AUTHORING THE ACTION SCRIPT
Clients come for therapy as something in their present circumstance has become unbearable for them. Trauma and grief induced by bereavement, loneliness, terminal illness, past constraints, suicidal tendencies, sexual abuse, psychotic manifestations and so forth are a few amongst the concerns they bring. Client’s perception of the insurmountability of their feelings hinders their state preservation hence they seek help. Jean-Paul Sartre states that ‘The situation alone does not cause the revolution; it is the situation regarded as unbearable which causes it – that is, which becomes its motive.’ What precisely make these clients attain reparation through therapy?
Traditional formulations consign such a question to the obvious; either something has to change in the client’s environment i.e. on going oppression such as rape, abuse, violence, bullying etc. need to cease forthwith or client’s interpretation about the way they perceive life, in spite of environmental subjection, need to change, a classic example being Dr. Viktor Frankl’s experience of meaning creation in the concentration camp in spite of contemptible degradation. The least common denominator in both cases is ‘change’, either change in client’s oppression or change in client’s perception and feelings of enslavement due to this oppression. It may be impracticable to change client’s situation such as terminal illness, bereavement, past sexual abuse, loss of limb etc. but it is possible to choose one’s response to this trauma.
The hindrance in client’s perception about their life is their intransigent belief about lack of choice, lack of freedom and unawareness about their capacity to influence or act to effectuate a change in their circumstances. To change therefore, needs a perception shift and responsibility is one such inducement to invoke this shift. Clients must become aware that ‘they’ and ‘only they’ are the responsible agents for their distress. Other inducements to effect change are, client’s understanding about the presence of freedom that provides fuel to their wish and motive which aids decision and which in turn excites will/action. All these are inextricably intertwined and constitute imperatives for change.
ACTION AND INTENTION
Action is defined as the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim. It is also defined as bringing about of an alteration by force or through a natural agency. For example, Robert is attending a lecture and keeps sketching with a pencil on his book. Neither is his attention fully assigned upon the lecture nor invested gainfully in sketching, as there is no intention to bring the sketch to fruition. Sketching here appears to be a random act, perhaps distraction. Would this sketching be construed as action, after all it is bringing about an alteration through a natural agency as well as it seems to be a process of doing something?
Sartre states, ‘Action is on principle intentional.’ If viewed from this aperture, when Robert is inattentive to both, the lecture and sketching, he is not a constituter of action as it is bereft of intention. As implied by Sartre, intention is an essential ingredient for action. Can there incontrovertibly be no action without intention? Take Sartre’s example, a smoker carelessly throws away a cigarette and causes explosion of a powder magazine by negligence. Sartre, states that the smoker has not acted because there is absence of intent but in my view he did act and it is his action that caused the explosion however his action was unintended hence it is an accident but as we will see, this unintentional action has no therapeutic serviceability.
Sartre provides a contrasting example; if a worker in charge of dynamiting a quarry, who, upon receiving an order, obeys it, then he has acted. This means that he has intentionally realized a conscious project. What if, upon revisiting his arbitrary sketch, Robert serendipitously finds that he has real talent to be a sketch artist and consciously decides to sketch? Now intention has crept into his demeanour hence his sketching is construed as action. Even if he doesn’t want to be a sketch artist but consciously sketches for experimentation there is intention and hence it is action. As stated by Cox (2006), ‘The defining characteristic of an action, as distinct from a mere accidental act, is intention.’
This is of momentous significance from the standpoint of clients realizing their intention to affect a positive state. The idea of therapy is to make the client invoke in themselves, through reflective thinking, a change in their perception and worldview. The therapist begets this by a phenomenological examination of client’s values, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and convictions thereby arriving at a co-constituted content that is available for client’s reflection. This ‘need to change’ may initially lie latent in the client hence the despair, which the client is incarcerated in, but once awareness is heightened, the need to change becomes a conscious project for the client. For change to happen, conscious intent is a pre-requisite however conscious intent is just not enough to consummate a project. It also needs action and we will delineate this in the further sections. This doesn’t mean one is insensitive to client’s way of being, nor does it imply that in every therapeutic endeavour one professes action centricity.
CAN INACTION BE CONSTRUED AS ACTION?
Let us take this thought a little further to examine its variances. Can there be intention without action? Suppose Larry and Wayne fiercely hate each other. Larry is asthmatic and always needs his inhaler. Wayne knows about this. Both of them happen to be in the waiting room at a train station. Larry forgets his inhaler on the coffee table, goes to the toilet and has an attack of asthma and screams for his inhaler. Wayne intentionally refuses to act. Larry collapses and dies. In this case, Wayne appears not to have acted but his intention was to bring about Larry’s death by withholding help. Can we say that Wayne just had a motive but didn’t act? Yalom (1980) states that action has 2 sides, the presence of action and its obverse, the absence of action. He states that by not acting in habitual fashion, not over eating, not exploiting others, not being dishonest- may be a major action indeed.’ Riding on the coat tails of Yalom’s construct, Wayne, by not-helping Larry, in fact acted with intention and brought to fruition his conscious project. His motive however wasn’t premeditated, the situation just fortuitously developed into an opportunity for him.
