Love as Dialogue: A Conversation with Ili Walter

As Buber noted, we don’t know what will emerge when we engage in dialogue. We stand open to the mystery. between persons. Ili Walter was surprised in what emerged between her and her parents. A few years later, she decided to explore this “happening” in her doctoral study. Here she talks with me about love, courage and seeing the humanity of the other.

Ili Walter, Ph.D., LMFT is an Assistant Professor of MFT at Nyack College in NYC. You can find her website at https://familytherapybasics.com/ and join The Refreshed Therapist Network.

Janet StaufferComment
The Exquisite Dance of Giving and Receiving
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He was sitting on a blanket in my office floor surrounded by baby toys and building blocks. Mother handed him a bottle of milk and he drank. He picked up a toy handing it to mother. She received it. He picked up a block and reached out his little arm, another gift for her. She smiled as she accepted it, “Thank you Jose.” Jose beamed. His legs and arms pummeled the air with pleasure. 

I witnessed in those moments the exquisite dance of giving and receiving that brings us into personhood, that helps us be more human. We learn early in life that we will be given to and we experience our capacity to receive. Responsively, we give to another and learn its delight. The healthy dynamic between a parent and child orchestrates these dance movements in their varied forms across the life cycle. Inherent in living is a recognition we are owed something, and that we owe others too. Multiple challenges are braided into that knowing. How much do I owe my parent who gave me life? In this moment, do I have to stay and care for her or can I do what I want? Parents feel torn between over giving to children or not giving enough. Where is the rule book to guide us?

Manuels that detail how each part operates and when they turn on and off are for machines. Intrinsic in being human is the demand to write our own page. The page is never ours alone because we are who we are through the relationships with others. Early in life we are addressed by those who give us care and we respond. We begin to trust mother will be there with a smile when we offer our toy. We experience the delight of being seen and received by another as we engage them. Through these interactions we learn the ways to be fair and trustworthy. We learn emotional self-regulation and become securely attached to another. We learn that we are, we exist. We have meaning in life. We merit love and care. As do others. Together we engage the dance of living through relationships. 

And, at some point, the dance steps break down. One partner stumbles or misses a beat or doesn’t show up for the routine. We learn that parents are not always fair, at least in how we see our need. Eventually, we recognize we injure others as well. The reality is there is no perfect dance step. Like a good jazz number, the melody emerges as we are creatively attuned in the moment. 

Synchrony will ebb and flow. We move in and out of being present to self and others. We exist in the material world in time and space and it brings us back to function and concrete needs. Buber reminded us that too often we settle for function and objects, what we can consume, with tragic result. Too often, we miss the other, the moment of being fully present in the midst of addressing and responding, of giving and receiving. This is where real living is. This is the exquisite dance of giving and receiving that brings us into personhood, that helps us be more human.

Janet StaufferComment
Give Freedom to the Next Generation

I met Bob de Raadt at the International Conference for Contextual Therapy in the Netherlands. His daughter Dorianne de Raadt (author of this story) witnessed a beautiful bridge built between two women, one Jewish and one German. This moment of building trust amidst historical trauma frees children to not carry invisible burdens of their elders.  Thanks Bob and Dorianne!

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Three women are sitting in the backside on the square before the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. They are free of duty that morning and they spend some time to talk about God, especially on this place. Next to them, there’s a Jewish mother standing and praying. She takes time for her morning prayer.

She is there with her son, aged 1½ years old. While his mother is praying, he climbs on a chair behind his mother and jumps down on the floor. He climbs again on that chair and jumps a second time. One of the young women plays with the boy. She helps him on the chair, gives him a hand during jumping from the chair and plays another time with him. This goes on and on ……

The mother finished her prayers and she starts talking with the lady about her son and about their playing time. Then the mother asked the young lady: “Where are you coming from?” The young lady answers, “From Germany!” The Jewish mother is shattered by those words and she stops talking. Immediately she takes the arm of her son and rushes away, towards the Kotel ahead.

On the backside of the Kotel the three young ladies are confused about what happened. It takes a few minutes before the German lady makes up her mind and stands up, finding her way to the Jewish mother at the Kotel. The two other ladies starts praying for the Jewish mother and the German woman.

“Lady, did you lose members of your family during the Second World War (WW II)? Is that correct?” The Jewish lady says:  “Yes.” A dialogue is coming up. The German lady explains that she works in Germany in ‘March of Life’, an organisation with the purpose to connect Germany and Israel together. She asks forgiveness for what has happened during WWII, the Holocaust. The Jewish mother accepts her words, although she also comments that the young German lady is not the one that is to be charged.

