Twenty five years ago, Philip Rieff wrote a very important book entitled The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In it, he argued that widespread reliance upon private therapy arose in the Western world mainly because community broke down.
In societies where there are strong communities, he contends, there is little need for private therapy—people can more easily work out their problems through and within the community.
If Rieff is right, and I think he is, then it follows that the solution to many of the things that drive us to the therapeutic couch lies as much, and perhaps more, in a fuller and healthier participation within public life, including ecclesial life, than it does in private therapy.
We need, as Parker Palmer is so fond of suggesting, the therapy of a public life.
What is meant by this? How does public life heal and strengthen us?
In caption, public life—life within community, beyond our private selves and private intimacies—is therapeutic because it draws us beyond ourselves into the lives of others, because it gives us a certain rhythm and because it connects us with resources beyond the poverty of our private helplessness.
To participate healthily in other people’s lives takes us beyond our own obsessions. It also steadies us. Most public life has a certain rhythm and regularity to it that helps calm the chaotic whirl of our private lives which are so often racked with disorientation, depression, psychological impotence, paranoia and an almost infinite variety of obsessions.
Participation in public life gives us clearly defined things to do, regular stopping places, regular events of structure and steadiness, a rhythm. This is a commodity that no psychiatric couch provides.
Then, too, public life links us to resources that can empower us beyond our own helplessness. What we dream alone, remains a dream. What we dream with others can become a reality.
But all this is rather abstract. Let me try to illustrate this! While doing my doctoral studies in Belgium, I was privileged to be able to attend the lectures of, and to have frequent conversations with, Antoine Vergote, a renowned doctor of both psychology and the soul.
I asked him one day how one should handle emotional obsessions, both within oneself and when trying to help others. His answer surprised me.
He said something to this effect: “The temptation you might have, as a priest and a believer, is to too simplistically follow the religious edict: ‘Take your troubles to the chapel! Pray it all through. God will help you.’ It’s not that this is wrong. God and prayer can and do help.
“But obsessional problems are mainly problems of over-concentration . . . and over-concentration is broken mainly by getting outside of yourself, outside of your own mind and heart and life . . . and room!
“Get involved in public things—from entertainment, to politics, to work. Get outside of your closed world. Enter more public life!”
He went on, of course, to qualify this so that it differs considerably from any simplistic temptation to simply bury oneself in distractions and work. His advice here is not that one should run away from doing painful inner work, but that solving one’s inner private problems is dependent upon outside relationships, both of intimacy and of a more public nature.
As a corollary to this, I offer too this example: For 16 years I taught theology at a seminary college. Many is the emotionally unstable student, fraught with every kind of inner pain and unsteadiness, who would show up at our college and slowly get emotionally steadier and stronger. . . and the strength and steadiness came not so much from the theology courses, but from the rhythm and health of the community life.
These students got well not so much by what they learned in the classrooms as they did by participating in the life outside of them. The therapy of a public life helped heal them.
More specifically for us as Christians: The therapy of public life means the therapy of an ecclesial life. We become emotionally well, steadier, less obsessed, less a slave of our own restlessness, and more able to become who and what we want to be by participating fully and healthily within the public life of the church.
Monks, with their monastic rhythm, have long understood this and they have a secret worth knowing: Program, rhythm, public participation, the demand to show up, the discipline of the monastic bell have kept many a man and woman sane—and relatively happy besides.
Regular Eucharist, regular prayer with others, regular meetings with others to share faith, and regular duties and responsibilities within ministry not only nurture deeply our spiritual lives, they keep us sane and steady.
Private therapy can sometimes be helpful in supplementing this, but public, ecclesial life, with its peculiar rhythms and demands, is what, first of all and most of all, keeps us steady on our feet.