When Your Therapist Doesn’t Share Your Faith

A few potential clients asked me this the first time we spoke on the phone:

Are you Christian?

Since I’m not, the call soon ended.

I never tried to talk them out of their decision. Not that I could have.

The choice of practitioner involves numerous factors, but one shouldn’t dismiss the importance of religion. For many, it represents a major pillar of their lives and a source of sustenance.

Nor should the helping professional disregard it in a new client who never asked about whether he believed in a higher power.

A counselor must respect your creed. The doctrine you hold offers guidance in morality. Therefore, you possess the right to expect the practitioner to be principled, even if not identical to yourself in his every value and code of conduct.

From this retired clinician’s standpoint, a professional who adheres to a different faith requires two levels of acceptance of his new patient:

First, she needs to remember the beliefs and motivations of the human race are dependent on a large component of instinct and emotion. Because we lack scientific proof of God’s existence, religious differences begin from a base of uncertainty.

No wonder there are thousands of Christian denominations alone, all basing justification for their understanding of proper Christianity on the same book.

No one in the mental health profession encounters a robot-like slice of humanity without a core of emotion. If such people existed anywhere, they would consult computer programmers for all their sadness and anxiety.

Second, the practice of treatment with words includes the ability to accept homo sapien frailty. No healer has every answer.

He must recognize his own limitations, his patient’s foibles and model for the client a generous, empathic embrace of the human condition despite the condition of humanity.

Some of those in search of psychological help believe shared faith ensures security. Unfortunately, supposed identical beliefs may enhance a false sense of safety and enlarge the opportunity for the authority figure to harm one who comes for his aid.

A therapist always starts by playing catch-up. He attempts to accumulate information about this woman or man with speed. The client’s belief system adds to his understanding.

I treated adherents to multiple forms of many religions and of no religion. To understand Christians, I read historical volumes and enlarged my familiarity with the New Testament. I also began to educate myself about Buddhism when I worked with my first adherent to this Eastern way of living.

In cases involving sexual abuse, I occasionally consulted ministers or priests who were not among my clientele. Misfortunes challenging to the patient’s faith led me to encounter questions impossible to respond to from a position of religious authority. Among these was how a supposedly all-good and all-powerful Deity permitted such suffering.

When one woman wondered how to manage her rage toward God. I encouraged her to meet with a sympathetic priest. He offered her a transformational change in viewpoint:

If you choose to speak to the Lord about your anger, that too is a form of prayer.

Her faith remained intact.

On occasion, the helping professional walks an invisible line between supporting the client and undermining her credo. He takes care not to rob the sufferer of the spiritual reliance upon which she depends.

Too often, a patient encounters co-religionists who shun her because of her alleged moral failure or absence of prompt forgiveness of devastating injuries.

The same challenge occurs if she is told her emotional pain demonstrates a lack of commitment to the Almighty’s requirements. So-called righteous individuals have been known to blame unhappiness on insufficient prayer or shaky fidelity to dogma.

The counselor needs to negotiate this tightrope-like pathway regardless of his own doctrinal attitudes or their absence. The personal bias of an atheist social worker is not necessarily less or more than the prejudice held by a therapist who belongs to the patient’s community of faith.

Religion can connect the individual to something beyond himself. Our secular and isolated world of individualism leaves many without a sense of higher values. I needn’t explain the problems of too great a focus on the self, material success, or the tribe.

While religious differences present unique challenges, other variables also impact the doctor-patient relationship. These include age, race, nationality, gender, background, politics, personality, sexual identity, therapeutic orientation, and more.

Experienced and talented counselors work to create the human connection needed for healing. When such souls are suited to their vocation, they welcome the enlargement of their own humanity by encountering and assisting people unlike them.

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All three of the images are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is The Battle between the Gods and the Giants, 1608, by Joachim Antonisz Wtewael. Next comes Sunset, 1930, by Paul Klee. Finally, Bodhisattva, from 8th century, Japan.

