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Miracle on 34th Street: Irreverent Humanism

I watched the 1947 version of “A Miracle on 34th Street” for the first time last year. I know it is a north American holiday classic, and it might be surprising that I could be almost 50 years old and not have seen it. Despite growing up in a culture-junkie family, we didn’t watch it. In fact, I’m pretty sure we poo-pooed it. We were a staunchly atheist, modernist family, and I was temperamentally not unlike Susan, the little girl in the movie so beautifully played by Natalie Wood. No Santa Claus, no religion, no Gods (except science), no saviors, no believing in things you could not empirically prove. Just life as lived, scientifically and rationally, here on earth.

I was raised with an ethical, humanist understanding of what it means to be a responsible, caring human being in the world, and of how to conduct myself accordingly. I have always been very appreciative of that. It taught me to think critically, and to practice a kind of compassion and decency that I value greatly.

While I held those beliefs with the proper modernist amount of certitude and insolence, I also had a very deep connection to all things on earth – a deeply emotional, sensual connection – with people, with nations, with nature, with animals, with sounds and smells, with music, and with their connections to each other. I had an openness and sensitivity, and an optimism about what might be possible, that I could not account for with whatever level of scientific understanding I had at any given time in my life.

I am sure that all of those experiences and understandings contributed to my need to do something about the suffering in the world, and to my becoming an activist and a therapist.

Having grown [up] and expanded my world and my worldview, I now have people in my life of various spiritual and philosophical persuasions, and am, I think, less dogmatic. I am exploring a host of spiritual and philosophical teachings and practices. So, I thought I might enjoy this piece of Americana, without the usual cheekiness that I used to express for such things.

So, I watched Miracle on 34th Street. It was, as promised, quite a lovely mainstream and commercial serving of the message of Christmas. It was also to my surprise, radical — yes, radical. It made a strong and beautiful statement about the misguided, and often dehumanizing uses of labeling, and of knowing. I realize this may not be everyone’s reading of the story, or the intention of its author, but like most things radical of the past, it provides a helpful view into what happens today.

In the movie, Kris Kringle and his lovely working class co-worker Arthur are being diagnosed and treated for what are essentially their humanistic, loving, compassionate life choices. The person “treating” them, is Granville Sawyer, a self proclaimed psychologist, who is applying a formula for understanding human life in terms of knowing, in the form of labels and diagnoses. His value and his vocation, rest in what he knows. With this tool, he “knows” that things that Kris and Alfred say and do are abnormal and pathological, and in need of correction. He could easily fit their worldviews into a psychiatric diagnosis, and therefore, say with certainty that he knows that there is something wrong with them and what it is, and treat them for these ailments- with or without their consent – and so he did, all in the name of helping them.

While Mr. Sawyer is a particularly dislikable and troubled caricature of a helping professional, the methods he uses to “help” people, and the assumptions they rest on are still very much the standard way we relate to ourselves and our variations and troubles.

He demonstrates the need to turn expressions of humanity that fall outside the norm – including generosity and loving kindness — into a mental disorder and a person’s identity, which is still prevalent today among professionals and lay people.

With the mainstreaming of psychology has developed a startling shift in how people describe themselves and each other: “she’s bipolar”, “I’m ADD” “she has depression”. Psychotherapists of many persuasions readily categorize and label clients with emotional difficulties in one of the now 300+ disorders available to them in the bible of mental health treatment, the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, indicating that they know what is wrong, and how to treat it. These labels are offered and accepted as an explanation for the totality of who are person is, and as a way of helping the person who suffers.

Here is what I loved about the movie: Kris Kringle in a most radical fashion, an homage to the progressive, humanistic message of Jesus Christ, does a beautiful job of turning this moralistic, dangerous, dehumanizing judgementalism on it head, on behalf of loving kindness and human compassion:

 

In my practice, I see women and men who have unfriendly and hostile relationships to their emotions and their sensibilities. Often, it has to do with being sensitive to the suffering in the world, or to how people treat them, or with needing a level of kindness and intimacy with the people in their lives, or with pain they carry from something that happened to them. They think that they are too sensitive, and should just be able to withstand anything, without any emotional (human) vulnerability. They are convinced that their emotionality is problematic, and constitutes something wrong with them. They come to me hoping that I will somehow exorcise their emotions and sensitivities from them.

As I said, I have grown, so I no longer hit people on their heads when I find what they are doing dehumanizing or painful. Only a select group of people can get away with that. My analog to Kris’ bop on Sawyer’s head, is often a small question, like: “How do you know [you are too sensitive]?” I don’t hit them on the head; I create a conversation that turns how they think on its head. I create a kind of emotional-philosophical zone, and help people to cultivate gentle, compassionate, direct, and challenging curiosity that empowers them to create and build their lives, given who they are. I don’t give people answers. I help them to ask new questions.

Human beings are suffering in a myriad of ways, everywhere you look. We know all kinds of things, and still, we as a human community are in pain, and suffering. And, we do have emotional problems – on a mass scale.

So, what if the way we have come to understand ourselves – as knowers – does not help human suffering? When we think that we know everything, we stop growing. The dominant way we’re trained to understand ourselves is so ingrained that we literally don’t have the muscle to see beyond our own self- and societally imposed limitations. Questioning helps us to live, and to grow.

That is why I developed the Possiblity Practice. The Possibilty Practice is a place, and it is something you do. It is a place where you can develop the emotional-intellectual-social muscles you need to grow, and to live your life joyously in an ever-changing and uncertain world. The Possibility Practice helps you to slow down, and take a look at how you see; to unravel the assumptions you have – about yourself, about others, about your problems, and about the world – that prevent you from living life in creative and gratifying ways. What is helpful about that? In taking a look, in discovering how you see and think, you discover that there are other ways to see and live life, and that you can create them.

The way out of suffering, is to engage in a practice that helps to develop the ability to see anew, to ask new questions, cultivate curiosity, and create possibility.



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Karen Steinberg