The Parallax Tragedy: Encountering the Other for Each Other’s Sake

train station

In this two-part series, Alex Houseknecht, a 2014 graduate of the MA in Counseling Psychology program at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, shares how he found himself drawn to and immersed in narratives of tragedy, and how his perspective of those narratives was fundamentally transformed.

When I was first introduced to the concept of ‘tragedy’ as a central aspect in a methodology of healing, I reacted in the same way that I hear from many of my current clients: “Why spend time focusing on the bad things? You can’t change the past.” Beyond this, I felt as though ‘tragedy’ was too strong of a word. I could point towards particular negative experiences, but nothing that I would label ‘tragedy.’ Over time, I have begun to understand not only the importance of acknowledging and embracing tragedy, but the significance of listening to, and sharing, tragedy narratives with others.

Only two years before this introduction, I moved to Seattle from a small town in New York. A series of experiences culminated in moving into a small, street-level apartment on Aurora Avenue. During the day, I worked a full-time job in video production, and when I went home at night, I entered into an alien world that soon became my community. It was a strangely transitory place, to which strangers, including myself, seemed to find themselves inexplicably drawn, and previous residents would continually return over the years. When there was sun, or the rain hung suspended in darkened clouds, I would walk the small side street of Nesbit Avenue, visiting friends and acquaintances who lived in vans, motels, and under trees. When the weather turned, I opened my door to those who might need just a moment’s respite. We would cook meals, share stories, celebrate forgotten birthdays, and silently acknowledge the strangeness of our encounters.

Gradually, I was exposed to the systemic issues that contribute to homelessness, addiction, and sexual exploitation. Although I wasn’t familiar with the concept of privilege, I had a sense that there were resources I had access to that others did not. I became more active in my neighbors’ lives, feeling simultaneously driven and increasingly helpless in my attempts to foster hope and change. I became more inviting of stories of harm and trauma, believing that I might somehow bring about healing, not knowing why my friend would continue to tread the edge of sleep each night for fear of the violent, intrusive dreams that lie in wait; I continued to crack apart as I shook hands with a staggering, drunken man at seven in the morning, whom I had taken to a detox center only the night before, thinking I had saved his life; I laid in bed one night wondering if I was actively inviting harm, as a stranger slept on the couch just outside my bedroom door.

Significant questions were beginning to surface as I found myself coming to resent the people I was once so desperate to care for. Why was I so drawn to experiences of suffering? Why was I beginning to identify with some of the narratives of harm I was being exposed to? How can there be any hope for people or issues that appear relentlessly cyclical? I was immersed in tragedy, and I didn’t know why.

Why was I beginning to identify with some of the narratives of harm I was being exposed to?

When we encounter the other, we are confronted with narratives of dignity and tragedy. Each encounter creates a potential for rupture, in that the narratives of the other hold thematic elements which mirror our own, thereby exposing us to aspects of our narratives that we might not have previously been aware of. These ruptures can alter our sense of personal identity, as well as shift our conceptions about the past, future, and present. To better understand this, we need to have a basic understanding of the philosophical concept of the parallax view, particularly in the context of trauma.

In Part 2 of this post, coming next week, Alex will examine the concept of parallax, in which an object undergoes a fundamental shift based on the observer’s perspective, and how it might reveal the hidden beauty at the heart of tragedy.

Alex Houseknecht is a therapist and video artist living in Chicago. He received a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in 2014.