An Unusual Way to Think About Life When in Despair

Here is something you probably haven’t encountered in the self-help realm. The therapeutic aid applies in a world where trust is challenged 24/7, as it now is.

A story is required to explain it. No religious belief is needed, though the lesson can be found in sacred writing.

The Genesis tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, places of exceptional immorality, tells of God’s decision to destroy those cities and every person within them.

The Master of the Universe talks with Abraham before the destruction, a man honored by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He respectfully pushes back on the Almighty’s sweeping judgment to punish everyone, the decent along with the evil.

This worthy individual reminds God of his role as “the Judge of all the earth.” He asks the Lord whether the wicked and the righteous should share the same fate.

Might the Creator be willing, the Jewish patriarch asks, to spare the planned eradication if 50 upright souls reside within the doomed cities?

God agrees: he will save the entirety of those evil places if 50 exist.

The conversation with the Lord continues. Each time Abraham pleads for the Deity to lower the requirement. The discussion concludes with an agreement to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 honorable souls.

In the end, only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his small family are deemed virtuous by angels who search for 10 upstanding citizens. Short of the number required for the towns to escape God’s wrath, they alone are permitted to flee.

Many themes are present in this biblical tale. Its emphasis on the value of each individual prompted this essay. God is prepared to spare all the guilty for the sake of a few who are good. He allows a family below the promised number to depart.

What advice might grow from this?

When in despair over your life or the state of the world, perhaps consider something else. Yes, we live in a troubled time in which much harm occurs each day. We have all been hurt or afraid in this challenging moment.

Yet, you might pause to evaluate whether anyone you know or are aware of is decent?

I imagine someone will occur to you. Does the presence of even one such individual encourage you to continue to recognize your life, too, has value?

Now think of someone who might also be facing challenges. They may be thinking of you as someone whose existence lightens their burden. You make their life better simply by being here.

Maybe you do things for them for which they are grateful. Your benign presence or characteristic kindness allows them to take heart. Your laughter or cleverness brings joy, distraction, and their gladness they are alive to hear it.

The world needs many things: wisdom, courage, and generosity come to mind, in addition to those qualities mentioned above. But just as Abraham argued that a handful would justify God’s leniency, I will argue one needn’t be a superhero to uphold the human race despite the messes we humans make.

The kind heart found in a single neighbor, friend, and even within you adds to the conversation about the value of life and living. I hope you can find yourself on the list of those with at least one good quality. Earth is a place where other admirable souls you know or have heard of also reside.

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The Descent Towards Sodom by Marc Chagall, 1931. Abraham is surrounded by three angels. The image is sourced from Wikiart.org.

Confused by Friends, Family, and Neighbors? Why is the World so Messy?

When I think back to my Chicago Public School education, only two answers existed for the many questions presented to us. One was right, the other wrong.

No, I suppose it wasn’t quite so simple. I had to find the one right answer. All the rest were wrong.

It is evident today that even my five-year-old grandson has opinions, and an astonishing number of us choose to believe a select group of those who deliver opinions. Unlike my elementary school, our country doesn’t agree on the question of what’s right and what’s wrong.

What shall we do with this condition of our equally human lives together? We are assailed by so many who offer a certainty not shared by other voices. They and we live in unshared tents of true belief.

First, dear reader, I don’t want you to accept automatically what I’m about to offer you. I don’t want you to receive my ideas without asking yourself about them. If you don’t step back and consider whether I’m wrong, I shall become another of those supposed authorities who might mislead you by accident or the intention to deceive.

Let’s get back to what I learned early in life.

My sliver of religious education encountered authorities similar to the secular ones employed by the city, in this case having to do with alleged truth about our obligations to a creator and fellow mortals.

Depending on one’s religion, one received God’s all-knowing words, some etched into long-unavailable stone tablets. So the believers believed.

Friends told me about the Catholic churches of the time. Bible reading was discouraged. The priest would inform you of all you needed. Accepting his pronouncements was expected.

The various authorities delivered top-down stature and insistence. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t dare ask who or what is in the boat or where the vessel is docked.

