A Grecian urn. Photo by Paul Curto via Flickr.

A Kiss is Not the End

Psychiatrist Giovanni Stanghellini reflects on the question, “Is there something that lasts forever?" A dialogue about experience, relationships, waiting, evil, and repetition. And the unexpected that “touches me concretely.”
Paola Bergamini

If you want, you can stay. I think there will be something interesting for you, too, in our conversation.” These are the words of Giovanni Stanghellini to his graduate students at the end of his lecture on Dynamic Phenomenological Psychotherapy. A psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and professor at the University of Chieti in Italy, Stanghellini did not indicate the topic of the conversation about to take place: the CL Fraternity Exercises. But almost all the students stayed.

“My first encounter with the thought of Fr. Giussani was about 10 years ago, in an exchange with Maila Quaglia, whom I met in a course at the University of Urbino.” This is a relationship that continues today: Stanghellini oversees professional development for the staff at the Nazarene Cooperative [Editor’s Note: A nonprofit serving people with psychiatric disorders], where Quaglia is one of the directors. “Since then, I have found many points of overlap with phenomenology, my field of work and study. One that is particularly important to me, which I spoke about recently at a conference at the University of Milan-Bicocca with Fr. Carrón himself, involves the word ‘experience.’ Experience is something that happens to me now, that touches my heart–the most sensitive aspect of our flesh–and by involving me, leads me to say: 'I am here.' It reveals my own presence to myself.” And “experience,” a very concrete word, comes up often in our conversation.

What is it that struck you about these Exercises?

First of all, the fact that they are “exercises,” in other words, a practice designed to turn a principle, an idea, into muscle, nerves, and flesh. You perform exercises in a way that can make what you practice into a habitus, a habit. And they are not “spiritual” in the abstract sense, but in that they relate to what animates all our actions. The first thing I understood is that there is a pragmatic aspect. You do exercises so that something, a principle, can become flesh.

Carrón speaks of work to be done, a journey.

I recently met him for the first time, and in the course of our conversation, I told him how struck I am by his pragmatism. He answered, “I am the son of a farmer!” I thought: well, there you go. I liked reading the texts. Let’s say I exercised my spirit; in other words, I completed the exercise of translating what I read into my own “language,” but at the same time encountered something that surpasses my “language.” Time will tell whether and how much I appropriated it as my own. Still, this is a kind of work that interests me.

Let’s begin with the title. Is there something that can withstand the test of time?

It’s paradoxical, but what withstands the test of time is history, which seems like the domain of contingency. Let me be clear about the terms. History means, first of all, the world and humanity. Being in history means perceiving oneself as part of a community. Today, considering how society feeds into conflict and prejudices regarding the other’s histories, this is more challenging. But my existence takes on meaning when it is part of the human story, and this becomes an urgent question when something bad happens: how can this inhuman thing be part of my humanity? Second, history means stitching an episode that has happened into my personal history, endowing it, along with other events, with meaning, so that they are all united by a common thread. The problem is when we recognize a repetition of events in our history, usually a repetition of events connected to evil. I find myself in the same situation of being limited, which involves a kind of trauma, or of experiencing the same failed relationship. This shakes me up.

Why do you say especially events connected to evil?

They are what most awaken our awareness.

And if the events involve a pleasant surprise?

That means there is no repetition; therefore, the events involve an experience. It is the unexpected to which Carrón refers and that touches me concretely.

Does it require the person, the subject, to make a “move”?

Of course. That move is a kind of “conversion”–this term, too, needs to be properly understood.

Does it involve the movement of a person’s freedom to decide?

It involves the possibility for you to look at the repetition in your history from a different perspective. To see this repetition not as the result of a malicious kind of fate, but rather the effect of a personal disposition that I have not yet been able to recognize, to bring into focus. It is a movement from thinking I am the victim of a malicious fate to thinking that there is something within me, in my habitus, my otherness. Something has to give.

And something external is needed to trigger this?

Two conditions are necessary: you have to feel really bad and have someone beside you who, with courtesy, tact, and good grace, makes you look at your condition from a different perspective. Plato says we see ourselves reflected in the pupil of a friend: that friend who makes himself available and is capable of reflecting you to yourself without what you see seeming so painful that you want to run away.

This is what Carrón calls the “encounter with the other.”

There are two kinds of encounters. The first is what we just described: a friend is like a “gracious mirror.” The second is when the other does not help me recognize myself, but rather overturns all my habits with no intention of helping me see myself. This happens with people who have a desire that differs from mine, a sense of time that differs from mine. This is the experience that causes us the most suffering: my sense of time does not line up with that of the other.

Could you give an example?

I would like to watch a movie, but my wife wants to clear the table. This experience of being “out of sync” causes pain at an everyday level. But it can really become disturbing, in the positive sense of the term, when I recognize that the other has a right to live her own sense of time. This is another kind of encounter. Let us be clear: it is not that my wife wants to clear the table so I can become aware that my sense of time is different than hers. She wants to clear the table, period. But this kind of “semitraumatic” encounter is what reveals to me, on the one hand, the other’s sense of time and right to have this sense, and on the other hand my own. This is a way of defining our human condition. Realizing this is exhilarating.

