VINCENT VAN GOGH ONCE WROTE OF HIS FATHER with whom he had more than one verbal altercation while living under the same roof, “I seem to detect in Father proofs . . . of his really being unable to follow me when I try to explain something to him. He clings to a part of what I say, which becomes incorrect when one tears it from its context. This may have more than one cause, but assuredly it is largely the fault of old age” (CL 347).
Old age aside, rather than decrying his father’s inability to follow what Vincent attempted to explain to him, suppose Vincent instead had inquired of his father: “What is it like for you when I’m conversing with you, and you with me?”
Had Vincent posed such a question without accusation or rejoinder, his father might have taken pause, even pleasure, in reflecting with Vincent about his son’s wish to be better understood. By entering his father’s frame of reference, Vincent may have learned something important about his father as well as about himself.
Vincent’s retorts were often if not always rigid, forceful, and argumentative, thus hard to bear, especially when his precipitous outbursts of rage interrupted the flow of communication, as happened in relation to his father, his brother Theo, and others who kept his company.
The devilish truth was that neither father nor son knew how best to attune emotionally to the other’s presence and thereby offer sufficient mutual affirmation and validation to avoid struggling so intensely with each other’s spirit. It was less demanding yet far less productive for them to remain outwardly defensive by shadowboxing rather than moving inwardly with empathy and sensitivity toward each other’s experienced reality. But, then, how to begin?
Seeking meaningful engagement with a wounded soul who is in pain and suffering warrants close observation of the sufferer’s face, eyes, and voice. For in the visage one can “follow” the contours of distress or, conversely, the expressions of relief that emerge from within.
Affect is key. By analogy, affect is to speech as music is to the lyrics of a song, either concordant or discordant with the content of the words. In human relationships “empathic attunement”* is essential for discerning in the moment of encounter the other person’s state of mind, heart, and soul.
When a ray of light suddenly breaks forth from a person’s prison of gloom, darkness, or distress, thanks to feeling profoundly understood, that ray appears in the face, the eyes and the tone of voice. What frequently occasions it is the very thing that Vincent craved most of all for himself yet found inordinately difficult to grant to his father. In Vincent’s own words: “to follow me when I try to explain something.” That is, to offer powers of undivided attention, of careful observation and deep listening.
The face, the eyes, and the tone of voice comprise the canvas upon which the soul paints its pictures of what is essential for a personal acknowledgment to result in the feeling of being genuinely understood.
Especially is this true, as it was between Vincent and his father, when things heated up to the point where Vincent summarily declared to his father: “Pa, here I am faced by your self-righteousness, which was and is fatal, for you as well as for me.” Whereupon his father instantly retorted: “Do you expect me to kneel before you?”
That was clearly a point at which the train of empathy — “follow me when I try to explain something” — had fallen off the track.
—Which serves to underscore the fact that one of the profoundest gifts a person can give another is to attend with undivided attention, careful observation, and deep listening for the sake of reaching the moment of real understanding.
*A concept employed by the late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut
© Copyright, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved
Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).