“Why are you here in Israel?’, the mother asks. The German woman tells that she is working in Aleh Negev, as volunteer, an organisation for children with special needs in Israel. What a powerful message: the grandchildren of the Nazi’s taking care for the most vulnerable children of Holocaust survivors. That touches the Jewish mother. One of her daughters is disabled and lives in Aleh-Jerusalem. So things come together!

The Jewish mother reaches her hand to the young German lady and says: “Thank you!” Two Dutch young ladies are witnessing this tremendous meeting of two special worlds coming together. A moment of reconciliation and resilience.

Janet StaufferComment
The Risk

I was drawn to dialogue because I lived too much in a world of function. I was full of longing for deeper connection, for meaning. Yet, I paused a very long time. Function is “safer” where I can manage and guide outcome. Dialogue is full of risk.

So tell me how to do it. Give me a prescription that will make it work.

No, it is not possible. To prescribe dialogue negates its essence. Dialogue in the Buber and Contextual Therapy meaning is to come toward another as oneself, alive, open, aware, and present. And then to wait, ready to receive the other in who they are.

Dialogue is something that emerges when each is present to the other. It can’t be planned or willed, but it can be invited. We can live in ways that open us to its possibility. Buber said it is a grace. Like a butterfly that lights upon one in a most unsuspecting moment.

Why fuss with dialogue when it is ambiguous and risky? People are full of jagged edges. I don’t want to get caught. I want to maintain my finely manicured boundaries.

Because I can’t become fully me, without you. And you can’t become fully you without me. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it takes being there, engaged, being present with another to become real.

“The forces of the soul allow themselves to be measured only through one’s using them.” Martin Buber

Janet Stauffer
The Armor

When are you most free to really meet another person? Buber eloquently speaks of the armor we wear to protect ourselves and soon don’t even realize it is there. Rather than protecting us, the armor blocks us from life’s most precious gifts — to be addressed by another.

"The limits of the possibility of dialogue are the limits of awareness. Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive. But the risk is too dangerous for us, the soundless thunderings seem to threaten us with annihilation, and from generation to generation we perfect the defence apparatus…Each of us is encased in an armour which we soon, out of familiarity, no longer notice. There are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul to sensibility. …The signs of address are not something extraordinary, something that steps out of the order of things, they are just what goes on time and again . . . The waves of the aether roar on always, but for most of the time we have turned off our receivers. What occurs to me addresses me. In what occurs to me the world-happening addresses me. Only by sterilizing it, removing the seed of address from it, can I take what occurs to me as a part of the world-happening which does not refer to me" (Buber, 1965, pp. 10-11).

Janet Stauffer
Re-Action
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I arrived at the flight gate before 5:00 a.m. in time to hear the airline attendant announce mechanical failure and the flight had just been cancelled. We would be taken by bus to an airport several hours away. My revised flight meant an additional layover and of course, middle seats in the last rows of the plane.

Many hours later, I am ready to board my final flight and I am tired. In front of me are a group of college age males talking together about what they might find on the Pacific Beach and they weren’t looking for seals or shells. I felt my gut tighten in response to their conversation about women. I was most repelled by the shortest, loudest, tobacco chewing one in the group. I hope I don’t have to share the whole journey with this group, I thought.

The line moved forward. I stepped into the plane and walked the full aisle to the second to last row — middle seat. I settled in. I looked up as someone turned into the seat beside me. The young man I most resented in the line! How could it be. Four hours ahead of me. How will I survive?

He fell asleep as soon as the plane took off except for occasional spitting of tobacco juice into his coffee cup. In his oblivion he leaned over ever so lightly against me. My frustration from the day turned toward him. How dare he trespass on my allotted space. Then I remembered the words I had read that morning of the ancient mystic Julian of Norwich— that the goodness of God is deeper in me than my own flesh.

I realized I had a choice in that moment. I could be “against him”, define him as other, rebuke him from my world, push him away; or I could recognize that we were threads of the same cloth interwoven in this common space of humanity. I had resented the way he turned women into objects, only to discover I had turned him into an object as well. I could chose to be present to him - human to human, rather than reject him in our difference.

In this moment, I was being addressed. I hear an invitation. I had no choice in seat partner. I have a choice in my response. I can feed negative energy in the form of anger or resentment, or I can relax, freeing my energy for compassion and curiosity without abandoning genuine needs I have. What did he hold beneath the bravado? What wounds traced the contour of his soul? I sat in that space with him feeling compassion and care, recognizing that beneath the disturbances and messiness of each of our lives we share a common humanity. My welfare is connected to his welfare. Even without words, my energy shapes the space we share.

“The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates.” D.W. Winicott

Janet Stauffer