Healing crisis, one person at a time?
A dialogue between Steve Thorp and Julia Macintosh
…this crisis cannot be done away with by pills and talking. It can’t be healed one person at a time...
The quote above is from my first piece in a recent series on climate, crisis, psyche and spirituality. It wasn’t quite thrown out, but it was a good line, I thought, and so maybe I didn’t back it up as much as I could have. This is, after all, important stuff. It’s about the way in which we all respond to the world that we are facing.
Anyway, my friend Julia called me on it in an email. She wrote to me: “…there is something you wrote that I want to ask you about. You said that ‘the psychological crisis…. can’t be healed one person at a time.’ Could you dig deeper into that? Do you really believe that?”.
This was a provocation and she knew it — and a valid one too.
We decided to respond to this issue together. With a dialogue on the question at the heart of therapeutic psychology and its relationship to our culture, civilisation, ecology and to crisis — the troubled times we are facing.
We’ve started the piece with short introductions — to each other and our interest in the question — and what follows is a dialogue on psyche, soul, culture — and on whatever else we found when we turned over the stone…
Steve Thorp, March 2017
Julia Macintosh is currently living in between stories and exploring what to do next with her “one wild and precious life.” She has worked widely across the third sector in Scotland, in events, communications, and as the co-director of a small social enterprise delivering training and development, and has raised a healthy and happy daughter as a single parent. Her areas of interest include mental health, spirituality and transformative learning — themes that she investigates through the prism of the Pandora Project and via her writing at www.juliamacintosh.uk. Julia considers herself a ‘soulmaker’, and was delighted to participate in the Soulmakers Gathering 2014. Julia’s experience of soulmaking involved a deeply personal crisis and transformation, which prompted her to ask Steve “Do you really believe that?”
Steve Thorp is the editor of Unpsychology Magazine, a writer of soulful inquiries, poems and meditations and a counsellor and psychotherapist for two decades. These days, he works primarily with themes of ecology and soul — and recently trained as a Spiritual Companion. He blogs here and his website is: www.21soul.co.uk. For Steve, a key question is whether our current crises can be regarded and addressed at an individual level or more widely as cultural and ecological challenges. There’s also something in this inquiry about our relationship with the non-human world, and with spiritual experience—and how this might connect to the way mental health and wellbeing are regarded and experienced.
The dialogue begins…
….Hi Julia — well where to start?
This was what I originally wrote:
“So, the psychological crisis is real, but things might be even worse than we suspected. Our therapy culture tells us that we can cure or heal psychological ills (or mental illness) with talking therapies or drugs. It is a clinical problem. But this crisis cannot be done away with by pills and talking. It can’t be healed one person at a time”.
Let’s go with your question. “Do you really believe that?”.
I think I need to distinguish between individual distress and the wider crisis — which is at the level of our culture or civilisation. One (the latter) can lead to the other, and that’s the issue that has often been missing from modern therapeutic psychology.
The treatment of ‘mental illness’ (even the naming of it!) has become a predominantly clinical process. A professional treats an individual — with outcome-proven therapy — to get them back to zero or plus one on the coping scale. Of course, psychotherapy has in its history deep and developmental work, but the focus has still been on the ‘self’ — the individualised, experiential entity our culture is so obsessed with. And the focus of current ‘vogue’ approaches like attachment theory and CBT is to locate distress in historical, personal experiences — and the way these have been internalised in the individual.
However, distress and sadness — even madness — undoubtedly have existential, social, spiritual and ecological dimensions. If we live in a crumbling world, then we are likely to feel like we are crumbling. If we are disconnected from our “ecological self” — that is from the Earth and its non-human inhabitants — then we feel disconnected. And our focus on the self in psychology may have been part of the problem, for it tells us as that the self can be developed and healed, even though the pathology — as James Hillman said — is in the world.
So, my position around the question (broken down a little) is probably this:
Firstly, do I believe that individuals should be healed? — Yes. People have been made sick, and so deserve to be well. But not simply to be put back into a dysfunctional, crumbling and disconnected culture, with no awareness of this wider context — in which they will continue to be made sick, or where symptoms are simply alleviated rather than being the subject of curiosity and understanding.
Secondly, does healing happen individually? — Sometimes, though also in groups and communities and through a range of other conversations, activities and spiritual awakenings. We might say that the experience that prompts the search for healing is often (but not always) individual. The actual healing seldom is. Even one-to-one therapy is a relational space, and group therapies are definitely communitarian.
