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Social Progress

I've always hated the term "psychotherapy" because it makes it sound as if a mind searching for wisdom is just a sore muscle needing to be rubbed. Indeed, therapists are often blamed for getting their patients to "feel better" at the expense of dulling their awareness that the world is a crazy place that needs to become more civilized -- as if our caring for other people, or for the future our children will see, were no more than a "sublimation" of more genuine, "primal" desires.

Then again, fields like psychiatry and psychoanalysis have their image problems too, largely because of the under-reported but widely suspected professional malpractice that runs rampant in them to this day.

At the Center, because we refuse to bow down to the gobbledygook taught in university psychology courses, we're perfectly happy to keep our names acronym-free and to call what we do "peer counseling." But what we are, at bottom, are educators.

Whether you want to call it therapy or empowering or consciousness-raising, the best way to do it -- if you've got the goods -- is simply to educate people. Give them specific ideas that can be tested and verified in their own lives. Not abstract tenets of faith like "God will provide" which can't be measured against experience, but insights like "You're feminine, so stop trying to act masculine," which can.

Education doesn't have to take the form of fact-cramming, as it does in academic settings. It can look more like Socrates asking a lot of dumb questions that make you realize you haven't even started to think about the real issues of living. The goal is for your student to come away with something he can continue to use for the rest of his life, something he can build on and add to. And if it becomes truly his own, you won't need to be surprised if he comes back someday and teaches you a new thing or two about it, too.

That's what it looks like to help people to grow, to get them moving on the path they need to follow. Compare this to the dreary image you hear constantly about what therapy is supposed to be like. You don't like your parents but are worried about being disinherited? Go see a therapist to "get at your feelings" and learn to love the old degenerates as you did in the good old days. You hate your career and your wife and want to run away to a Zen monastery? Go see a therapist and learn to "accept yourself the way you are" -- so you won't ever try to change anything ever again!

Therapy is made to sound like anything that will dumb down our need to face the problems of this world and our natural instinct to really accomplish something in our lives, anything that will get us to settle for the same interpersonal impoverishment, the same psychological status quo, that the last generation had to endure. Interestingly enough, it's seen as something you need over and over again, week after week -- otherwise that old mind muscle will get all sore again. Are people really that weak? Whatever happened to social progress?

Social progress does, in fact, require a generation gap. It does require us to try to live lives better than our parents, or better than many of the lives around us, or indeed better than the lives we were able to live yesterday. It asks us to accept in a harmonious way the stress of trying to do something important before we die. But the great thing about strength and wisdom is that, once they exist, the next generation accepts them as their natural inheritance, as an inalienable right they would rather die for than do without.

Don't Fall Victim to an Early Old Age

Many therapists fail to understand the role that social progress plays in mental health. They see social upheavals as "bad weather" and try to shield their patients from its impact. But Paul taught us that our sense of our own importance as historical agents comes from making a personal contribution to the building of a better world. He said that people who feather their own nests and hide from the great social issues of the day slowly loose their souls, sinking inevitably into what he called a "lifestyle depression" -- a depression caused by socially sanctioned cowardice and dishonesty, a depression caused by the virus called normalcy -- the same depression Thoreau identified in 1854 when he said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Instead of helping them to look outward into the world for opportunities to make a contribution, therapists (again) often get their patients to focus exclusively on some past trauma that may linger in their memory and which makes them feel like damaged goods when they let it. But this goal of "removing the last blemish" is false. There will always be another blemish behind the last one to worry about. And if shrinks can get otherwise intelligent patients to fret about birth trauma, can "sperm penetration anxiety" be far behind?

The real task for creative people is to carry on the great work of civilization building that all the greatest figures in history have given their lives to, bearing our scars unobtrusively but proudly. We're queer and we're here. There'll be plenty of time to figure out why Uncle Harry got drunk and punched Mom in the face at that 1972 Christmas Party once we're all living in a world where 40,000 children don't have to die of starvation every day.


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