You could ask questions in these centers of learning, but I didn’t ask many early on—most who did attempted to understand what the teacher or the text said, not challenge the instructor.

Parents also authored a version of the law: the rules of the home and how to behave outside. Again, follow the drill. If you don’t, no thrill.

If the city elders put a sign on the Chicago block containing Jamieson School — the gigantic mortar and brick edifice I attended through the eighth grade, it would have read:

WANT TO FAIL? ASK QUESTIONS!

Somehow I got a doctorate. I made a jump of several years here. Hope you are still with me.

What was going on then? What is going on today?

The average American has not been encouraged to ask queries of himself. Not well-considered, thoughtful ones, at least. For example, when the teacher told us about slavery, the telling including a few uncomplicated explanations of how and why.

Almost no instructor asked students, what else? Might there have been other causes, more or fewer?

We could have been asked, “What do you think was going on in the minds of the slaveholders? What motivated them? If you were a slave, how would you have felt?”

Many of the slaveholders claimed adherence to high-minded religious principles. How did these “masters” combine the vision of a loving God with their treatment of men they considered property?

What does this tell us about the ability of some folks to hold contradictions in their minds? Do you think the plantation owners resolved those contradictory beliefs and actions? How? Do such contradictions present themselves in today’s world? Do they live inside you?

What would you have done if you were the son of a mom and dad who kept slaves? Can you be sure without having lived in that moment, in an identical place and time?

Well, you can imagine. If I taught such a class to young people in certain places today, I’d be terminated along with this agenda.

To my benefit, I was a curious kid, one who led a one-person in-home questioning of my family’s life on Talman Avenue.

Whatever the cause, most of us should harbor lots of questions about the world we live in. An endless number. In particular, those without easy answers

Even before we start, however, we must begin by observing more of the world. Socrates, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers said a typical person sleepwalks his way through life. We see without awareness. We hear without listening.

We peek at life through a tiny lens — as if through the small end of a funnel. We walk down the street peering into phones, examining texts, tweets, headlines, and emails fed to us by those opinionated others I mentioned before. Taking selfies along the way, as well. Everything gets blurry.

Meanwhile, if you challenge yourself to absorb everything else, you might see without a funnel. Notice the road. Why is it closed off? Perhaps you would wonder who decided this? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? How are the asphalt and labor paid for?
 
You’d see homeless people instead of walking past them as we tend to do with discarded furniture, recognizing the humanity in them described in Sabbath sermons. Do these creatures cause problems? How? What do they need? What is your responsibility? Where do they sleep?
 
Recognize the weathered skin of those too long in the sun. Were they born to other homeless people? Did medical bills lead to the loss of proper shelter? Was prescribed medication a stepping stone to addiction?
 
You’d see trees and insects. In some locals, few flies, bees, and butterflies live. Was it always this way? What explains their reduction in numbers? What happens when these beings are in short supply? Are there human consequences due to their diminished number?
 
Do you know population growth is slowing in many countries? This started before the pandemic. Is it a good thing or not? Why are people having fewer babies? How significant a factor is a living wage to the decision to have a child?
 
If you take another intellectual step, immigration policy enters your conversation with yourself. Pro or con? More newcomers would increase the number of inhabitants and produce more children. Helpful for business or not?

I hope you recognize how many issues like this are interconnected with other observations you might make as you widen your eyes to consume what is in front and around you. Prepare yourself for one question leading to another. The experience can be both unsettling and exciting.


We are interlinked to things, bugs, bridges, people, the folks harvesting our crops, the guy who collects our garbage, the environment, the people who build businesses, the men and women working three jobs of necessity, and the police.

We are attached to entities like us who toil in never heard of villages or cities, absent from dusty maps. Some are decent, some indecent, some would give you the shoes they use to walk, and others would steal yours and laugh about it.
 
Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus all observed their neighbors’ failure to open themselves to the world, wonder about it, and raise internal inquiries instead of accepting the opinions of those thought to be more learned or wise. They believed this the natural state of humanity.
 