Third, can individual healing contribute to a wider, cultural psychological readjustment? —Possibly, if there is enough radical breadth, connection and development (what you and I might call soulmaking, perhaps!), and that the healing is then consciously put into service in some way.
Fourth, Is this individual healing sufficient for a cultural psychological and spiritual crisis to be healed? Probably not, mainly because distress and madness have major dimensions in the political, economic and ecological spheres too! Radical action and change is required. I like Will Falk’s definition of this in his recent essay.
“Though most people misunderstand “radical” to mean “extreme,” radical simply means “getting to the roots.” For radicals, “getting to the roots” means understanding, and then dismantling, oppressive power structures on a global level. As part of this, radicals see groups and classes as the basic social unit. An individual’s group or class socially constructs the psyche. Most importantly, radicals understand that material power — the physical ability to coerce — is the prime mover of society. Social change, then, requires organized resistance geared at wielding power”.
So culturally — and psychologically — we have been atomised and so I might argue that healing will only come from the collective psychological and spiritual reconnection — re-weaving the web, perhaps…
….Hello dear Steve,
There is so much richness here, so many ideas to follow. Where to start indeed!
I guess I will say first that everything you’ve written resonates, I don’t disagree with any of it. And yet… and yet… why do I snag on that sentence? It can’t be healed one person at a time. When I read that I cry out internally in dismay, How can it not?!
As I read what you wrote — in your three previous essays and in this beginning to our conversation — I am struck over and over again by the same challenge to hold different and even contradictory thoughts together in the tension of balance: paradox. What we’re talking about here is riddled with paradox. We can write our way around it to consider and explore and poke at it from different angles, but we will never be able to pin it down satisfactorily and declare we have the answer. I believe that is humankind’s next evolutionary challenge: to embrace and internalise paradox, to learn even to love it, and play with it, rather than wriggling in discomfort at its dissonance.
Here are some of the paradoxes that arose for me in your writing:
Individual and collective experience
I agree with you that psychology has focused on the individual and his/her internalised experiences, to the neglect of the social and cultural forces which contribute to wellbeing and/or lack thereof. I wonder if that is partly due to its historic role as a secular alternative to religion? The human condition, the soul, and the definition of wellness traditionally belonged to the church — and it’s really been only a very short time by comparison that psychology has been practiced as a discipline. My own parents grew up in a generation that was expected to turn to their priest for personal guidance, rather than a therapist. The church had already set the scene for centuries, with the concept of the individual soul endowed with free will (free that is to choose one of only two options: to gracefully obey or to sinfully not obey.) And even earlier than this, the Greeks had created the concept of the individual citizen whose actions formed the foundation blocks of the collective state. So psychology’s concern with the individual isn’t new or unique to Western culture.
When thinking about the individual and the collective, it’s not so much either/or as both/and. Is light a particle or a wave? Both/and. Are we composed of individual cells or a system of organs and biological processes? Both/and. Are we a tiny speck of life in the midst of an endless universe, or reigning in the kingdom or our own minds? Both/and. Can we heal one person at a time, or in collective action? Both/and.
Healing is relational, yes — and also internal. Both/and. What do we mean by healing, anyway? What is healthy, and what is illness? What is the difference between illness and injury? How can the same bacteria kill one body and strengthen the immunity of another? What of the person experiencing a devastating fatal illness who feels more contented and at peace within themselves than ever before?
Also: connection and relationship may be healthy for one, and unhealthy for another. Think of the millions of women across the world whose talents and personal interests are neglected by the demands and expectations of their relationships, and burdened by the lion’s share of caring commitments. I am reminded of Carol Gilligan’s work on voice and relationship, and her proposal that psychology as a discipline arises from a patriarchal understanding of personhood. She suggests that where the male psyche develops and is rewarded for voice (eg individuality and agency), the female psyche develops and is rewarded for relationship (eg caring and concession) — and that each seeks the other perspective in pursuit of wholeness. So our patriarchal culture may indeed need the balancing corrective of connection and nurture, but there is also an entire half of the human population that needs to become less enmeshed by the relational self and more invested in supported in being the individual self.
Digging a little deeper into the idea of psychological healing: if there were no desire to change, no internal seeking of relief or resolution, would any amount of therapy have an impact? Even the client who attends with reluctance and scepticism is engaging on some level with possibility, maybe even curiosity and hope. But can you enforce therapy upon someone, if they are truly unwilling? And what of the person who seeks and receives therapy for years and years but continues to suffer and remains mired in their wounding? Or what of the life-embracing patient whose cancer goes into remission, against all prognosis, versus the patient who dies of an unthreatening illness out of despair, despite first-class treatment?
