Therapists and Mister Rogers: Priests of Secular Culture

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We are the Priests of secular culture. Mister Rogers and me and my clinical colleagues.

Acceptance, unconditional positive regard, warmth, empathy, compassion. We are Church for both the unchurched and many Churched-folk who find sanctuary and solace within the space and time of the clinical hour.

Let’s face it. The Church has not been doing its job for some time. It’s nothing new. People flock to psychologists and therapists of various ilks to cure their ills. We all know it. Masters Degree programs in psychology and counseling know it and they are proliferating while church attendance is dropping precipitously.

We are the new houses of prayer. We are the new confessionals where people come to pour out their souls, where people seek absolution from their failures and neuroses (sins, in Church-parlance). The clinical setting is the new sacred space and therapists are the new priests.

Our partners in crime in this takeover of the sacred are the multitude of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups throughout the land where men and women who have gone sober relinquish the demands of their selfish egos to a Higher Power. Church is alive and well — it’s just forwarded its new address to a different set of locations. There are no rolls or stewardship campaigns, no mission committees or Boards of Trustees. But attendance Monday through Saturday is incredible.

Insurance companies don’t like to think about such things. They are leery of anything that smacks of religion — what Freud referred to as “the opium of the masses.” But the word religion comes from the Latin root word which means “to connect” — to reconnect to what is essential in being human and alive. Which, by the way, is what therapy is about: reconnecting with ones soul, reconnecting with one’s significant other, reconnecting with the wellsprings of life and of justice.

What is missing from the new Church of therapy is a moral compass in many cases. We still need a moral compass, a system of values to guide us in an age of postmodernism where absolutes supposedly don’t exist. But some therapists get it.

The morality of compassion is universal, for example. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy modeled this. More recently, as depicted in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks does a splendid job of portraying a Christ-likeness that is more symbolic than literal — and yet, every bit as powerful as the Gospel character from Galilee. Mister Rogers embodies compassion. Feelings matter, and he’s not afraid to “go there” with children or adults: anger, sadness, pain, divorce, death. The existential moments of human life are all on the table in the sacred neighborhood of Rogers-land. Take your shoes off with him — you’re instantly on Holy Ground.

On one occasion, Mister Rogers is talking with a little boy whose story is one of unspeakable pain and suffering. The journalist interviewing Mister Rogers for an article in the magazine Esquire notices that Mr. Rogers whispers something in the little boy’s ear. Mister Rogers shares that he asked the little boy to pray for him — Mister Rogers! The journalist comments that it makes sense that Mister Rogers wanted to help the little boy feel that he mattered. But Mister Rogers quickly responded. He asked the boy to pray for him, not because the boy needed to feel special; but because Mister Rogers himself needed the boy’s prayers. Anyone who had suffered as much as this boy had suffered must be very close to God!

We therapists are close to God everyday because we are close to the suffering of individuals, couples, and families who are hurting. They have come to us because they believe we will listen without judging, honor their pain without giving cheap advice, and steer them towards hope without the kind of preaching that is often frightening and judgmental. We are humans together and we are doing sacred work. We get to see grace-in-action every day.

In this sacred clinical space, we pray for each other, indeed. Church.

Unwanted Dreams and the Freedom of the Soul

In a recent dream, I was in the act of taking black and white snapshots of my father (long deceased) who was behind bars. He looked forlorn there, standing in a tiny jail cell where apparently he had been sentenced for an unknown crime.

I don’t like these kind of dreams. They’re disturbing and depressing. Though my father and I were never close, I still would never want him to be jailed. But I also know that in my dream my father’s image is actually a stand-in for a part of me. So what’s up with that? What part of me is feeling sentenced?

I have a new appreciation of late for people who suffer with chronic pain. When my orthopedist, who has already replaced my right hip with an artificial joint, looked with me at an X-ray of my arthritic left hip, it made perfect sense why I had been having lots of pain and lots of difficulty walking. Bone on bone! A cortisone shot would help to tide me over for a few months, but a second hip operation is definitely in my future.