Why? Why do we hear but don’t listen? Why do we step forward through the day, the places, and the living things without “seeing” them?
 
Why don’t we reflect upon what we perceive of this magnificent, baffling, racing life and begin more questioning rather than reflexively buying into so-called authorities, assuming they are right?
 
The philosophers I mentioned suggested explanations like this one:

We want simple answers. Quick conclusions making us feel better are preferred, whether they help us feel secure, confident, and adequate or project blame for hard times on others instead of ourselves.

If a person admits he doesn’t understand something by asking a question, he risks self-doubt. If this man is unsure around associates, he may appear foolish.

Uncertainty experienced within our complicated lives provokes anxiety for many. Confused, shaky members of the group can be cast out or lose status. Rejecting the accepted ideas of the tribe breaches the unstated rules of membership.

The world is a demanding, competitive place, where few own the luxury of time. It is one where fairness and prosperity are not guaranteed. Making a living, finding a mate, achieving a safe place to live, and raising decent and healthy children can’t be assumed.
 
Better, many believe, not to overthink what others don’t ask about, thus avoiding worry. Last, we cannot escape the grim reaper: death. We will die, as will everyone we know or will know, those dearest to us included—another troublesome topic to be set aside instinctively.
 
Few have the courage to look at the most pressing conditions of existence in the face, nor the person seen in their mirror. Thus, only the strongest can take on the surroundings in one swallow that includes everything — the beautiful and the awful together.
 
Small bites of the least unsettling bits of it come naturally to the human condition. No, don’t ask too many troublesome questions without comforting, fortifying answers. When in doubt, trust your friends and maybe the people they trust. If you take a widemouthed gulp of the whole world, you might drown.
 
Ah, but the same philosophers also believed there is an upside here. If you are brave enough to perceive everything as it is and engage in questions on a large scale, you will become a more excellent person. You may then alter your life’s path and the history of those around you.

This kind of courage, curiosity, and wonder offers engagement with whatever exists ahead. The well-being you want for those you love and the world’s future requires people such as you shall thereby become.


The possibility of discovering the best possible version of yourself remains down this road. I hope you seek it.

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The first image is the Yukon River, Dalton Highway, Alaska by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission. Next comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Waiting. Finally, a Buddhist Lama, 1913, sourced from History Daily.

Holding Hope Lightly

Things happen. The old joke tells us, “If you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans.” Whatever the cause of your disappointment, you will not get everything you want.

Your future depends on what you do then — what attitude you take to the downturns of life.

Buddhists say, “Live the life you have, not the one you want.If you aim for stardom in the National Basketball Association, but Mother Nature and your ancestors’ genes allow you 5’5″ (1.65 meters) of height, the life you want is above you, beyond your short reach.

A wonderful lifetime might still be yours, but it won’t be in the arms of your first love career.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said beings are “thrown into life.Moreover, we emerge in circumstances we didn’t choose; lucky, unlucky, or a mixture. Skin color, nationality, the care we receive growing up, our inborn body and brain all greet us from the start.

Over time, no matter those who love us, oversee or mistreat us, we are left to give control of our lives to others or take responsibility for ourselves.

What choice do we have? What does responsibility even mean?

Every individual decides whether to take a direction set by someone else (an advisor, parent, protector, or Divinity). If he accepts the necessity of following that route, he will find limitations imposed on his choices and behavior.

For example:

  • Go to church on Sunday?Yes.
  • Take the name of the Lord in vain?No.

But, as many have noted, there is no certainty of the authority behind those answers. If we accept them, we trust both the guide and his or her guidance. We take them on faith. The world of worshipful belief offers over 200 varieties of Christianity in the USA alone and an estimated variety of more than 4000 religions worldwide.

Instead, Heidegger advises, we can give our actions importance and weight from within ourselves.

The job entails examining the world of things and people, including our history and that of the world. We must behold life’s wonders and risks to find our own human and moral internal grounding for the beliefs and behaviors we create.

