Die gestalt — it’s a German word for “form” or “shape.” The word is conscripted in service to psychoanalysis to mean “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” Ever hear someone say, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”? This idea lies at the heart of what is known as Gestalt therapy.
I’m attracted to Gestalt theory because it presupposes my most passionate prejudice: Human beings are created for relationship. Without you, there is no meaningful “me.” How I experience my life is, in the end, inseparable from how I experience you. Or, said another way, the only Steven Kalas worth knowing is the Steven Kalas who is in relationship with you!
Said yet another way: We’re here to learn to love and be loved. That’s it. Every other dimension of life — job, money, golf game, emptying the kitchen trash — is only important as it serves the end of how and why you are related to others. I know this because I spent years working for hospice. Dying people never revel in (or regret) how often they vacuumed. They revel in (or regret) who they became in meaningful relationships!
I think about this every time I laugh wryly about the runaway train of narcissism that is my culture. Emerging in that too-often cultural cartoon known as the ’60s, and continuing to this present day, the driving question was a pursuit of identity: Who am I? Like most everyone, I rode that runaway train for years until it became obvious the train track was a spectacular dead end. Again, human beings are built for relationship! This is where meaningful identity is grounded. I changed my driving inquiry from “Who am I?” to “Whose am I?” And that changed everything.
A Gestalt therapist works to forge a time and space in a therapeutic relationship wherein the patient can suspend his collective bias about who he ought to be, how life should be or could be, and open himself to the experiential reality of who he is and how life is in this exact moment. Or, as a Gestalt therapist once said to me, “There are only two relevant questions: ‘Where am I? and, What time is it?’ And the correct answers to those questions are, respectively, ‘I’m Here, and it’s Now.’ ”
An overstatement, yes, but I got her point.
In common parlance, “gestalt” is a noun. You will hear therapists talk about “opening a gestalt.” We mean by this a spontaneous moment wherein the whole of a human being is radically open and present to the wholeness of a life experience.
We can’t decide to open a gestalt. It happens apart from our will. It’s not a choice; rather, a happening. An in-breaking. Gestalts bend time and space. At once do gestalts frighten and fascinate.
Falling in love is a gestalt. Acute grief is a gestalt. Profound awe is a gestalt. Comedy can open a gestalt. The wonder of nature. Authentic joy. Physical suffering. Religious experience. Terror. Great art form — music, dance, sculpture, paintings. Intense anger. Sex is a gestalt. Passionate oratory can open a gestalt, in individuals or sometimes entire nations, for better or worse (see the public addresses of Adolph Hitler).
The ability to be radically open to the wholeness of the human experience has rich benefits. An open gestalt can generate vitality and more personal freedom. It invites greater authenticity. One way to think about depressed patients in therapy is to see them as keenly in need of a gestalt. One way to think about emotionally gridlocked marriages is to see the marriage as desperately in need of a gestalt.
Yet, when you are managing an open gestalt, you also are very vulnerable. When a therapist or any leader has coaxed a gestalt, that leader bears a tremendous responsibility to attend that gestalt. To guide it to positive outcome and benefit. And, just as important, to close it! Occasionally patients will have a powerful gestalt in session, and I will urge them to sit in the waiting room for a few minutes, drink some water, and gather themselves before attempting to drive a car.
It isn’t healthy to leave open gestalts scattered in your landscape. In some cases, unattended gestalts can provoke a mental health crisis. The human ego just won’t tolerate an indefinitely gaping gestalt. This is what we mean, I think, when we say “I need closure.”
In session, I often think of myself as a gestalt guide and caretaker. I’m an escort and companion into the abyss.
When it happens, it feels like standing before an altar.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.