Madness and chaos
I count myself among a minority of humans who have experienced madness firsthand. It was both terrifying, and thrilling; miserable, and joyful; painful, and restorative; damaging, and healing; individual, and relational; closing, and opening. My perspective and my habits and my understanding of my life is utterly different than what it was even a few short years ago, partly due to the redeeming content of what I experienced; partly because I succumbed to clinical treatment and medication; and partly because I had worked my way through a process, step by step, choice by choice, over many years of exploration and heeding of intuition. Yes, all those internal steps were also relational: they were motivated by conversations I had with other people, and books I read by other people, and music created by other people. And/or they were the internal prompting to speak of those particular topics with other people, to choose those particular books by other people, to prefer those pieces of music by other people. And the internal promptings were inspired by what I knew of those people, those books, that music. You see what I’m doing? Like the chicken and the egg, we can never tell which came first: change happens one person at a time, and it happens in connection with others. Both/and.
It is nearly impossible to convey how deeply I trust the paradox: going mad is the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it is also the best thing that ever happened. For most people, the idea of surrendering to internal chaos is a fearful prospect to be avoided at all cost. But what do we know about chaos theory? That chaos and order are intertwined, and that at the crux of chaotic, turbulent systems we leap into higher levels of being. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s all there in the maths. So while we see the turmoil of our distressed civilisation and worldview as unwelcome chaos, we might also see it as the crucible of an emerging leap into a new paradigm. Both/and.
Okay so that’s quite enough of a response now; back over to you.
With love from Julia
You’re entirely right, paradox is the way to name it. We spend our days in opposition to something — taking sides and positions. And these positions are so fixed. No-one ever seems to change their mind! We end up with polarities that receive their information from entirely self-contained algorithmically, culturally and politically determined sources.
I like the way you present the gender polarity here — maybe it’s men who need more empathy and women who need more voice? And this also reminds me of the heartfelt and pained response that Megan Hollingsworth wrote to Bill McKibben’s call for a new War mobilisation — a war on climate change. She wrote:
“I do not follow war rhetoric as I do not walk the warring path. War has not yet brought lasting peace and will not unless the result is rather total annihilation that destroys the possibility of battle. At least for awhile. Until the fighting survivors gain their strength back and begin battling again. This is so clear to me it’s as if I’ve lived the course a thousand times. As if I have all along been the one responsible for both commanding the attack and carrying dead bodies from the field. I am finished calling the attack. And want nothing more than to let trees, flowers, and grains grow in the blood-rich soil, perhaps seeding a proper monument to the monumental loss we’ve endured collectively”.
For her the language is as important as the act. For McKibben, the mobilisation is the crucial thing. So there is a polarity here too — another one in which the psychology of gender plays a role.
I think there is much more to say about climate change in this ongoing dialogue — but I want to stick with paradox and polarity for the moment. You write that trusting the paradox is a deep priority — and you’re right, I think, that in the mind, as in the world, holding order and chaos is the key to the higher realms — and to future versions of whatever human civilisation becomes.
And if we hold to the either/or rather than the both/and we push away at least half of human — and non-human — experience, and are diminished in the process. Anything we privilege, by definition excludes another experience — not just that of the ‘other’, but the other in ‘I’; for the self is not singular; nor the ‘human’ psychologically separate from ‘animal’; nor ‘male’ separate from ‘female’, within each one of us. So, mad and sane are not mutually exclusive; nor good or evil — as the shadows play out in our collective psyche and are pushed away to create enemies and ‘others’.
Acknowledging and holding polarity or paradox is what happens in what integral psychologist Rob MacNamara calls the ‘elegant self’ — the higher developmental stage necessary for a new world paradigm to emerge.
In ‘elegance’, polarities are held and paradoxes accepted, and if we are open to these experiential phenomena, on a moment-by-moment basis, we can always be open to the flux of change and stability — and also to the possibilities that are in our world and in our selves.
Ultimately, I guess, the issue is ecological, whichever way you look at it! A thriving internal ecology is essential for us to be able to withstand and go with the ‘chaos’ that is necessary for us to be creative and imaginative, and to be able and prepared to be constantly rebuilding the ‘order’ that is necessary for us to function in the day-to-day. And a connected and nurtured external ecology is essential for us to reconnect to and survive in the world we are inherently a part of — chemically, materially, spiritually and relationally.
