Dr. Stephen L. Salter

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Stranger in the Waiting Room:

the infinite value of the other

Let's say you've made a habit of arriving at 10 minutes early for therapy. Maybe you grab a magazine or just relax and enjoy solitary reflection. But wait, there's one difficulty you keep forgetting; it's an interruption to your hiatus from the world. For the past 6 weeks, from 5 to 8 minutes before the therapy, a stranger has has been arriving, intruding on your space, in order to wait for his psychotherapist. Per usual, he takes a seat across from you, disheveled and with the aroma of cigarette smoke. Worse, he exhibits a harsh clearing of the throat every 10 to 12 seconds. You are repelled. Nevertheless, you decide to "make the best of it," and see if making contact with him might help him achieve a more pleasant demeanor. You give him a slight nod and say "hello." No response. As if you didn't exist. And he heard you. You're sure of that. Understandably, you are offended. You sigh and long for the solitude you had six weeks ago, before he began impinging on your space.

Stepping back for a moment, I'd like to ask what should be the relationship between these two strangers--or between any two otherwise unrelated individuals. In her 2011 book The Suffering Stranger, American philosopher and psychoanalyst Donna Orange suggests that each of us are profoundly connected to the other by way of our individual suffering. Orange adapts the work of the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas to address the question at hand-what is the nature of our relatedness to one another? It is through their suffering that we come to understand the infinite value of the other and furthermore that we are infinitely beholden to them.

It would follows that our unpleasant experience with the stranger should not influence the way we decide to act toward him. However difficult it may be to get beyond our initial repulsion, we become oriented by a far greater calling--our responsibility to a person of infinite value. Now, this is a remarkable claim. A stranger has stepped into your space, disrupted your tranquility, and then rudely ignored you. And then you are asked to privilege his internal world above your own?! Levinas makes such a position compelling through his argument that our essential being lies in our responsibility to the suffering other-that is, their suffering precedes all else that calls upon us.

How do we then understand the behavior of this stranger in the waiting room? Orange offers that we adopt what she calls a "hermeneutics of trust." Orange was profoundly struck by an insight from psychoanalyst Berndard Brandschaft, "Resistance is the attitude of heroes in the face of oppression." To use the stranger in the waiting room to illustrate this point, suppose he had refused your attempt at connection precisely because of how much he would like to connect. And his refusal was a pre-emptive precaution against feeling attached and (presumedly) rejected. For him, rejection has only been felt as catastrophic. So he is acting to protect a delicate part of himself. And his anxiety about his upcoming session likely makes the interaction all the more sensitive. One can see how a generous and empathic interpretation has the potential to transform the entire interaction.

Previous schools of psychotherapy lent themselves to what Orange calls a "hermeneutics of suspicion." With some exaggeration, a traditional psychoanalytic view would suggest the stranger is a seething cauldron of sexual and homicidal impulses. Not exactly someone you're gonna want to greet. More generally we find an attitude of suspicion and an indifference to the plight of others in most enclaves of our culture. It might be said we DO live in the Hobbesian world of "everyman against every man." "What's in it for me?" is the operative question. In fact, the lion-share of psychological literature bears the powerful stamp of "self-help", without careful thought as to how one's relationship to the "other" effects one's own well-being. Psychotherapy patients often recieve a general prohibition against interactions in the waiting room. Following Orange and Levinas, such a prohibition would guard against our coming to value what is most important.

Levinas and Orange understand their insight not as a simple matter of subjective taste, but an ethical reality of the highest calling. The study of ethics is traditionally removed from systematic psychological inquiries. Therefore, in a sense, Orange's work is revolutionary. Her understanding is nothing like moral dogmatism, and yet it cannot be disregarded. It is ripe for dialogue