Being human means being in the world with one another. It also means being in time. The present dominates everyday life, enmeshing and engaging us in a complex medium full of things, events, other people, activities, settings, and so on. The present exceeds our ability fully to come to grips with it. Besides, the individual’s temporal horizon always overflows its bounds; past and future intrude on his interpretation of the present. Each person’s interpretive framework is shaped largely by the sociocultural context into which he is born and his individual history. But life leans into a future of potential, uncertainty, and eventually death: this future horizon beyond experience also shapes the way an individual interprets the present.
The medium in which we live day to day isn’t just an array of raw stuff. Human culture and a multitude of individual conscious agents organize the stuff, linking it structurally and dynamically into meaningful patterns that extend across the world. It’s like an extremely complex verbal and nonverbal language spoken by the world. The individual can never master this language because he is embedded in it, part of its grammar and syntax. The individual can become partly aware of the language that speaks him — the norms, expectations, social interactions, and behavior patterns that shape his life. Most often this awareness results from a glitch, a kind of structural anomaly revealed when the individual finds himself out of sync with the medium he lives in. Traces of the anomaly may register as an emotional or behavioral reaction that clashes with the world and that is not immediately available to conscious understanding or verbalization. The client’s individual reaction is like a finger pointing to the world. The analyst’s job is to follow the pointing finger back to the anomaly that triggered the client’s reaction, bringing it into awareness.
The past shapes the present. Instincts that had survival value to our forebears in the evolutionary environment may or may not prove adaptive in the contemporary world. Our perceptions and understanding are shaped by the particular time and place we were born into, equipping us with a shared interpretive framework that seems like “second nature” to us. Each person’s individual history and experiences also influence the ways he interprets subsequent events, resulting in idiosyncracies in the framework that are persistent and unique but that can also be stereotypic, repetitive, inflexible. Battles fought in the past can leave scars, and the psychological battlements survive in the form of frequently-rehearsed and ritualized personal “creeds” by which we explain to ourselves why things are the way they are. The analyst, by aligning his horizon with the client’s, can expose components of the client’s interpretive framework that he carries with him from the past. By leading this joint exploration in an interpersonal context of trust and care, the therapist can help the client loosen up his framework, making it possible to experiment with alternatives.
The future also shapes the present. There’s a forward lean to life, a sense that events are always in the process of unfolding. The void looms before us, beckoning us toward the protean emptiness that is also the wellspring of pure potential. Desires and interests push us in uncertain directions toward unknown ends. Ideas are taking shape; we can’t quite grasp things; we search for the right words; awareness is dawning but hasn’t arrived yet. We have an “aha” experience – or an “oh no” experience. What does it mean? We have no words because we have no understanding – yet. The therapist can help the client bring events to their resolution, transforming ambiguity into an awareness that can nudge or totally reshape the client’s interpretive framework.
The ways in which we interpret the world, other people, and ourselves are to a large extent unavailable to our conscious awareness. We may have repressed some of it, pushing it deep underground where it lurks like a malignancy until the therapist, like a surgeon inserting some sort of psychoscope into the client’s subconscious, illuminates it and burns it away. But for the most part our interpretive process is so rapid and automatic that we aren’t even aware we’re doing it. It’s implicit; it’s “second nature;” it “goes without saying.” Because we exercise our personal hermeneutic outside of conscious awareness we can’t think about it, talk about it, evaluate it. Through conversation, through the gradual alignment of interpretive horizons, through triangulating on the world together, the therapist and the client can make at least part of the client’s interpretive framework available for conscious consideration. Once it’s out in the open, the framework becomes subject to change.