We can provide reasons for shaping our own life without an answer to the question of what external to us might ground our being. No absolute knowledge is possible, the philosopher states, of how we came to be, why we came to be, or what necessitates the continuation of our being and planet and all its other current and future inhabitants.

The boundaries we impose will be of our own making, knowing when to stand firm and when to give in, when to go first and when to wait, when to say yes and when to say no.

Whatever we decide, we will obtain mixed results.

Unlike the practical, industrious piglet of the “Three Little Pigs” fable, we humans discover that the effort required to build our security is sometimes inadequate to unpredictable whirlwind events blowing our houses down.

Nonetheless, we can hope our mindset will allow joy in the precious moments without demanding life to behave itself and be what it cannot. Grief and the best of times stand beside each other in all but the luckiest and unluckiest lives.

Potential insecurity follows from the freedom and responsibility of grounding ourselves without a religious belief system. Choosing one’s own path omits the comfort attainable by people of abiding faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving Deity. Religion can also be a buffer against mortality and enable a sense of support in periods of misfortune.

Either way, we make our selection and, if we are sympathetic to the array of other life forms present and ahead, consider more than our own happiness. Responsibility doesn’t mean doing anything we want. We must adjust our stance as our living of life informs us of what we require, what we love, and our duties to others and the world.

The psychologist Robert Wright reported attending a meditation retreat for several days. Little opportunity for conversation occurred. Rather, undertaking individual meditation was the focus, with occasional consultations from an experienced guide.

Wright has written and spoken about struggling to achieve a satisfying practice of this art. However, to his delight, he achieved a transcendent experience in the midst of a long meditation session, a sense of benign well-being and relief from the burden of life, something beyond his imagination.


Soon after, he told his advisor what happened. Our professor of psychology received an answer both sobering and enlightening.That’s fine, but don’t get too attached to it.

In saying this, his mentor reminded him that too much desire, too much “wanting,” would contribute to suffering. Nothing lasts, and the transcendental moment might not return.

What then?

In an ever-changing world, in an ever-changing body and mind, we are in transit. More joy may be available if we hold our hopes lightly: keep the shortness of our days in the back of our minds and our eyes on the possibilities of the moment we are in.

Cheers to the happiest possible life, my friends.

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Letting Go is the name of the first image, the work of gnuckx. Next comes A Sunrise Over the Virgin River by Laura Hedien. A Semblance of Hope, a photo of Jojo Lacerona, follows. Laura Hedien’s March 2021 image of a Utah Sunrise completes the array after the Three Little Pigs video.

The first and third of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Laura Hedien’s work can be found at https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ She has given me her kind permission to use the photographs displayed here.

When God Wrote a Symphony

God can do anything.

At least the All-powerful One who created the universe and all the living things in it.

But, on a remarkable day, the Almighty got bored. “I’ve done everything,” he said to himself. “What might I yet do to enhance the world?”

Thus came the idea of a new, mammoth orchestral composition–a piece in three long movements on the largest possible scale. “And so it was.”

The next morning every person on the planet, no matter their age or place, awoke with sheet music and the musical instrument required.

They’d shared a dream overnight, instructing them to practice their portion each day with the newfound talent instilled by The Timeless Being.

In six months, they now knew, God would lead the premiere.

Ah, but we creatures aren’t perfect, are we? Otherwise, why did the Lord drown his people in The Flood? All but Noah, his family, and an ark full of pairs, that is.

Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t come out well, either.

Indeed, one little man in the Deity’s band was already troubled. A diminutive tailor named Thomas read through the score, distressed to discover he had a solo. A star turn in front of the whole world. A cymbal crash, no less. His would be the climactic moment of the entire piece, the capping culmination, its ending excellence.

The clothier, you must understand, preferred the shadows to the stage, avoiding attention his entire life. He worried about bringing his cymbals together a moment too soon, a beat too late, making his noise too loud or soft, or bumping into a fellow percussionist.