The converse however i.e. ‘acting without motive’ is inconceivable and as Sartre states, ‘It is impossible to find an act without a motive but this does not mean we must conclude that the motive causes the act; the motive is an integral part of the act. One can clerically outrage this argument by saying that the man who carelessly threw the cigarette and caused the explosion did act without motive but the idea is not to debunk specific propositions. From a therapeutic parlance, clients do not take action without motive. The action that I mean here is not rudimentary day-to-day spontaneous action rather action which is comingled with intention and motive that becomes a conscious project for the client. Wayne’s motive (in the above inhaler example) induced him to ‘not-help’ that is categorized under the action rubric ‘absence of action’. Larry died due to his own forgetfulness and a coincidentally timed asthma attack but he could have been saved had Wayne acted, categorized under the action rubric ‘presence of action’. Hence inaction is also in a way action and when clients don’t take action, it means they inattentively have chosen to stay the same.
We have built up our logic thus far supporting the expediency of action towards effecting a change but let us explore whether action is a precondition for change.
IS ACTION A PRE-REQUISITE FOR CHANGE?
Mary Warnock (1965) presents an interesting construct, ‘Without consciousness as consciousness of ‘something to be done’ there would be no action, since there would be no motive. A state of affairs cannot be a motive.’ Mary has brilliantly presented the example of ‘cold condition’ and I have extrapolated this analogy to highlight the immensity of agency & responsibility.
I could lie in bed cold and if I get up to switch on the radiator, it may be perceived that it is the cold which was my motive for doing so but the cold by itself cannot galvanise me into action rather the cold has merely provided me a stimuli thereby invoking within me a passive acknowledgement of it. This, I feel is an important needed first step, as without client’s realizing that they are in distress or depression or some negative state, they live as if this is how things are and without reflective consciousness, may live their entire life this way, which Sartre calls bad faith. There is no motivation to change if one believes that there is no freedom. Warnock has aptly captioned this emphasis as, ‘Freedom is a condition without which action cannot take place.’
Next, my awareness about the cold exists, but I must now realize that this cold is something that needs to be overcome and that there is a better position to attain for instance warmth or heat. This reinforces my motive to take action. Note, nothing has changed as no action has been taken yet; hence everything is still in the conceptualization phase.
Next, I must realize that I am the responsible agent to change my condition of cold and this strengthens my motive. If the client feels that external circumstances cause distress and that one has no control over it, there is no actuation to change. This I feel is another important aspect of change i.e. awareness about one’s responsibility.
Finally if all the above conditions are met, then I get up from my bed and switch on the radiator, this is now construed as action.
Action therefore is a pre-requisite for change. In this example of cold, we don’t think so much about the procedure, we just take action but this spontaneity and action centricity is missing when clients accost distress or anxiety. Why, because the principal impediments to action are client’s perception about lack of freedom, not owning up responsibility for their condition and lack of intention. Cooper (2003) suggests that people defend themselves against the anxiety of freedom and avoid choosing by becoming apathetic, procrastinating, believing in the ultimate rescuer, behaving in a fixed way etc.
WHY DON’T WE TAKE RESPONSIBILITY?
Because of whom did we formatively learn to abnegate responsibility? As kids, each time we attempted something impulsive or out of the ordinary, our parents, relatives, friends, schools, and our community stifled our will and enterprise, not with malicious intent but due to their own limited awareness, which over time instilled an avoidant stance in us. Our impulse enactments were prohibited so that we become civilized. With systematic conditioning we embraced extraordinary conformity and etiquette to be part of a group. I feel, we as a society, condition our kids with our doctrinaire approach that is responsible for a child living the world either passively or actively i.e. able to engage and embrace change, take risks etc.
The blog is an attempt to understand the etiology of change and amongst myriad constituents such as freedom, responsibility, choice, intention, motive, decision etc., it has focused upon ‘significance of action’ in accomplishing one’s fundamental projects. Dostoyevsky said, ‘If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.’ The essence of this line for me is the implied attitude of attribution, i.e. clients attributing their distress, anxiety, etc. to an outside agency, perhaps to the ultimate rescuer to whom they have relinquished their responsibility, decision making and action thereby absolving themselves of the onerous task of becoming the chief architect of their own destiny and assuming authorship of one’s life.
If God or outside agency didn’t exist, clients would be forced to hold the reins of their own life and take action. Heightening client’s awareness about the possibilities of future as against remaining stuck with past constraints is important. The significance of action and change in establishing authorship of one’s own life’s script is within clinical interest.