There is both a lovely accuracy and a moving underplaying in her statement that “Amid the pain, sweat, struggle, times of confusion and misunderstanding, small pleasing connections and new understandings occur which have their own beauty”. An accumulation of such small pleasing connections, with their own beauty, are what have their own neuroplasticity effects as the poetry and power of therapy work chiefly through relationship experienced by the hard work of finding a way to communicate, and fashioning a bespoke language together.
If the film Arrival examines this matter from the perspective of a successful inter-species encounter, the book ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson shows the other side of the coin, both in a community and a family context. In Gilead, a town that has forgotten the reason for its existence, and has lost its ability to empathise with the ‘alien’ in its midst, the prodigal son, Jack Boughton, returns to his childhood home and dying father, after a prolonged absence of more than twenty years. It is but a temporary arrival, to a home whose language and way of being was never his own, and so was never truly home at all. In his wonderful talk on both ‘Gilead’ (the first in the Marilynne Robinson trilogy) and ‘Home’ (the second book in the trilogy), the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talks about the painful inarticulacy between Jack and his father. “Jack cannot use the ‘script’ of unselfconscious family intimacy; but equally it is clear that….this script is presented to him both as an obligation and also as conditional on behaving appropriately”. Jack does not feel that he ‘deserves’ to use this family script, and his father is forever waiting for him to do so, while at the same time expecting not to hear it. Jack’s father is too conscious of what he wants to hear, while Jack is too conscious of how others hear him. Neither is open to true and transforming relational communication – to unselfconscious surprise, to unexpected connection, to acceptance of reality as is, both in the world and in the other. There is stalemate and stagnation, not poetry and creativity.
Louise Banks’s experience of bespoke language learning within relationship was profoundly freeing, in extraordinary ways. In contrast, Jack Boughton’s experience of the accepted and acceptable language of his town and family, was paralysing. The ‘science fiction’ element of Louise’s story facilitates an enormity of experience which breaks through the conventional boundaries of her mind and body, but it is also an experience in which she is completely immersed – vulnerable, spontaneous, and accepting. Jack is guarded, defended against the smallness of his surroundings, forever analysing the impact of his words and actions, standing just outside his experience, feeling rejected.
Both Arrival and Home pull the counter-intuitive move of demonstrating the enormous power of freedom and self-actualisation within the context of a deterministic universe (from a human point of view). Whether the context is time-transcending aliens, or Calvinist theology, the possibility of radical acceptance of living moment by moment and choosing to bring the future to pass, however foreseeably painful or unknowably hopeless it seems – suffuses both stories. But one doesn’t have to believe in determinism to see the value of allowing oneself to be changed, moment by moment, through relational discourse that accepts rather than expects, and which allows the limits of one’s understanding to expand in world-shifting ways. Whatever one believes about religion or the workings of the universe, as Rowan Williams noted in his talk, change, from our side, is always imaginable. Acceptance of the ‘alien’ in the other and in ourselves, is always imaginable. But it takes a willingness to immerse oneself vulnerably and unselfconsciously in relationship, and to be open to surprise. It takes finding ways to communicate that transcend what is unknown and unknowable in self and other, and to build a new language. That is what therapy can make possible; that is the beautiful dynamic that can play out within the room. As Susie Orbach wrote: “In everyday chatter we can on occasion be surprised by what we say, but the structure and purposeful endeavour of the analytic hour creates a space in which surprise can occur frequently. One notices what one says and what one cannot say”. And what we gain when we allow that to play out within the room, is described in another quote from Rowan Williams (modification my own!):
“the knowledge that the stranger whose perception of me I cannot control, is – finally – not my enemy or my competitor but the generative source of myself. What I cannot master, the perspective I cannot by definition attain or imagine….. is the presence that makes me alive and that also makes welcome possible – not only a being at home but a creation of home for the human [or, in the case of Arrival – alien] other.”