Thomas doubted everything about himself. He always had. On this occasion, however, he’d not only be letting himself and humanity down but The Big Guy. Or Woman. Or whatever gender description is appropriate for the Immortal.

What might happen? Would the Supreme Being submerge the earth a second time? The responsibility squeezed Thomas’s heart. He couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and lost weight. “God, help me!” pleaded Tom.

No answer came.

The day began. All the living world instantly arrived at an enormous space in Africa. Humankind found itself onstage, surrounded by the rest, in the water, trees, open lands, air, and hills.

After the ensemble tuned, the Maker stepped off his golden chariot and took the podium. The music commenced.

The first movement took eight years to play, but even Thomas thought the celestial tones beautiful beyond imagination. It enchanted the universe of listeners, too, even the man in the moon. Still, as time passed, this musician’s timorous anticipation grew.

After a brief pause, the Lord’s downbeat launched the second section, seven-years in length. The flawless symphonic sounds soared even beyond the loveliness of what had preceded it. Birds froze in mid-flight, transfixed. The giraffes and hippos, the alligators, too, found their eyes glistening. All the collective hearts conjoined, every living creature in synch.

Except for our buddy, of course.

By the beginning of the symphony’s third part, the single suffering soul was beside himself. The cymbal crash lay 10 years ahead. He wrung his hands, wiped his brow, and began to shake.

The decade passed. At last, the moment!

God turned in the cymbalist’s direction, providing the cue. Thomas lifted the metal plates, and then…

Everyone heard the clatter. But it was the sound of Tom dropping the cymbals, not putting the intended final punctuation to the Divinity’s glorious score, 25 years of perfection since the heavenly baton first moved.

The Deity lowered his arms, the performers froze, and the world held its breath. Thomas looked down, but the Immortal One raised the tailor’s head and opened his humiliated, terror-struck eyes to meet his own.

The gaze, as Tom experienced it, felt as though it went on for eternity. In clock time, however, perhaps just a few seconds elapsed.

The composing Creator composed himself and turned to behold the philharmonic altogether.

And he said the only thing a great, eternal musician would say.

“From the top!”

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The first design is Frontiepiece K, The Ancient of Days, to William Blake’s 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. The next image is God Speed! by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sourced from wikiart.org. Shiva as the Lord of the Dance is the last artwork, created in India. It dates from the 10th or 11th century, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Collection.

Consolation and Hope in a Challenging Time

On most days, I wouldn’t be quoting President Abraham Lincoln. At a different time, this atheist might not be looking for solace in scripture, though I am often comforted when I do.

Today I’m doing both and offering their consolation to you.

Lincoln, this country’s Civil War President, authorized a day of “national prayer and humiliation” in the midst of that war. His proclamation reads, in part:

I do … designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite … in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

Humiliation fits for this time, too, just after the storming of the Capitol. Fasting fits, as is expected on the annual Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Self-reflection is necessary. Humility and prayer create the appropriate attitude and mood for the occasion.

People are dying. Loneliness overwhelms many, poverty and joblessness terrify, sadness covers the homes and the hearts. Then came the mob.

Humiliation, indeed.

Yet, there is hope.

Lincoln’s leadership continued under even more challenging circumstances.

As the Civil War neared its end, the President offered these lines in closing his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865. His message was one of reconciliation between opposing sides:

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln knew our job is always to repair the world.

Reverend William Sloane Coffin, 100 years later, knew it, too. He offered this in prayer: 

Lord … Number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth … longing only for those things for which Thee dost make us long, men for whom the complexity of issues only serves to renew their zeal to deal with them, men who allieviated pain by sharing it, and men who are always willing to risk something big for something good — so may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, and a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not — but still could be. …

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The top painting is called Woman at Prayer by Harry Wilson Watrous. Next comes The Morning Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch. The final image is the photo of a Nomad Prayer taken in an African desert, sometime between 1931 and 1936. The photographer was Kazimierz Nowak.