Pain does things to the mind. It makes me feel old at 65. Even though I work out, try to eat right, stay active, work five days a week, and basically have a very positive outlook on life, I have been feeling much more “mortal” recently. I’m quite unhappy about what I refer to as “design flaws” in the human anatomy — those much too human vulnerabilities that seem to rear their heads more and more among almost every friend I know.

When friends and colleagues are stricken by illness, I automatically assume that I am immune from such things because I take such good care of myself. Wrong though this thinking is, I hold onto it like a cherished possession, creating a neat image of immortality and invulnerability….And, apparently, setting myself up for this other dream-image of being sentenced behind bars.

But as I worked with this dream and after sharing it with my therapist, I realized that actually I am not sentenced. I have choices: a great surgeon whom I trust, a wonderful job that I find fulfilling and doesn’t require a lot of physical strength, and retirement savings that I can use to get me through a time of rehabilitation after surgery. I am blessed with caring friends, a loving and supportive relationship, and a wonderful family. So with a new hip, if all goes as well as the first hip replacement, I should be pain free again. But obviously, I am entering a phase in my life when I will need to alter my delusional expectations of invincibility as I make some adjustments to my level of activity.

Growing old gracefully is not necessarily for the weak of heart. But it seems now to be a better challenge than kicking and screaming against reality. I won’t, obviously, live forever; but neither am I sentenced to the jail of my own making.

WHY PSYCHOTHERAPY?

counselingShould I or shouldn’t I pursue psychotherapy? And if so, then when and with whom? Important and sometimes crucial questions.

Truth is, most people wait until there is some kind of crisis in their lives. A loss, a break-up of a relationship, an illness, a job loss. These are the most obvious times, and it’s best, I think, if it’s sooner than later — before things get out of control or start falling apart.

But I think there are other not so obvious times to seek out a psychotherapist, someone who is most of all a good listener. We suffer most, sometimes, when we feel alone or when we feel as if no one really knows who we are. Conversely, we feel better if there is at least one person in the world who listens and cares or who affirms us just for being the person we are rather than for what we do. We are human BEINGS, right? Not human DOINGS.

We are a complex lot, we humans. And we are so imperfect. So, it’s easy to get in the rut of putting on a public face everyday for each other, for our children, for our partners, for our bosses. It can be frightening to let others know our hurts and our insecurities. But the  public faces we put on are like the tip of the iceberg — there is so much more beneath the surface of the lives that others can’t or may not want to see. Who knows the secret or private or even the hidden realities of our lives, the lives we know best usually only when we lie awake at night thinking, wondering, wishing, or worrying?

When I was in between relationships some years back, I posted a profile on an internet dating website. Instead of stating my vocation as psychotherapist or minister — which I knew would cause most women to run away as quick as possible — I listed my vocation as “someone who listens and keeps secrets.” I figured this might be more intriguing than frightening, and that I might attract someone who would want to get to know me beyond my public image, title, or job. And thankfully, I did!

We tell our therapists, mostly, our secrets — that which we would otherwise keep to ourselves. Oh yes, we might share over coffee or lunch with a friend something of what we are discussing and learning about ourselves in therapy. But with our therapist, we can go as deep under the surface as we wish; or we can go as deep as we feel safe to delve. Someone who has no judgment or no agenda except to be there for us and us only — to me, this is the core of a good therapist. Someone who knows me at my best and at my worst, and helps me to know even the darkest parts of me that exist like unexplored islands of mystery, discovery, and healing. I know well how seeds long buried in the fertile depths of the soul can grow into something life-giving and beautiful.

So, maybe there are many reasons to seek out a psychotherapist. But this is the key ingredient I try to provide: a safe sanctuary, a sacred space. We meet to talk about whatever is important, whatever hurts, and whatever gives the soul breath, life, hospitality, and joy.