I have definite opinions. They’re idiosyncratic, but usually carefully considered. Take my stance on the Buddha, whom I revere. I’ve had palpable experiences during meditation of the Buddha’s radiant compassion. The Buddha is enlightened and I am not. Still, as much as I sense the holiness of this archetypal being, I think the human Gautama made a mistake when he abandoned his wife and child to seek enlightenment. God and liberation are eternal; They would have waited for Gautama’s child to go off to college and his wife to start a career as a caterer so she wasn’t stuck with empty nest syndrome. Maybe this life is an illusion, but the illusion must be lived with integrity.
Moral relativism is a failed social experiment. So is moral fundamentalism. I blame modern psychotherapy–partly–for the degradation of a culture that can not tolerate accountability and discernment. It’s why so many TV shows and movies are about serial killers: we can not conceive of a bad guy anymore. The only “bad guy” we can all agree on is a mass murderer. Even that is in danger of being OKified by the shrinked up zeitgeist: ergo Dexter, the lovable serial killer who kills serial killers. We want to rehabilitate everyone in this sophomoric, brainless insistence that there is no evil.
But somewhere between the rocks and the hard place of relativism and fundamentalism is a unitive philosophy that embraces what Teilhard de Chardin called humanism, but still leaves room for shame and discernment. Yes, shame has an important place in social interaction. So does spirituality. I am playing around with the middle way in my head, and I call it coherence theory.
I got to hear some comments about Teilhard de Chardin at a dinner last night that honors classicism. The art critic Donald Kuspit received an award for excellence in the arts, and he spoke about the failure of the avant-guard, which has turned into an empty “frantic trendiness.” It was a great relief to hear someone state outright that the emperor has no clothes. My husband Sabin Howard, being a sculptor, drags me to a lot of art shows, and I have seen a lot of twelfth rate crap. In fact, as soon as anyone says they are an “abstract expressionist,” I know they suck.
Speaking of art that sucks: I was seated at dinner next to some stuffed shirts who run an arts club, and on hearing I was a novelist, they told me with much self-importance that they were honoring Chinua Achebe. I groaned. “For what? His novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ is so badly written! It’s boring and unreadable! He gets attention just because he’s the only one out of Nigeria.”
Immediately, the stuffed shirts wanted to prove that I was rascist and asked me if Obama was just getting votes because he was black.
“That’s not why I voted for him,” I answered. “I voted for him because he’s smart and inspiring, I think he can truly bring change, and I want change!” That shut them up long enough for me to carry on for a while about what a piece of cockroach manure “Things Fall Apart” is. The stuffed shirts managed to save themselves by turning away to talk to other people, and I seized the opportunity to make vomiting motions in their direction. It got a laugh out of my husband but probably didn’t endear me to the artsy fartsy shirts.
Later, in the cab ride home, the great Burt Silverman, a realist portrait painter who actually has a foundation in craftsmanship and tradition, twitted me about my oration on the indignity of art. “You were networking?” he asked wryly. Probably not.
Update from a few years later: The stuffed shirt who insulted me embezzled money from the arts club–a LOT of money. Sometimes my instincts hit the bull’s eye.
A certain person who has worked with Carlo Pedretti, the renowned Leonardo da Vinci scholar, told me that, during the restoration under the Sforza palazzo in Milan, working with the pedestal for Leonardo’s incomparable horse, Pedretti has uncovered new information about Leonardo’s use of perspective.
I found myself writing to a former professor that the translator of Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” should be taken out behind the ivy tower and shot in both knee-caps. The reason being that the “Lives” are wonderfully gossipy and dishy, once the reader gets past the god-awful diction. Unfortunately, and unforgivably, the frequent infelicities of language make it hard for a reader to stay that long. We should be indulging ourselves in guilty pleasure, the naughty deliciousness of scoping out intimate, graphic details of the actual personalities of master artists from Cimabue to Sansovino. Instead we’re slogging through a contorted, antiquated dialect of English to which it is very hard to relate.
