This season invites us to reflect on the highs and lows of the last 12 months and to name our desires for the new year. Here, Beau Denton, Content Coordinator and MA in Counseling Psychology student, writes about his final year at The Seattle School and his hopes for the coming term and the years ahead.
Near the beginning of The Seattle School’s Therapy I class last spring, we read an article by Martin Buber about therapy as a confrontation with “the naked abyss of man.” Many people try to objectify that abyss or bury it in theory and training, writes Buber, but there comes a moment when genuine connection and the hope for healing necessitate that “self is exposed to self” and that the abyss in one person is open to the abyss in the other.¹
I loved this idea as soon as I read it. It reminded me of when the Psalmist writes about deep calling unto deep, and it felt powerful and important. Buber’s abyss stayed in my mind the rest of the spring and summer terms, and I cited it frequently in papers and class discussions.
Then I started my internship in community mental health, and the therapeutic abyss was no longer a theoretical notion for me to romanticize. I met clients whose stories intersected my own in ways that unraveled me and left me raw, and on some days the abyss in my tiny intern office felt like it was going to swallow me.
On some days the abyss felt like it was going to swallow me.
That feeling—unraveled and raw—spread to other areas of my life as well: sleepless nights, apathy in maintaining friendships, phoned-in papers and work tasks. After a couple months I found the courage to start naming it as depression, which initially heightened my terror of the abyss. How could I help clients, I wondered, with such a storm raging in my own life?
As the term progressed, I grasped at the small moments that sparked life and beauty in the midst of my storm: like the mornings when, just as my work day was starting, I would hear music floating up from the Large Classroom. Chelle Stearns starts each Theology class playing her violin and inviting students to sing with her, and on many mornings this past term I found myself walking downstairs to let their music reach into where I felt unraveled and disconnected.
Then there are the rituals of Vespers and Wednesday communion in the Chapel, and Keith Anderson inviting us to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at the staff Christmas lunch as we gathered to align ourselves once again with the work of the incarnation.
I think, too, of a Christmas dinner with my Practicum II group. Practicum ended months ago, yet we still find ourselves coming together, as if we are leaning on each other to help us remember where we have been and to witness our ongoing, sometimes awkward growth as clinicians and as people.
In recent weeks I have been clinging to these moments like small, steady beacons in the midst of the abyss. And somehow, in ways that I do not fully understand, they have changed me. Because of these moments—because of this community—I have slowly begun to find my feet planted beneath me again.
Don’t get me wrong: Buber’s abyss still terrifies me, and I think it should. Making ourselves vulnerable to another person’s chaos in order to help facilitate change is staggering and holy work, and I hope I never take it lightly. But I also hope I never forget to be awed by the wonder of two people being fully present with each other and both being changed by the encounter. Participating in that process in a therapeutic context is more humbling, difficult, and jaw-droppingly beautiful than I could have imagined.
In about a week I’ll start my final term as a student at The Seattle School. As I reflect on these last few years, my current internship, and all the work ahead of me, I find that the moments of connection and beauty in this community serve as milestones of my formation here, and that the internalized voices of my professors—like O’Donnell Day urging us to “listen to the music of the patient,” Doug Shirley talking about “planting a seed of ‘we,’” or Steve Call asking again and again, “Where does it hurt?”—are supporting and interacting with my own emerging therapeutic voice.
As that voice continues to develop in the coming term and the years of work ahead, my desire is that it will reflect the experience of being both humbled by the abyss and inspired by my capacity to confront it. For all of the times I have felt unraveled and raw in this community, it has taken me a while to also recognize the roots I have grown here: roots that have fostered a more thoughtful, integrated, and courageous version of myself, and that allow me to—slowly, painfully, over and over—stare into that abyss without shrinking from it.
¹Buber, M. (1999). Healing through meeting. In J.B. Agassi (Ed.), Martin Buber on psychology and psychotherapy (pp. 17-21). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.