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When the Empty Chair Talks Back

Submitted by on September 4, 2012 – 4:09 pm2 Comments

Clint Eastwood’s 12-minute presentation at the Republican National Convention, speaking at times to an empty chair representing President Obama, brought back memories of the use of such a technique in counseling.  I still suggest from time to time, “If the person you have issues with were in the room, what would you say?”  Then, pulling out a chair, I suggest, “Go ahead and say it.”

There is more to this “empty chair” technique, though.  The next step is for the counselee to take the chair of the person to whom (s)he was talking and speak back.  This move gives the counselee an opportunity to walk in the shoes or, more to the picture, sit in the seat of the other and has the capacity to build a better sense of empathy and understanding.  The conversation can then continue back and forth, with the counselee moving from one chair to another.

In Eastwood’s speech, most of the conversation went only one way.  In that context I suppose that is what would be expected: to offer a polemic and give a speech of partisanship.  But in so doing, it poignantly demonstrated a crucial issue of our time:  connection to the other in order to understand the other—empathically sitting in his or her seat—is sorely lacking on our political scene and, often I am so sorry to say, on our theological scene.

Jonathan Moreno, son of the psychodramatist J.L. Moreno who likely invented this technique, makes this point eloquently in a New York Times opinion piece “What the Chair Could Have Told Clint”:

So Mr. Eastwood wasted an important educational and therapeutic moment from which our deadlocked political system could benefit:  putting himself in the role of the other person of whom he is critical and coming to understand that person’s point of view “from inside.” (New York Times, September 1, 2012, A19)

Coming to understand a person’s point of view from inside is a time-consuming task, and one that I really never expected last week from the Republican or this week from the Democratic conventions.  I certainly do not expect it from the candidates in what shapes up to be (and already has been) an ugly senatorial race here in Missouri.  And I am not optimistic that the presidential or vice-presidential debates will bring out this sense of empathy and understanding in the midst of such clear and important differences.  Working to understand the other does not mean agreeing; it does mean understanding.

I stand, therefore, collusive in the process.  If I do not expect it, do not work for it, and in my own relationships with people, behave in a similar way, I am fundamentally doing the Eastwood-thing.  When I do this I am conforming to the culture of the age.

Hmm.  I am preaching September 10 on “Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NAB)

I think I’ll pull out my own empty chair and begin to have conversations with folks with whom I disagree.  Or, better yet, perhaps we could just talk directly, and fulfill Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (Life Together) first task of the community: to listen to the other.  Maybe I’ll even grow, learn, and understand better.

And God’s Spirit will remind me that God did not speak to me in the form of an empty chair, but rather placed his Son in it on my behalf, and Jesus now speaks on my behalf before God.

2 Comments »

  • Andrew Bartelt says:

    Amen! Just had a conversation today about the importance of critical thinking, intellectual discipline, and the formative influences of an mind open to the other. That does not mean a loss or lack of holding to the truth, but it does offer a way of connecting that truth to others who may come at it from a different perspective. Meanwhile, the polarization in our culture and in our church will continue, with more and more empty chairs, and pews.

  • Don says:

    Here in the RMD we passed in convention a resolution which two sides have said says different things. I thought the desire to include traditional worship forms as a part of all district events somewhat natural. It seems though it has become a fight. I have become fond of saying, “explain everything in the kindest way” (8th commandment) One on One I see things that both camps want to fight for but I am not sure that the way we are fighting is of much help. I am intrigued by the progression empty chair, opponent, Jesus. Yet how to we put it into practice?

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