Giovanni Stanghellini

Stanghellini: "An opportunity to become aware of ourselves”

Confined within the walls of our homes, we find "a time favourable to thought". And the opportunity to ask ourselves what matters. A psychiatrist re-reads Carrón's letter to Corriere della Sera.
Paola Bergamini

"In these days, we need to think. We must strive to think and to make people think.” This is how Giovanni Stanghellini made his debut via Skype. Psychiatrist, psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Chieti, like everyone else, he is confined within the walls of his home. He follows his patients through web communication channels, “which even those who are less technologically apt have agreed to use”. "It is a time to think," he remarks. His dialogue begins from this, born from reading Fr. Carrón’s letter to Corriere della Sera, "which I have emphasised several times".

As our activities have been forcibly slowed down, we have more time to think.
First of all, to think means to discern. To separate. Thinking means not letting yourself be carried away by emotions that force me to take sides. An example. Someone says to me: “I am so afraid that I do not leave home and I think that this pandemic will wipe out the human race". I can react impulsively by saying: “What an exaggeration!”, or “You are right!”, listening only to my emotions. Or I can think, discern and say, "I take note of your opinion, but is it scientifically grounded? To what extent does your opinion speak about you, reflect your emotions; and how much does it reflect reality? Does fear make you see things in this way?” We must try to separate, within a fact, a news headline, the emotional part of the information. Doing this allows you to understand the other’s reasoning, it does not separate him from me. I can see what distinguishes and what unites.

Can we say that we are now in a position to "train" our thoughts?
Yes, together with our loved ones, in this micro-community that is the family. Of course, this is possible if there is desire to be together, to share the common destiny of vulnerability. To clarify, I will give an example from my own experience. In the evening, we listen to the news, then we turn the TV off and talk. My daughter, hearing about the problem of a limited number of hospital beds, poses an ethical problem: who will they choose to treat first? Questions are posed, not assertions, positions are taken-up. It is time to morph exclamation marks into question marks. This is the heart of the matter and I was struck by Carrón’s letter when he quotes Hannah Arendt, who says that crises “force us to return to questions”. They force us to think. But a previous passage, when Carrón talks about self-consciousness, is also important for me.

"A subject's strength lies in their self-awareness."
Which I support. It means standing in front of yourself as someone who dialogues, who asks questions. For example: why did I agree to do this interview? Out of a curiosity to discuss with you? To say something meaningful? We return to the same point.

Talk about strength.
To be self-aware means to be aware of one's limits, one's vulnerability, one's wounds, to use a language that unites us. If I am aware of having that wound, I can understand why I react in a certain way. Strength does not lie in ignoring one's own wounds, but in recognizing them.

A strength that makes us open?
A wound is not just trauma, pain, bleeding. A wound is also an opening. An opening is something that marks a discontinuity and which gives me access to an invisible dimension. Think of the famous "cuts" in Lucio Fontana's paintings. The cut is the spatial opening towards a beyond, something beyond the surface of the canvas. A glimmer towards infinity.

In this sense, what "beyond" can Coronavirus allow us to glimpse at?
It challenges my habits, defined by my structure of values. Finding ourselves deprived of the freedom to move, to embrace a loved one, frightened by the thought that the other's body could infect me or be infected by mine: all this makes us realize how much we were used to move at will, to be in physical contact with others according to our desires, to live as though body were healthy and basically invulnerable. This crisis generates a radical suspension of our habits, good and bad, and makes us aware of ourselves - it makes us aware of ourselves. We have lived through the Years of Lead, economic crises, but compared to this crisis, we lived all these previous events as external spectators. Until a few weeks ago, when we saw what was happening in China, we were inclined to say “poor things”. Now we too are in that situation, we are living it in the flesh. And our questions become more radical. Faced with the question: the stock exchange or life? Today one can say: I have always associated the stock exchange with life, now I realize that they are two different things. Another might say: I have always chosen the stock exchange, now I opt for life. This is a good opportunity to reconsider our hierarchy of values, meaning that we can reconsider what is valid for me within the tangle of emotions that animate my existence. In this sense, the restlessness and amazement that we are now so familiar with can take on a new connotation.

Read also - Magatti: "Hope that resists despair"

Can one be surprised in such a situation?
I wish! I think there is reasonable hope that this situation will surprise us. But what does "to be surprised" mean? It is another way of saying: to question ourselves. Better: surprise is the emotion we feel when we feel the impact of reality, to question ourselves is to project the surprise upwards. When we come out of this tunnel, I hope that we remain open to this surprise. That this ability will remain. But by the way, I was also struck by another passage from the letter.

Which one?
"If an individual were to barely live the impact with reality, because, for example, he had not had to struggle, he would scarcely possess a sense of his own consciousness, would be less aware of his reason’s energy and vibration”. I often repeat this to my patients, but it is true for everyone: in life you have to fall, cut your knees, it is the wound that makes us realize, that puts us in a position to recognize ourselves. We realize what freedom of movement is now that we are deprived of it. You can fall, then meet someone who "by chance" passes by and reaches out and helps you get up. Especially if you do it with "grace", I mean for free, expecting nothing in return. You may even be glad you fell.