Published On: Tue, Jul 28th, 2015

Bernie Kastner: Uncomfortable Encounters

Bernie Kastner 1I am a fan of nostalgia. It brings out in me strong feelings of sentimentality. At 58, I have accumulated a wide array of benchmark memories ranging from the youthful celebration of a little league championship at age twelve to the incomprehensible agony at age forty-six of losing a child to an illness. I was never shy to delve back into my past and relive special, painful, and rather mundane moments. Many people easily remember details of a particular romance or an excruciatingly embarrassing moment at school or at work that took place long ago. Although I admit that I probably would like to forget some of my own uncomfortable encounters, they actually make good stories for the grandchildren. On a more serious note, though, over the years I have come to appreciate that facing our past head-on can help toward learning one or more of life’s lessons.

However, coming to terms with an aspect of one’s past is not necessarily easy to achieve. Two Jewish concepts come to mind in this context. The first has to do with staying clear of reminding a baal teshuva of certain aspects of his/her past. The second equates the act of embarrassing someone (in public) to murder.

I was never a good history student, in fact, it elicits within me the lyrics of the Sam Cooke song entitled Wonderful World – “don’t know much about history…don’t know much about geography…” However, I always had a soft spot for keeping the past alive. Notwithstanding the two concepts mentioned above and given this penchant for drawing upon my own past, I am probably guilty of betrayal because ironically in my counseling practice I try to keep my clients focused on the present with an eye toward the future, thus spending less time on what was. Nonetheless, deep down on a personal level, I cannot help but look back and try to recapture moments worth bringing into the present.

My experience on the road toward bringing worthy memories from the past into the present was paved with some surprisingly hurtful responses. On a number of occasions, I tried to re-connect via Facebook with some old classmates from elementary school. One memo that I sent was met with indignation as if “what was I thinking” to burst into their blissful lives happily oblivious to their distant past history. One person, with whom I distinctly remember playing touch football on a daily basis over the course of a number of consecutive summers on E. 55th street in Brooklyn, wrote to me in capital letters “DON’T YOU EVER CONTACT ME AGAIN – I DON’T KNOW YOU!” How sad to be in such denial. It wasn’t as if we had a fight or anything like that. Apparently, he felt uncomfortable with someone popping up in his life 45 years later and reminding him of the touchdown pass he threw to me to win a game way back then. Or was it the perfect touchdown pass I threw to him that he dropped leading to losing? Goodness gracious, if I remembered that, what other skeletons was I going to pluck out of my memory bank? So he’s thinking “better to make believe not knowing this guy”.

Let us now elevate the uncomfortable encounter to the possibility of a therapist meeting up with a former psychotherapy client in the neighborhood supermarket or at a wedding. Certainly, these encounters are minimized if one does not practice in the community in which he or she lives. However, they reportedly occur frequently enough to be noticed. Clients of mental health professionals who may unexpectedly meet in the public sphere may feel vulnerable because undoubtedly intimate details of their lives were exposed in session, and now it may feel as if these details appear all over their foreheads to be seen all over again.

It is true that for the most part, on a cognitive level, clients know that they could trust their therapist to be discreet. In fact, many therapists take the time to discuss with their clients what measures to take when and if they unexpectedly encounter one another at a public gathering. Is it grounds for avoidance at all cost? Is a quick acknowledging smile acceptable? Or perhaps acting normally as one would with anyone else is the solution?

Bottom line – it is always a good idea to be prepared for any eventuality by anticipating situations that we may encounter, and then, while keeping our own personal interests in check, figure out how we ought to behave. We increase our chances of acting in the most favorable manner possible by a show of empathy to those who are especially vulnerable, and by giving the benefit of the doubt.

Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist and author. His latest book, Back to the Afterlife, uncovers the mysteries of what happens to us next.

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