In defense of the empty chair…

Clint Eastwood made news last week with his odd interaction with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. It was, in my best estimation, an attempt to make his point in a way no one else had yet made it. Departing from the boring, soundbite prone, talking points, Mr Eastwood placed an empty chair on stage, seated an invisible President Obama in it and confronted him on some issues. I’ve employed this technique myself a number of times. The process of the “Empty Chair” is a therapeutic device. While many of us were entertained and some of us were horrified, there’s a large number of people out there in the world using this technique session after session in our therapist or pastor’s office, on weekend intensives and interventions. The Empty Chair is no cause for joking for a great number of people.

The first time I asked someone to use the Empty Chair process I was leading an intensive women’s weekend. She was skeptical about the process. It was rudimentary, no bells and whistles, no deep breathing, no props….except for that chair. We placed the chair in the middle of the room and I asked her to stand wherever she felt comfortable, wherever she felt she was in control of the situation. The Empty Chair process is all about giving the person doing the work a chance to take control of  a situation, to say things he or she could never have said, might not still be able to say. Without the possibility of being “shut down” as may have happened in the past, speaking one’s mind to an empty chair is cathartic. It can break through walls that we’ve built up over the course of many years. We begin to see how we can be in charge of our destiny again when we purge the issues of our past. It’s important.

The problem with Mr Eastwood’s Empty Chair, however, is that he made the mistake of adding imaginary dialogue for President Obama. Adding this in puts him right back into a place of feeling out of control again, putting in what you *think* they might say takes away one’s power, changes the playing field from being able to speak those things you want most to say, to defending and then attacking and then defending again.  Obviously, talking to an empty chair does mean we’re engaging in a little bit of fantasy, we have to imagine our subject IS there. But in my limited experience, the shift in our spirit doesn’t happen if we take it too far, we just tend to dig in to the bitterness we hold, we grab tight onto what got us there in the first place, we project our own fears and doubts and injuries on to our subject and we lose track of what we were doing there in the first place.

Now of course, it’s possible that Mr Eastwood never intended for his Empty Chair to be therapeutic, for himself or for the GOP viewers or even for the undecided voters. It’s possible it was simply a new way to beat the same talking points into the hearts and brains of the voting public. The potential power of the imagery becomes a farce then, just another way to entertain people with propaganda and uncomfortable laughter.

I wonder, though, why Mr Eastwood, who is seemingly passionate about social issues, did not choose to place someone else or something else in that empty chair. The empty chair is powerful imagery in this day and age fraught with potential. If Mr Eastwood wanted to simply make a point in a powerful way with the empty chair on stage I can think of quite a few potent possible symbolic occupants-

Why not ask us to place the large number of people who are unemployed in that empty chair? Or perhaps it is the chair of someone whose job was shipped overseas?

Is it possible that chair belongs to the people who are without proper healthcare?

Is it plausible that chair belongs to people who feel their rights are violated on a regular basis, people who feel that they truly ARE invisible in our current culture?

Does that chair belong to a child who does not have enough to eat?

Can we visualize that chair as belonging to the home owner on the verge of foreclosure?

Is the empty chair also a metaphor for the voter of today who feels it’s not even worth showing up at the poll because big money in politics means more than his or her vote?

It’s a good image, that empty chair. I’d suggest that it’s therapeutic for all of us regardless of our political affiliations. It may be wise for us all to consider what that chair represents, who might be sitting there and what it is we need to say ourselves to that person. Do we need to regain control of our situation by having a conversation with the empty chair? And yet, I wonder if it may be better therapy for our country to stop having conversations with empty chairs and start having real, tangible conversations with our appointed leaders, to speak out by voting, by signing petitions and by protesting.

I wonder, too, if it may be better therapy for our country if we find time to put aside the rhetoric and start addressing the issues of those who really have been forced to leave the chair empty; the poor, the weak, the powerless, the voiceless, the grieving, the lonely, the desperate. I wonder what our culture would look like if we spent time seeking out these people, hearing their stories and offering them the empty place at the table.