As America prays for the recovery of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, other victims of the Arizona shooting, and the families of those who died, every person has a role to play creating a society where children such as 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green do not have their lives stolen by deadly violence. Thirty-five years ago, Virginia Satir offered guidance that should be central to the global search for answers.
“The world is a dangerous place; not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing…”
by Seth Eisenberg and Sharon Loeschen, MSW, LCSW
Thirty-five years ago in her book, Making Contact, Virginia Satir was intensely focused on preparing counselors, therapists, clergy and others to recognize early consequences of the epidemic of relationship breakdown undermining the fabric of homes and communities throughout the world.
Satir, a pioneer of the field of marriage and family therapy, summed up an urgent goal of work that led to her enduring reputation as a preeminent expert on the human condition and universal yearnings.
“The greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and to touch another person. When this is done I feel contact has been made.”
~ Virginia Satir
Making Contact, 1976
Satir certainly recognized that there is evil in the world. Like many others, she would have seen it in the face of Aisha, the gentle 18-year-old Afghan woman featured on the cover of Time, her nose and ears cut off as punishment for fleeing abusive in-laws. She would have seen it in stories of adults who usurp the dreams and lives of children by raising them to hate and kill.
But Satir also understood the difference between evil and those who become so hijacked by the confusing turmoil of their own emotions (which can lead to mental illness) that they lose touch with the parts of the brain that nurture, think rationally, and act on behalf of once cherished dreams. In that state, a person can irrationally believe survival is at stake and make choices that destroy their lives and others.
That understanding is neither an excuse nor encouragement not to hold adults responsible for actions that harm the lives of others. But it is a plea to recognize that empowering people to make contact with themselves and others is an urgent priority. Today, as we grieve victims of violence in Tucson, Omaha, Panama City, Princeton, Rutgers and elsewhere, Satir’s teachings are lessons that should be central to the global search for answers.
In America and throughout the world, it must be safe for elected officials to connect with the people they represent in grocery stores, classrooms and convention halls, just as it must be safe for others to fall in love, share affections, beliefs, and dreams without fear of persecution, abuse, or violence.
Conflict and differences are not new to society. From the earliest stories of civilization, conflict has been part of the natural condition of life. From a spiritual perspective, grappling with those challenges and choosing the meaning of our lives may be its very purpose. So much of the struggle that shapes and defines each of us takes place in the arena of our closest relationships. For many, the field that promotes our personal growth is a marriage, family, or other long-term relationship. For others, it occurs within neighborhoods, schools, athletic fields, offices, and places of worship.
Three and a half decades after Satir urged making contact as a human priority, we live in a world in which the seeds of conflict are planted, cultivated, played out, and forever memorialized in a connected world in which boundaries and distance disappear as quickly as we can refresh a page. What’s also new is that within that world, the illusion of friends and connections measured in numbers, images, and updates seemingly void of humanity can appear to replace the meaning of conversations and actions that come from truly being seen, embraced, and witnessed by another person.
That is part of the common theme in the background of pain played out to deadly ends before worldwide audiences: heinous expressions of the yearning to be heard, seen, and understood. In each of these horrific, tragic events, early warning signs expressed online did not get the attention that could have saved lives.
For Gabe Zimmerman, John Roll, Christina Taylor Green, Vicki Kaspar, and others whose lives were stolen since the start of 2011, this must be a year in which we actively reach out to hear and make contact with each other. Not just virtually, but literally, personally, and humanely.
Each of us has the ability to help prevent emotional turmoil from imploding or exploding and to instead naturally recede within the comfort of a witness who sees, hears, and brings the safety needed to think rationally. From that place, few people hurt themselves or others.
That is the message of Making Contact and a lasting legacy of the life of Virginia Satir. It is wisdom to help us create a better future, a fitting tribute to those whose deaths must now inspire the work of our lives.
Sharon Loeschen, MSW, LCSW, is the author of The Satir Process and President of The Virginia Satir Global Network. Seth Eisenberg is President of PAIRS Foundation, an industry leader in relationship and marriage education.