Magazine article Tikkun

Psychotherapy and the Politics of Meaning

Magazine article Tikkun

Psychotherapy and the Politics of Meaning

Article excerpt

EVER SINCE HANS EYSENCK'S STUDY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF London in 1952, there have been questions about the effectiveness of psychotherapy. That study, along with subsequent research, showed that those who seek relief from depression through psychoanalysis are less likely to find deliverance than those who receive no help at all. That may be because so much of psychoanalysis is self-centered. Therapists far too often cater to the egoism of the client and make the object of the therapy sessions some sort of self-actualization in which the individual is encouraged to live out his or her repressed yearnings. The emphasis is on individualization.

Philip Reif, one of the most brilliant social theorists of our time, has pointed out in his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic that counseling prior to Sigmund Freud was, for the most part, a ministry of reconciliation. If there was a troubled marriage, the counselor, usually a member of the clergy, concentrated on helping the individual to achieve a healthy relationship with his or her partner. If the client was experiencing depression caused by a sense of loneliness, then efforts were made in the counseling sessions to emotionally reconnect the isolated person with the community from which he or she felt estranged. If the client was feeling cut off from the spiritual "ground of all being," the minister, priest or rabbi strove to re-establish fellowship with God. In short, it was then assumed that there was healing in community, and counseling sought to bring troubled persons back into relationships that could cure the maladies of his or her soul.

Western society experienced a loss of the sacred under the impact of the Enlightenment. Simultaneously, we were victimized by the estrangement from community brought on by the urban-industrial revolution. In a world wherein God became increasingly unreal, talk of fellowship with God grew for many to be an archaic concept. Living in a mass society made many of us feel that we were living in what David Riesman called "The Lonely Crowd."

This new cultural milieu created what the sociologist Max Weber would call an "elective affinity" for a new method of curing the sicknesses of the soul (that is, if the word "soul" was any longer viable). This new cure was to be found in psychotherapy, and especially in that form of therapy, proposed by some of Freud's followers, called psychoanalysis. The ardent followers of Freud (though not Freud himself) came to believe that psychoanalysis could, in and of itself, cure the angst and depression that had become endemic to our times.

It took a generation before social scientists discovered that there might be something amiss in this approach. Among those who came to question psychoanalysis was Philip Reif. As he studied the effects of psychoanalysis on those who sought its help, he came to the strong conviction that to simply understand why individuals suffer psychological ills, as psychoanalysis does, proves to be of very limited, if any, help. This is not to say that people do not need to understand how "the child is father to the man," as the poet has said, but Reif argued that only understanding who and what we are and how we got that way is not enough. Indepth analysis of the psyche will not of itself, he claimed, cure the emotional condition that Søren Kierkegaard once called "the sickness unto death." Self-understanding is good, Reif said, but something more is needed. There is no salvation without commitment and he contended that psychoanalysis was a therapy without commitment.

Reif's thinking is in harmony with much of the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures existential decision-making is a requisite for spiritual and psychological well-being (Ps. 65:4). To all who are trying to "find themselves" through analysis, Jesus declared that they would end up losing themselves. He then emphatically preached that those who are willing to lose themselves in commitments to doing God's will in the world will find themselves (Mark 8:38). …

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