The play’s the thing (William Shakespeare)

Amaka Umeh 2022

My husband and I recently enjoyed an overnight retreat in Stratford Ontario where we had the privilege to attend this year’s performance of Hamlet. It was such an amazing performance that truly showcased the power of character acting to rise above the physical attributes of performers to engage us, an audience, in a moral or point of a story. Of course, there are several morals or points to Hamlet. Many of you have probably forgotten what you learned about Hamlet in high school. Similar to all Shakespearean plays, Hamlet deals with themes of love, vengeance, madness, loyalty, friendship, death, misjudgment, human error, and more. The very beauty of the performative arts is this freedom to decide what moral or point of the story you wish to explore, or reflect upon, or simply enjoy.

This year’s rendition of Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario modernized the performance by replacing handwritten letters in the play with mobile phones, texts, selfies, voice recordings, and photographs. Hamlet encourages his friend to video record the ghostly appearance of his dead father when he returns to warn his son of the evil doings of his brother who had killed him in order to marry his wife, the queen. This recording is shared by cellphone throughout the play, and the mostly senior audience laughed wholeheartedly when the phone was introduced as a theatrical prop. I felt this move to integrate a cell as a moment of ingenuity.

The entire play was riveting this year. Although the audience was strongly encouraged to wear a medical mask throughout the performance, many, such as ourselves decided otherwise, as the main threat to Covid and its lethality was demonstratively weakened in the scientific research. We appreciated having this choice to wear the mask or not at this late juncture of the pandemic, and to choose according to our own interpretation of the medical science without any real risk to people around us. Like most Ontarians, my husband and I had been strictly compliant to all of the public health regulations, restrictions, and lockdown procedures as mandated by the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. So, we believed that the science was now clear for life to slowly resume back to regular social activities without masks, gloves, or face shields.

Character acting is sometimes used in Performative Expressive Arts Therapy where participants are encouraged to perform an emotion or feeling that is beyond their reach in everyday life. It has been shown to be an effective method to help some individuals to access “feelings” and “emotions” related to events for which language fails them. The imperfect content of the mind that results from overwhelmingly traumatizing events such as a death of a loved one like the murder of Hamlet’s father can lead to madness. It is at first unclear if Hamlet’s dad was actually murdered as he dies suddenly, similar to a major cardiac event. Yet, Hamlet begins to see the ghost of his dead father who tells him that his own brother poisoned him. In this light, Hamlet’s delusional thinking results from intense loss and bereavement. The imperfect content of his mind is triggered by sudden death that results in extremely irrational thinking and behaviour.

Without the opportunity to process grief and trauma as we do today in counselling psychotherapy, “madness” does result in Hamlet. He grows increasingly paranoid about his uncle’s behaviour and rejects his mother’s affections and care as well. He sees the two of them as murderous betrayers and Hamlet begins to plot his revenge with plans to kill his uncle. Tragically, Hamlet kills the father of his beloved Ophelia instead by accident. His desire to avenge the death of his father outweighs even the passionate love he has for his beloved, which results in her death by suicide. The play demonstrates what can happen when strong negative feelings and emotions are left unchecked. Hamlet is a human tragedy wherein everyone dies including the main character.

Watching this play unfold offers spectators the opportunity to engage dispassionately in somewhat familiar human emotions without any threat to self or other. It transposes the audience into strong human emotions and experiences without insult, injury, or offense. Character acting in particular demonstrates the power of the play to engage people into a story where the character played is quite different from the actor or actress. This stark and intentional difference purposefully demarcates the play itself from the attributes of the actors on stage, thereby explaining the brilliance behind a quote in Hamlet, “the play’s the thing”. In other words, the story is bigger than the people in it, much like life itself.

Healing trauma involves a performative aspect so that individuals can in fact begin to bring into words distressing events that have happened to them directly or were witnessed by them. This unfolding of trauma-based language is always dysfluent, choppy, chaotic sounding, unusual in cadence, and confusing. Trauma language reflects and perhaps contains the distressing emotions in the words themselves. At this point in my career, I have an ear for trauma and can hear distress in people’s words and stories as they share with me in session. This trauma is not only described in the story itself, but in the telling of the story. Human distress and trauma has a particular sound. The sound of human trauma does not seem to change depending on the types of distressing events experienced. Human trauma sounds the same in all people who suffer mental anguish caused by situations, or events witnessed or experienced firsthand.

Hamlet reminded me as therapist to underscore our shared ethical responsibility we have to one another to do no harm, and to change events or situations that we knowingly cause harm at a societal level. As the Covid fog lifts and we more clearly understand what happened to all of us directly or by witness, skilled and credentialed trauma-informed therapists will be required to support healing and recovery.

Marriage as Mission

Is forever-together a fantasy?

So many married couples have experienced these extended periods of isolation caused by Covid extremely stressful. For many, the lack of social contact with friends and extended family slowly eroded the sense of joy shared in community that extended into the home as well. Married couples found themselves on full-time duties as the sacred space of home was converted into a place of employment, schooling, daycare, meal prep and more. Suddenly, the clear boundaries between home, work, and community was lost. These fuzzy boundaries created by a global crisis meant that your home was now the place for all things to occur.

Our work-life balance in North America has developed over many decades with the view that our homes are private spheres reflecting the lifestyle decisions of the occupants. Home owners take time and care to craft daily living spaces with love and personal tastes. Our homes normally reflect aspects of who you are culturally, and the values you share with your spouse. Sentimental artifacts from shared experiences and travel adorn homes of married couples who have had the privilege to experience trips both local and abroad with one another. Inviting friends and family into your home is a social activity that cultivates a sense of community and care beyond the home. People feel included in your life and get a personal glimpse into the things you value and experience together. The ways you host a meal, small gathering, or party often demonstrates to the people in your life that you care for and love them.