William Sloane Coffin’s prayer can be heard near the end of the award-winning radio collage/documentary created by Studs Terkel and Jim Unrath, Born to Live: https://beta.prx.org/stories/118275

When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

We all hear stories of political differences breaking families and friendships, setting neighbor against neighbor. Romantic partners recoil upon discovery their partner excuses inhumane and unconscionable policies advocated by elected officials.

Oh, my, who is this person?enters their mind if not their speech.

But what happens to the relationship between a therapist and his patient when religion or politics slips under the door?

We don’t ask about party affiliation when someone requests an appointment. Nor do patients tend to inquire who a potential counselor is voting for, though I fielded occasional questions about my creed before a possible client booked a session.

Therefore a few did not.

Revelations about the client’s convictions are, like his history, something unveiled during the treatment’s course. Counselors try to separate political and religious ideas (indeed, values in general) from their effort to help improve their patient’s life.

Health care practitioners do not treat only those who share our world view or the prospect of a life beyond.

A majority of written records of Christian patients filled-up my locked metal file cabinets. Productive therapeutic relationships with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics made up my practice, as well.

One who wishes to understand a new person intends to learn about his overall background, including the role faith plays, if any. I found religion to be an essential boon to some, the steadying foundation upon which they mounted their life.

I came to recognize a number, however, whose sense of inadequacy appeared tied to church teaching.

Sometimes they had so-called “devout” parents who condemned, abused, or neglected them from an early age. Others described a painful lack of support experienced in their adult faith community. Some felt judged because their reliance upon God alone proved insufficient to surmount their psychological injuries.

In these cases, I asked questions to prompt reflection on the complications of the views and people they were struggling with, as well as their benefits. If they resisted, I worked around the problem and dealt with what was permitted. My approach with the non-religious was similar.

What does this (belief, or behavior, action, or inaction) cost you?

Part of the counselor’s dilemma is this: certain viewpoints and values, scriptural or political, can be like the most important load-bearing walls within a home. To remove or fracture such supports will cause the whole building to buckle if not collapse.

Strong opinions about politics share characteristics with dogmatic religious ones. Unshakable gut reactions often drive those certainties. Reasoning about them is not the job of a helping professional and is fruitless in any case.

While a devoted person might offer a rationale for his choice of church or candidate, Jonathan Haidt’s research underlines the extent to which emotions, not logical thought, precede these convictions. Reason tends to follow long-imbedded, instinctual affiliations, not create them.

The therapeutic process of unwinding self-injurious attachments of this kind is usually more than psychotherapy can or should take on.

Healers must be wary of their own limitations and biases. A danger exists when formidable gaps take up the space between the personal ideals and principles held by their patient and themselves.

Those differences transform the doctor’s singular focus of aiding a fellow human’s quest for a better life. He now risks harming the sufferer by inadvertent indifference, failing empathy, or judgmental statements. Body language and facial expressions, as well, may intrude on the benevolence needed to help.

The individuals we take in our charge depend on our goodwill. No one desires to gaze at narrowed eyes seemingly edged with daggers. Past history has already filled their cup of accumulated unkindness above the “full” mark.

In addition to suicide, the most extreme tendencies our clients bring to us are problems of lawbreaking and a threat to the safety of the community. If we meet a spousal abuser seated in our office, it matters little whether the person claims his denomination or politics justifies his brutality.

A therapist’s responsibilities include protection of life if the patient poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others, regardless.

I am sure there are people I could not engage in a joint healing project because of my feelings about their beliefs, especially in the current pandemic-infused election leadup. A white supremacist would be just one such example for most counselors.

Perhaps outpatient therapists are fortunate because antisocial extremists tend not to seek our service. By the time they reach the stage of showing force or worse, few unburden their souls to strangers. A therapist is neither a magician nor a divine being. More than ever, he must acknowledge his limits to himself. His job inside those boundaries is difficult enough.

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The top image is “The Bramante Staircase,” Vatican Museums, as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next comes The Horseshoe Falls, Niagra,” by William England. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

In a world rife with helplessness, an old friend comes to mind. His memory provides one answer to the question of life’s meaning in a moment suggestive of a heartless and strange cosmic order.

