Spring/Summer 2021 Issue 2
A Supplicant to the New Group Process: An Experience at AGPA Connect’s Virtual Conference
Kurt L. White, LICSW, LADC, CGP, FAGPA
I was deeply hesitant to participate in this year’s “virtual” AGPA conference, feeling a sense of screen fatigue, and a worry that the substitution of the tele- for the embodied would only serve to highlight the “lack” of what I have been missing in my life this past year… but then, I remember Macario Giraldo, and the word “lack” comes up again from my deep memory and consciousness – “the lack is a very important thing, because it is very close to desire.” My mind wandering, I also become aware of the concept of tele in psychodrama, which is the energy of connection between people (more or less, I am only an amateur in that arena), and I think of my friends from the international group community, who have worked so hard to stay in touch across borders, before, and during the epidemic. Maybe, then, a tele- conference could also be a tele experience. I brace myself, and dig in – signing up for – not everything, but a selection of things that I felt would be tolerable and conducive to exploration.
In 2020, I was in the first year of a 2-year Institute, led by Chera Finnis, whom I had come to know a bit from many years of NSGP dinners at AGPA, which she would always join despite being from New York. Her warm smile, gentle support, and genuine interest in my hobbled state at a series of meetings in the past years drew me in – especially after a very challenging and disappointing Institute in Los Angeles at AGPA the year before. After a good deal of hard work in our first year, in which Chera fiercely protected the group boundary from repeated intrusions by hotel staff, it was frustrating to not be able to meet in person to resume and conclude our work. But it took only minutes before we were together again as a group – and I realized how lucky I was to have our first year experience to build on rather than having to “start fresh”. The group took stock of the many participants who contracted Covid, many at AGPA in 2020, including our leader. It may be that this brush with mortality helped to focus our group in the moment, and struggle with unresolved issues, losses, but also an opening into possibility, intimacy, and connection. For myself, I think I was able to “show up” in a more complete way than I have in any group in a long time, and my hope is that it helped to unlock something inside that needed just that. The group was able to see me in this, and reflect it and hold it, and I had moments of real joy, connection, and understanding.
A few weeks later, in the three-day conference, I signed up for just one day, an all-day Tavistock-style “study group” experience. This group, on the smaller end of a large group, brought up different tensions and dynamics entirely: privilege, exclusion, rage, disappointment, race, class, gender, oppression, and the struggle to just find some way to be a little bit better as a society were all present for me in that “room”. I was grateful for the small group breakout sessions, and took such refuge in them that our small group “forgot” to return to the more conflicted large group process – and the non-interventionist Tavi leaders, predictably, did nothing to “remind” us. I left this group meditating on oppressive dynamics in groups and societies, and the long, long work ahead of those of us who want to challenge oppression (in and out of our field). Even now, one of the leaders referring to the “almost inexpressible rage” in the group echoes deep in my mind and heart, as a truth that emerged (at least for me) about our larger world.
My final, and perhaps most impactful, engagement in AGPA this year was my rejoining the COG, the Continuous Online Group, after years of not participating. The COG, like the “study group” from my workshop, is also a large group experience, and was this year conducted via the Slack platform, over a period of a full month. Hundreds of members signed up for the COG, and scores of people actually logged in and showed up and posted, in a main thread, and in sub-threads, and sometimes also in a room that the conductors could not enter! Posts could come in the form of emojis, videos, links, comments and replies, and, of course, the usual associations and dreams. Much of the struggle reflected the unresolved social tensions that exist in our larger societies (AGPA, USA, etc.), and much of this work was painful, poignant, and difficult – but the group worked earnestly toward progress, if not resolution. I found it, as always, a bit overwhelming, but also so exciting and alive – and simply being able to see the posts come in throughout my busy days (even when I could not stop to digest them) made me feel less alone, and brought me a sense of active and vibrant community (with its many hurts, struggles, losses, crises, conflicts, etc.). In my own life and history, perhaps that’s my biggest large group hunger – to feel a part of something larger, for a time, and to feel the energy of it, whatever its character, as it washes over me: perhaps something akin to Durkheim’s collective effervescence, but while still working to retain what Arendt referred to as “the ability to think.”
Both a mirror and a personal and collective crucible, AGPA Connect left me exhausted, and, yes, perhaps closer to desire than to lack. Until next year, until next year.