In the 1980’s, “cocooning” grew as a social movement where couples decided to stay home more to entertain with friends. It was no longer viewed as boring or mundane to prepare a gathering in one’s home instead of a restaurant. It also reflected the economic times as well. People had less dispensable income during the recession in the late 80’s and many people focused on paying off high interest mortgages for homes purchased during those years. As children of these families grew, access to disposable income became more common than their parents had at the same age and stage. Young adults in their twenties had support from parents rather than student loans, bursaries, and scholarships to fund college and university degrees. Many young people graduated from post-secondary schools without any debt. Second generation Canadians such as myself did not have as much financial support as third or fourth generations did and do.

In the late 1990’s, young couples preferred to meet up with friends for dinner instead of hosting parties in what still felt like student dorms. The advent of the “open table” phenomenon grew and more and more young people began to meet in restaurants as large crowds. The early 2,000’s also witnessed a decline in wedding ceremonies. It was common practice for young people to live together before or if deciding to tie the knot officially. Traditional religious weddings also declined across all faith groups, as did large elaborate celebrations with guests numbering in the hundreds.

As matrimonial ceremonies were put on-hold due to the pandemic, many young people delayed formal plans to officiate and celebrate their vows. It has provided a prolonged period of pause for young couples to consider the reasons for marriage, the roles of culture, tradition, and religion in marriage, and the purpose of marrying in modern times at all. The sad reality of Covid resulting in deaths numbering in the thousands in Canada has also given everyone cause to reflect on the sanctity and purpose of your own life.

A Christian-informed perspective on marriage places Jesus at the center of the union between two people. My clients who identify themselves as Christians safely and freely testify that Jesus is at the core of all their life choices and decisions. With my proclamation of “me too”, religious Christian couples share a mutual understanding that a life together is more than a human decision. Christians place Jesus, His life, His message, and His gospel as hub in the heart and in the home, and where blessed in children. Where this is the starting point for two people deciding to “join in Holy matrimony”, marriage as mission is established from the get-go. There is no question about the purpose of marrying your soulmate. A marriage as mission framework assumes that your lifetime together is cradled in the Holy name of Jesus and becomes part of God’s divine plan for the two of you.

Reclaiming and recreating ritualistic practices in your home as simple as grace before meals, lighting a candle while you reflectively pray in silence, decorating for Christmas or Easter, or reading passages from the bible alone or with your spouse are all good ways to slowly feel the presence of that which makes the marriage-bond spiritual. Attending your local church, parish, or congregation will also help you to reconnect to those aspects of your faith that have been put on hold or disrupted due to this global crisis. The world is only now beginning to understand what happened, the feelings for which will require sometime, if not years to process. A period of mourning over the losses of so many, and the trauma created by years of severe restrictions, separations, and ruptures in personal decision-making will take time to heal. The good life in Canada was threatened. For many multi-faith-based couples, prayer will be an important part of this healing journey of recovery.

Do. Think. Feel Well.

Your Inner Goodness

An Inward Glimpse of Beauty

The ultimate goal of your therapy is self-acceptance and self-love. Despite your reasons for referral, you are likely seeking mental health counselling, emotional regulation support, psychotherapy, or mind-set coaching services to manage deep-seated feelings of insecurity. It is completely typical for adults to fear being alone. Problems with your romantic partners, spouse, children, extended family members, co-workers, or boss naturally diminish your feelings of safety. Core relationships at home, work and in your community constitute the person you have become. When one or more of these relationships is challenged, threatened, or radically changed, it will result in feelings of acute stress. Experiences of distress are common when the people you love and respect change.

During periods of conflict and miscommunication, your level of stress is probably running very high. It is important to do your best to maintain your composure and calm. It is really not possible to solve problems when everyone’s emotions are reactive, combative, and fighting to be right. Problems are best solved when people can think clearly about the situation, and feel included in generating possible solutions. A healthy retreat from conflict-ridden and angry situations or people is always an option when remaining present in a heated argument, fight, or angry disagreement triggers an episode of acute stress response in you. It is a self-preserving gesture to run for cover.

Reaching out for support and building healthy alliances with trusted and reliable people in your life is a great way to reduce feelings of stress and upset over situations that you assess are unfair and unjust. Each person has an inner compass that helps you in your daily decision-making. As you learn to listen to your own inner core, you will find that it does speak to you. Your feelings and emotions about particular experiences, situations, and people are the primary ways that your inner core begins to speak to you. When you feel that something is wrong at home, work, or in the community, you do need to listen.

All feelings are healthy and natural, and together in the vast landscape of emotions constitute what it feels to be human. The truth is that we humans all feel the same range of emotions. Where our lives are uncomplicated by an over-reliance on substances that numb your feelings, human emotions can be very powerfully positive and negative. Some feelings may frighten or scare you. Other emotions may result in periods of euphoria and bliss. Once you begin to identify and listen to what your feelings may be telling you, your life will change. It is never a recommended idea to make radical change without first stabilizing your emotional reaction to events or people. If you continue to struggle with feelings of anger, then you may require the support of a mental health clinician trained to co-regulate your emotions or coach to gain clarity on next steps.

You will begin to build healthy and protective boundaries around this precious inner core that is generally referred to as the “self”. You may also discover that your own behaviour has been horrendous, and that you have a part in the conflict in your life at home, work, or in your community. The unexpected gift of building personal boundaries is that you will recognize your own accountability in problems, and where motivated, work to correct things with the people you love.

Trust in your own goodness. Accept that you do know what is best for your own life.

Lisa Romano-Dwyer, BSc, MSW, PhD, RSW