…Hello dear Steve,
Let’s circle back to the original question, in the context of climate change and ecological chaos: can this be healed one person at a time? I think you capture it perfectly when you say “A thriving internal ecology is essential for us… and a connected and nurtured external ecology is essential for us.” Both/and.
The damage we have already wrought upon our biosphere — our land mined and sprayed with chemicals and paved over with cement, our oceans filled with plastic and rubbish and toxic run-off, our air filled with combustion, our ice caps melting, sea levels rising, communities disrupted and displaced by floods and drought and storms — these are all the compounded and accumulated manifestations of un-healed minds. It is all so entrenched and enormous that one person’s tiny impact, however positive, feels pointless. But is it?
Charles Eisenstein, in The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, distinguishes between our current cultural paradigm (a “story of separation”) and the emerging cultural paradigm (the “story of connection.”) When we perceive reality as discrete pieces of matter bumping up against each other within a blank empty space, then our one small contribution seems inconsequential. But when we perceive reality as a continuum, with emptiness actually being a form of fullness (as you suggest in your second essay) then our contribution ripples out like the waves we create when we move about in the water.
Waves may not be a mere analogy. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake proposes a theory of ‘extended mind’ whereby our thoughts move beyond us — literally — in what he terms ‘morphic fields.’ Minds, he says “are not confined to the insides of heads, but stretch out beyond them…. Through attention and intention, our minds stretch out into the world beyond our bodies.”
Another biologist, Bruce Lipton, has studied the way that beliefs shape our physical health. In The Biology of Belief, he writes:
“When patients get better by ingesting a sugar pill, medicine defines it as the placebo effect…. I call it the belief effect to stress that our perceptions, whether they are accurate or inaccurate, equally impact our behaviour and our bodies…. When the mind changes, it absolutely affects your biology…. Your beliefs act like filters on a camera, changing how you see the world. And your body adapts to those beliefs. When we truly recognise that our beliefs are that powerful, we hold the key to freedom.”
If our beliefs are powerful enough to change our physical state, and our beliefs reach out beyond us through morphic fields, then that one small individual impact upon the world becomes something different altogether. Like mental alchemy, our contribution ripples out, travelling through the story of connection, changing the world for better or for worse. Maybe, just maybe, our world can be healed one person at a time!
Throughout our conversation, Steve, there has been a word tugging at the edges of my thoughts: responsibility. Might we explore this a bit?
My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that responsibility means, among other things, “authority; the ability to act independently and make decisions” and that responsible can mean “morally accountable for one’s actions; capable of rational conduct” as well as “being the primary cause.” None of these definitions inspire me! They seem lodged in an unhelpful worldview, full of blame and judgment. Perhaps we need new ways of understanding responsibility, which are embedded in community and reciprocity?
When confronted with the enormity of climate change and ecological crisis, we can become overwhelmed by those definitions of responsibility — the horrible realisation of our complicity, our participation in the beliefs and culture which has brought us to this point. The thought of taking personal responsibility seems obscene, after all how on earth could one person carry the burden of being ‘the primary cause?’ We’re further stymied by the appeal to both morality and rationality. How helpful can that be, to saddle our contributions (acting independently and making decisions) to these cultural barometers of behaviour? Taking responsibility for the healing of our world’s complex dilemmas is far too much for any single person.
Taking responsibility for oneself, however: that’s doable, and worthy of our effort. Taking responsibility for oneself, for one’s own healing, is a lifelong project: it demands a tremendous investment of time and attention and energy, not to mention great strength and courage. Sincerely undertaken, it reaps incredible rewards. And now we’re back to paradox: that healing oneself serves others, and contributes to the healing of the world. Through our changed beliefs, through our morphic field, we can heal the world around us by healing ourselves.
In the ‘story of separation’, we must exert force upon others to construct an external change; we seek a tangible outcome for our efforts. We want to see the changes that we’ve made happen, witness our own stamp upon the world. In the ‘story of connection’, we grow change organically by nurturing inward; the outcome of our efforts may not be seen or felt for generations. We trust that we matter, that our thoughts and beliefs and choices and actions have impact, because it is impossible that they don’t. We are connected, so the impact is synonymous with the attention and the intention of our minds.
And that’s where my thoughts have led me, my friend — why don’t we pause here and rest with the word trust. What does it mean, and how does it relate to our topics of discussion?
To be continued: this dialogue will be continued in a future post — but we welcome contributions and further conversation around the question of healing — individual and collective — and the way our psychological and wider culture can emerge into the future…