When the Interpreter Weeps and Other Numinous Tales

Several years ago, I was conducting a psychological evaluation on a client while working for an agency. Some of the clients that I interviewed at this agency spoke no English, and therefore the agency utilized interpreters by speaker phone. In one particular case, while I was interviewing a non-English speaking man, I had an interpreter assisting me with the interview. An unusual thing about this interview was that part way through, while my client was telling his story, the interpreter began weeping loudly over the speaker phone. This has not happened to me before or since while utilizing professional interpreters. How do we as psychologists or psychotherapists respond to this type of event? In the language of Jungian psychology, such an event has the potential to be numinous, and in this case it was numinous because it produced a feeling of awe, or a feeling of being in the presence of the divine.

The interpreter did in fact soon volunteer that my client’s story of hardship moved her greatly. The three of us (me, my client, and the interpreter on the other end of the speaker phone) then paused briefly after the tears had stopped, and an interesting thing happened. A great therapeutic moment had just occurred. Although the primary purpose of my interview with my client was to gather information and to then write a psychological report, there was a greater agenda brewing below the surface. An incident that occurs outside of the realm of the ego, and one that acts as if it comes from a higher place, is another way of describing how the numinous can enter our lives. It was very clear after talking to my client further, that the interpreter’s tears were very important to hear for this man, and they were deeply meaningful to him on an emotional level. I’m doubtful that therapeutic interventions from me, or from another therapist for that matter, would have been as therapeutic as hearing the tears from a fellow countrywoman, and coming to him at just the right time while he was in a very far away and isolated place half-way around the world.

Most psychotherapists during the course of their work with people encounter similar, unusual events that end up being numinous for our clients. Carl Jung spoke often about the importance of numinosity, especially during the course of psychotherapy. Oftentimes in the profession of psychotherapy, numinous events become pivotal. As psychotherapists, we should be ready at all times to enter into the sometimes “messy” complex situations that can arise during the psychotherapy hour. These events may hold a grain of numinosity. Jung thought that there should be numinous experiences that occur during the course of any deep psychotherapy process. Rather than fear the unplanned, the messy, and complex situations that may be hard to recover from according to the ego’s perspective, we should embrace these situations.

Writing about this topic reminds me of a time when I was backpacking at the bottom of the deep canyon gorge of the Yellowstone River in Wyoming. It was early summer and the large, swollen, Yellowstone River at the bottom of the canyon was roaring, muddy, and filled with debris from the spring snow-melt. We were hiking on a trail along this river while carrying heavy back packs, and we came upon a smaller but also very swollen stream running perpendicular to the Yellowstone River that would soon empty into the Yellowstone. This second “stream” was about twelve feet across with a large boulder in the middle. The stream was too wild and deep to wade across so the only way across was to jump to a large rock in the middle of the stream, and to then jump from this boulder to the other side. Well, I jumped, missed the rock and was quickly swept away toward the roaring Yellowstone which was not far away. As I was swiftly carried downstream I looked up and ahead and saw one lone tree branch hanging over the river. This all happened in seconds, but I grabbed for the branch, caught it, and hand over hand, made my way to shore.

The question that I asked myself was this: If not for this sole branch, would I have survived once I reached the mighty Yellowstone? The way I see it, God, (or life, the higher Self, or whichever force greater than the ego that you prefer to use here) intervened at the last vital moment to give me a fighting chance. Like my interview with the non-English speaking client and the weeping interpreter, life can provide moments and opportunities at critical times to experience the numinous or possibly even to “save us.” In Jungian psychological terms, this deeper Self can help us to navigate through the intricate, complex, and messy situations that everyone encounters at various points in their life. Psychotherapists and clients both can learn to trust their own deeper Self on their journey through life. Perhaps there is a saving “branch” waiting for you right now?

© 2011, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

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