It seems like a good “exercise” we are doing. What else struck you in the text of the Exercises?

I could make a long list. Here is another: taking one’s own discomforts, vulnerability, and “symptoms” seriously. The terminology Carrón uses is very familiar to those in my line of work. It is thinking–and this is the first definition of what we called “conversion”–of your symptom as your greatest ally when you want to understand yourself, acknowledging that your symptoms carry the power to reveal you to yourself. An example: if I have a phobia about trains and I have to take one to get to work, I have to come to terms with it. Instead, in our culture, symptoms are seen as impediments to fulfilling our plans, so we want to eliminate them. But if I eliminate this symptom, another will appear. I have to acknowledge my symptoms in order to understand the meaning of my existence. First this acknowledgement and then the rest follows. And there is another term that strikes me.

Which is?

“Restlessness,” which has two faces. In its negative form it means not being able to be constant in committing to a project. It is living the instant satisfaction of my needs under the banner of spontaneity. But restlessness is not just this; in a positive sense, it is aspiring to something greater, being oriented to transcendence and not being satisfied with what is already known. When our consciousness is driven by an insatiable desire for repetition, to find the similarity in everything we encounter, we lose sight of reality and the individuality of others; we settle. Restlessness is that state of the soul that keeps you from settling.

Positive, therefore, because it opens you up. You may be surprised.

Exactly. Restlessness is a precarious balance, but existence itself is a precarious balance. If you are not hanging in this balance, you cannot move forward. Restlessness is the emotional hinge of existence: on one side it points to the negativity of never being satisfied and it makes you live life as fragmented moments involving a continual change of direction and plans; on the other, it offers you the possibility of looking at the essence of another person, his otherness. The fundamental ethical question, then, is how to remain in this precarious balance.

And how do you do this?

Those with faith do it through faith, which is naturally related to restlessness. For the rest, some may think they can manage to remain in this restlessness without faith.

Is that possible?

I will not be the one to give an answer. In religious terms, you could say it would be living in an eternal advent.

Of waiting, in that sense?

Yes. Always awaiting fulfillment.

And if fulfillment comes? Like that “beautiful day” Camus speaks of…?

If the beautiful day comes, it is all the more beautiful if it is renewed every day. I would happily give away a fulfillment that is not constantly renewed and instead keep my restlessness.

Which is like an open window.

Yes, and the drafts can come in, so you can catch cold or get a stiff neck.

Let’s go back to that “forever,” at the beginning of the conversation.

You could say that the “forever” we all long for–think of the phrase “I will love you forever”–is threatened from one side by spontaneity and from the other by the timelessness of eternity. Dante describes hell as “that dark air untinted by a dawn.” In the midst of it all is the event: something that is always on the verge of being fulfilled. Once fulfilled, it withdraws and is fulfilled again. This constitutes the “forever.”

People often talk about the restlessness of young people, but put this way it makes me want to say that I hope to be restless up to my last breath.

I talk about this in two of my books: Lost in Dialogue and L’amore che cura (The love that heals). Restlessness is also that state that goes along with a shapeless view of things, before they take a definite form. And I would add that this is another reason restlessness is intolerable.

Because it does not allow us to see?

The opposite: because it shows us what comes before the form. Think of the dynamics of a relationship: the other person takes on a form the moment I think I know him or her. This allows me to settle in. Before getting to know her or putting her in a particular category, I am in a restless state, especially if I want to meet her, if I am interested, but I am still not able to categorize her.

Is that what allows you to discover the other?

It is the necessary condition to discovering the other. Lévinas used to say, “The face of the other is infinite.” It does not mean that it is shapeless, that it is not beautiful. A relationship is not something that fixes the features of a face, but in giving itself over time, it reveals different forms of that face. And this can be disconcerting, but in a good sense.

Let’s go back to that “advent,” to that waiting for the event to happen, for it to it come again.

I would like to always live this advent. That is one of the reasons for this dialogue. Why are you interviewing me? It is an encounter. That it come, an advent…we are always at that level.

Is that related to faith?

Faith is this advent; I would define “faith” as this experience of advent. That is how it is for me.

And this is Christianity?

I do not know, but I would very much like Christianity to be this. I find myself at home with Christians for whom faith is the experience of advent, and so I got along well with Carrón. And before that, I was struck reading Giussani, whom I met through the witnesses of those who knew him either directly or indirectly. Today, I met you. In those Christians with whom I get along well, the event becomes flesh. Or better, the advent of that event becomes flesh. I have an affinity for what is there one moment before. As John Keats, an English poet who died before “kissing” life, before kissing his beloved, wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn, which describes two young people on the verge of kissing: “Never, never canst thou kiss.” That involves the same theme of advent.

Yes, but when it does come, it fills your life and your heart.

It makes me very happy to hear you say so. Very happy. It makes me happy when someone tells me that.

It comes to meet you as Giussani and Carrón describe. I would describe it as time bursting open. You can kiss your beloved and it is not the end.

And the kiss is not the end. It is an experience, one that touches your heart...