Now Flying the Ukranian Flag

April 11, 2022By Evangelos TsempelisLeave your thoughts

Zurich, 11.4.2022

Today I want to seize on the opportunity to articulate my thoughts around an issue that arose in a lively conversation with a group of esteemed colleagues. We were addressing together how we respectively deal with the war in Ukraine as it manifests in the work with our clients. One of my colleagues very insightfully suggested that our work is not to induce our analysands to espouse our values and beliefs, but rather to enable them to recognize the tensions that inform their own views in hope of them becoming more conscious and more responsible individuals.  How well said. And yet, this does not settle the issue for me. At pivotal moments of history, such as the one we live today, I ask myself where I situate my practice. Is it in Zurich, or is it in Ukraine at the site of this horrific war of aggression and totalitarian barbarity? And even though I would wholeheartedly agree with my respected colleague that holding the tensions is at the gist of what our work is about, I also find myself considering that it is important to not be forgetful of the historical context in which we practice.

What would happen if someone holding extremist positions walked into my practice? What would my responsibility be towards a client who has adopted the idea that Russia is de-nazifying Ukraine and that its “special operation” is a defensive and corrective move to protect Russia and remove a government of drug addicts in Kiev? Would I have to patiently hold that client as she is working through her father complex or her early humiliations, the traumas perhaps that form the background to her inferiority complex and in turn her identification with a powerful tyrant in hope that at some point she might be able to overcome her biases and see the wider picture?  Or would that be to inadvertently provide a space for such a world view to further take root by lending it with psychological legitimacy? Would this be a form of participation in what Hannah Arendt has called the “banality of evil”?  Her point I believe is that the great human catastrophe of the Holocaust was not perpetrated by monsters, but merely by god-loving, pet-caring family men and women who went every day to work (wo)manning a bureaucracy of state murder. They each did their little part which added into a total amounting to the larger abomination in world history.

I fear how in the comfort of my own practice, convinced of the benevolence of my intentions, I might become forgetful that this is not a normal time affording me the safety of not taking sides in service of the principle of benevolent neutrality underpinning a therapeutic profession. This is a time of war between Russia and Ukraine, but also more collectively a conflict between two fundamentally varying views of the world and history: a liberal democratic, on the one hand, and an autocratic totalitarian, on the other.  In this context, my role stands in a great tension. On the one hand, I have to support my analysands work through their own issues, deal with their complexes, heal their traumas (they not I), and on the other hand, I also have the responsibility to not forget that my practice does not take place in a vacuum. It is, rather, situated in a world whose tectonic plates are moving.  To be neutral as this is happening is actually not to be neutral at all. It is to complacently side with the powerful aggressor. The hypothetical client who would walk into my office ready to pay a handsome fee to be listened to and supported while holding her unliberal views that renounce the reality of murder at the field of war 2000 kilometers away would be asking me to collude if I were to afford her with that opportunity without protest. What I would want her to know is that my practice might be physically situated in Zurich, but it is actually in Ukraine. I would like her to know that “yes” I would listen to her, but that she should know that I am flying in my imagination at the entrance a Ukrainian flag at full mast in solidarity with those who suffer this brutal and despicable violence. If she would be willing to accept that, I would then be ready to let her in.  As one of my colleagues said today, “without democracy, there is no psychotherapy either”.  This is no time for complacency or forgetfulness. I take great inspiration by watching Sean Penn’s recent interviews after he has come back from Ukraine,–ugVo

I pay attention to his trembling voice, to his eyes filled with tears; I notice how listening to him I feel that he could burst at any moment into a state of utter sadness and despair. I think that in that predicament, in that state of mind, Sean Penn is bringing back to us in the West a sense of moral responsibility towards the Ukrainians, towards our history and the liberal values of the West (in the great sense of the word) – alas, towards our very selves- which acts as an interpelation to an activist ethical vigilance. I think, I feel the imperative to not miss this moment in the smallness of my daily practice. In that vein, I posit this brief piece of writing as a mark to a pivotal moment to which I opt to now peg myself tightly and resolutely.


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