Forty years ago, Philip Rieff wrote a book entitled The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In essence, he argued that today in the Western world so many people need psychological therapy mainly because our family structure has grown weak and many community structures have broken down. He contends that in societies where there are still strong families and strong communities there is much less need for private therapy; people can more easily work out their problems inside of family and community. Conversely, where family and community are weak, we are mostly left on our own to handle our problems with a therapist rather than with a family.
If Rieff is right, and I suspect he is, it follows that the answer to many of the issues that drive us to the counselling couch lie as much, and perhaps more, in a fuller and healthier participation in public life, including church life, than in private therapy. We need, as Parker Palmer brilliantly suggests, the therapy of a public life.
What’s meant by this? What’s the therapy of a public life?
Public life, life shared inside a family and community, beyond our private selves and private intimacies, can be powerfully therapeutic because it draws us out of ourselves and into the lives of others, gives us a certain rhythm, and connects us with resources beyond the poverty of our own lives.
To participate healthily in other people’s lives can take us beyond our private obsessions. It can also steady us. Public life generally has a certain rhythm and a regularity to it that helps calm the chaotic whirl of restlessness, depression, and sense of emptiness that can so often destabilize our lives. Participation in public life gives us clearly defined things to do, regular stopping places, regular events of structure and steadiness, and a rhythm – commodities no psychiatric couch can provide. Public life links us to resources beyond ourselves, and sometimes they are the only thing that can help us.
While doing studies in Belgium, I was privileged to attend the lectures of Antoine Vergote, a renowned Doctor of Psychology, and the soul. I asked him one day how one should handle paralyzing emotional obsessions, both within oneself and when trying to help others.
His answer surprised me. In essence, he said this: “The temptation you might have as a priest is to simplistically give the advice: ‘Take your troubles to the chapel! Pray it 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 largely by getting outside of yourself, outside of your own mind, your own heart, your own life, and your own space. So, my advice is, get involved in public things, from entertainment, to politics, to work. Get outside of your closed world. Enter with resolve into public life!”
He went on, of course, to qualify this so that it differs from the simplistic temptation to 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 also dependent upon outside relationships, both relationships of intimacy and those of a more public nature.
Here’s an example. For more than a dozen years I taught theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Canada. Our campus was small and intimate, and we had a strong community life. Occasionally a man or woman who was working through some emotional fragility or instability would show up on campus, not enroll in any formal classes, but simply hang out with the community, praying with us, socializing with us, and sitting in on a few classes. Invariably I would see them slowly get emotionally steadier and stronger, and they found that new strength and balance not so much from what they learned in any of classrooms as they did by participating in the life outside of those classes. The therapy of a public life is what helped heal them.
For us as Christians, this also means the therapy of church life. We become emotionally stronger, steadier, less obsessed, and less a slave to our own restlessness by participating more fully and healthily within the public life of the church. Monks have secrets worth knowing. They have long understood that a regular program, a daily rhythm, participation in community, a mandate that you must show up, and the discipline of a monastic bell calling everyone to a common activity (whether this suits him or her or not at the time) have kept many a man and woman sane and emotionally stable. Regular Eucharist, regular prayer with others, regular meetings with others, regular duties, and regular responsibilities within an ecclesial community not only help nurture us spiritually, they also help keep us sane and steady. Private therapy can sometimes be helpful, but public, ecclesial life, with its consistent daily rhythms and demands, more than anything else, can help keep us steady on our feet.