Over the years, and most especially during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend: people I barely know or do not know at all will send me letters written in the mode of a confession. Completely out of the blue. The writer will not ask after me or mine, nor will he or she in any way include me in what, time was, used to be termed “a conversation.” Instead, the writer, spilling guts onto the page, will speak at me.
What is readily observable is a profound–nay, shocking–level of self-importance together with an inability to even remotely entertain, let alone consider, the life of the recipient. Who is this one to whom I am writing? What is he like, his life like? Would you like to receive this missive shot, yea, from this here cannon? Does he even know me? At all? Why would I spill my secrets onto the page and then hit send without so much as a moment’s hesitation? Why don’t I see anything even scarcely amiss in the whole thing?
Of course, psychotherapists would call this “narcissism,” but here is the rub: I can find no other explanation apart from the near-ubiquity of therapeutic culture to explain this rising trend toward the stranger’s gushing vulnerability.
Take over 100 years of therapy, apply it to urbanites in major cities, and, my God, see what happens. Truth is we are.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any critiques of the therapeutic context that start with something fairly obvious. If someone has grown up going, for years, even decades, to see a therapist, then that person is habituated into an extraordinarily odd, antisocial form of relating to others. The client comes to see that 45, 50, 55, or 60 minutes are his own. He will spill his guts starting at the 1 minute mark and will not think to ask about the therapist, who will not tell him anything about her life anyway. I remember, fairly recently, having an introductory chat with a man who, when I asked him what he’d like to learn about me, said, “I really only want to know what you thought about what I said.” So, I “mirrored” it back to him but not without noting this disturbing request. This man had come to therapeuticize his life and, in turn, others who only figure in his imaginary landscape, one whose center and circumstance is him.
If improperly understood, I submit, the hyper-habituated client will get accustomed to seeing all or most of his relationships (if such is what, to said client, they can still be called) in these terms: the other is here to listen to me so that I can “feel heard,” “feel seen,” and “be understood.” This, after all, is “what I need.” And I’ve learned to “be assertive” and “be empowered” and “use my voice” to speak up for “what I need.”
Oh, you have, have you? Have you ever considered (a) how lonely that existence truly is and (b) how verily you mistreat others in the offing?
Thanks in part to Freud, therapeuticized culture has contributed to secularization in ways that make speaking with priests and pastors about matters of great importance seem superannuated (I don’t mean that this is the only reason why people don’t speak with priests or pastors anymore, only that it’s a significant one). Furthermore, it’s led–not on its own–to the erosion and subsequent loss of civil society (see, e.g., Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart). Neither development has been a beneficial one for individuals and for America.
Apparently, the crucial message–crucial because true–from Fight Club (1999) was never internalized: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Amen! Which, of course, is not to say that I am special or a beautiful and unique snowflake either. Nobody is–and that’s the point. Or everybody, in a blander metaphysical sense is, and that too is the point.
After all, what have wisdom traditions urged upon us? At least these: First, that we consider the other for his own sake (e.g., Aristotle, the Book of Matthew, bodhisattva vows, etc.). Second, that we need to cultivate humility in the presence of what is higher (e.g., St. Benedict). Third, that our egoic desires and impulses are not to be indulged, as is so in narcissism, but restrained, retrained, and purified. And, fourth, that our requests, “demands,” and the like are not final–far from it; in reality, they often go unmet and, from this, we gain first-hand experience of our smallness.
All of what I’ve written above bears on the possibility of love. For you see love is not something I get if I’m lucky or “because I’m deserving.” It’s certainly not something “I need.” Love, rather, is what I give out of the fullness of being and with a view to other and others. In love, my cup runneth over. To be capable of loving one and all, I need to empty myself out fully, not fill myself up, and the other I’ve intruded upon, with my truly empty epistles. To be loving, I must be empty so that I can participate in the whole of life. What I really need is to get real.