The Juiciest Tomato
This screen print was created in 1964, by Sister Corita Kent, an American nun who produced dazzling Pop Art, much to the displeasure of Los Angeles’ archbishop, Cardinal McIntyre, who saw her appropriation of advertising slogans combined with biblical references, (in this piece, she compares the Virgin Mary to the “juiciest tomato of all”) as sacrilegious.
Sister Corita’s work may not seem particularly radical today but at the time, she was an innovator, even a rebel. To understand her, we have to see her in context, in her own political, social and cultural surroundings. The same goes for clients.
Occasionally clients say that they are looking for a therapist who has been through what they have been through. They ask me if I have ever been an addict, or depressed, or whatever it is they are facing. They wonder if I can only grasp their experience if we share some of the same context, if I too have ‘been there.’
Aside from the obvious problem that I cannot possibly have experienced everything my clients have, there is the far more profound problem that I am not my client.
In fact, if I have gone through something similar to my client, there is the potential for this to be a hindrance. It could interfere with my ability to start afresh as I listen to their story, to lay my assumptions aside and to contemplate, notice and truly hear what that client needs to say about their own unique, sacred experience of suffering. Carl Rogers, the psychologist who developed person-centred counselling, said “experience is, for me, the highest authority.” He meant that a person’s lived reality is their only source of truth about that reality. We each respond to the world as we experience it, which explains why siblings in the same family can offer wildly differing accounts of their childhood, or why being made redundant is the start of a breakdown for one client, and a mere bump in the road for another. Our existence is entirely subjective, and it is the job of the counsellor to get as close as possible to her client’s lived experience, to walk alongside him, so that she can grasp what this situation, or feeling, or person means to that client, and only to that client. That is why Rogers named empathy as one of the three core conditions vital to successful therapeutic work.
A doctor does not need to have had a broken leg to know how to mend one. My job is to be empathic and attuned to each moment of my client’s experience. That way, in Corita Kent’s words, “the energy of that moment will spread beyond all boundaries.”