My neighbor upstairs, Lucy Holmes, has written an interesting book called “The Internal Triangle: New Theories of Female Development.” Lucy’s a smart lady and the book crackles with life and intelligence. It’s well-written and absorbing. She’s also set herself an ambitious goal: to use Freud’s drive theory to explain female development. The back cover explains that she’s the first woman to attempt this in over sixty years. I haven’t read a lot of Freud, but didn’t he theorize that women long to have penises, and that’s why women are all so messed up?
This despite the archetypal message of the blind prophet Tiresias, who spent seven years as a woman. He tells the gods unequivocally that a woman experiences greater sexual pleasure.
For me, the most arresting part of the book was the exquisite attention to transference and counter-transference as Holmes relates anecdotes about women patients from her many years as an analyst. Some of her patients idealized her, some hated her, many did both, some wanted to kill her, some wanted to have sex with her. In response, Holmes worries, is tormented and feels inadequate. She wants to help them. Does she?
It threw me back into my years as a hands-on healer, and my years in therapy. When you lay hands on people’s bodies with love and the intention to heal, miracles happen. So does powerful transference. And wicked strong countertransference. A practicing healer has to be on her edge, standing with her toes touching the line every second. I made some big mistakes in my practice when I wandered off that edge.
And because we are all human, mistakes, blunders, errors, and inadequacies happen. A decade of my personal psychotherapy imploded in heartache when I divorced my first husband. My therapist was also my husband’s therapist, and our marital therapist, and it was all too fuzzy and intertwined. And when the negotiations between my ex and me grew contentious, I wrote a letter to the therapist saying it wasn’t right for me that my therapist was counseling someone with whom I might go to court. It was something I had to do to stand up for myself. She didn’t write back but she must have agreed, because she terminated her work with him. Of course, he blamed me. A lot of hurt and pain here, for everyone.
Which brings me to qualms about conventional talk psychotherapy. Does it really work? Can it? Therapists are all too frail and prone to err, even with the best of intentions. And, of course, therapists make their living through people showing up regularly, once or twice or three times a week. They have an investment, acknowledged or not, in their patients’ ongoing mental unhealth. Too many patients feed their therapists’ investment, falling into what Caroline Myss so aptly calls ‘woundology,’ cherishing their suffering. They don’t move on. They start every conversation with, “My therapist says….” Don’t we all know people like that?
And my most serious criticism of psychotherapy is that, largely, it doesn’t turn people into better human beings. Here is a the beginning of an imaginary, all too likely, session:
Therapist: “So, you’re an ax murderer, you lure innocent people into the woods where you chop them into little pieces. How do you feel about that?”
Accountability is anathema to psychotherapy. What modern psychotherapy has contributed to the zeitgeist, the way it is largely practiced, is the demolition of judgment and accountability. What psychotherapy should do is teach people how to hold their feelings without acting on them, and without shattering. If human beings can feel a range of emotions from -10 to +10, and can perform actions on a decency scale from -10 to +10, (-10 is genocide, +10 is risking or giving your own life to save someone else’s), then psychotherapy should help people feel and contain their feelings on the full scale, but limit their actions to, say, -2 to +10. But that’s not what’s happened. People who feel below -2 and over +3 are put on medications. And censoring actions is considered bad form.
We’ve become a culture, thanks partly to modern psychotherapy, that confuses prejudice with judgment. The pendulum has swung that far as we try to dismantle millennia of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation. Discrimination is a great evil that I hope to see largely dissolved in my lifetime–though I probably won’t.
And judgment is still imperative. There are reasons why so many of the great, ancient, spiritual texts say, “Thou shalt not.” We need to be able to say, “That action is not okay!” The higher octave of discrimination is discernment, the wisdom to separate the chaff from the grain. Despite the moral relativism of psychotherapy, there is still chaff, and it differs qualitatively from grain.