You would not think Joe Pribyl a remarkable man upon first acquaintance.

Some people possess an arresting presence. Joe did not. A stocky man, a bit under average height, he had graying hair and lacked whatever grace or style makes some people appear to be wearing a custom-made suit instead of a borrowed wardrobe.

My friend’s facial features didn’t betray high distinction either, except perhaps for deep vertical creases and old acne scars, of which Joe possessed more than a few. Yet it did convey warmth and approachability, more appreciable than any sculptural handsomeness.

At the start, I thought his everyman quality diminished him. Before the end of his life, however, I realized the inseparability of his nature and goodness from the human community.

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

Joe was a man of faith, admired by a faithless soul like me. Roman Catholic from start to finish, living his Sunday-service-beliefs every day. His grace came not from appearance, but kindness toward others, from waitresses to total strangers. The essence of his being was on display, fully himself, the rare unselfconscious human with nothing hidden.

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

For years this therapist and his wife, Mary, also a psychologist in the practice they shared, organized a mission to Central America. The well-matched couple brought books to educate the sea of dispossessed, illiterate, and impoverished brown youngsters most of us don’t consider.

Doctor Pribyl did not consign a remedy for the world’s ills to someone else.

Brave enough to display tears, my friend never wept for himself, but others. Yet Joe was one of the few people I ever met who was content.

The healer displayed remarkable equanimity and courage in dealing with the near-death experience of a heart attack in a foreign and ill-equipped land. Later cancer stalked him, hanging around, as it sometimes does, never quite vanishing. Joe integrated the latter disease into the fabric of his existence as a natural event, not a matter of personal unfairness or rage.

On display was all the towering distinction my friend’s physicality lacked, but only if you focused hard, long, and understood him well.

Death came, a bigger than life opponent with an undefeated record, but not before Joe tricked the grim reaper into allowing additional time for attention to his patients, the woman he loved, the family dearest to him, and his lucky friends. I’ve never witnessed a better magic act.

In the overtime, extra-time of Joe’s life, I talked with him about my new grandson, almost two-years-old when the therapist passed. Grandparents wonder what the future holds for the little ones, who they will become.

I’m sorry Joe isn’t around to represent what one man can be, can do. If my grandsons were older and Joe still alive, I might point to him and say, “Look, look at this fine person. Look beyond appearances. This is a man. My friend is what a man should try to be.

This gentile soul, dead almost two years and a confidant for half my life, was a quiet fellow with an easy laugh. He didn’t come to impress you. While some people converse to be heard, he came to know you. There was little judgment in him.

His self-effacing way, at first, made me think nothing of his offer of friendship. Before the end, I recognized him as one of the great gifts of my life.

Thinking about Joe this morning, I reflected on the question with which I began this essay.

How do we persuade ourselves of a just deity in the face of all the world’s casualties? I imagined myself, a non-believer, asked to defend God in a criminal proceeding.

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

First, the prosecutor made his case, piling up the innumerable instances of tragedy, natural and human. Of disease and murder, duplicity, betrayal, racism, slavery, and wartime. Of geological catastrophes sweeping the multitudes away, Jehovah’s Old Testament, self-created flood included.

The lawyer went on for hours and even cut short the presentation, convinced his case irrefutable. I doubted my argument in God’s defense: Joe’s life as an example of God’s best work, best man.

My turn came, the Lord’s defender. I told stories about my friend, including much of what you now know. I didn’t go on for long.

The verdict came from the bench, not a jury. The female presiding wore a blindfold, as Justice is supposed to. She gripped the scales in her right hand, on one side piled high with the prosecutor’s evidence.

On the other sat Joe, since no graven images or likenesses of the Almighty are allowed us. My friend’s figure lay in the shadow of the towering count of accusations against the God of his belief. The adjudicator would soon release the balance she maintained, allowing the evidence to determine the outcome.

A courtroom full of eyes were on the apparatus, waiting for its pivot, though I couldn’t watch. I’m told for a moment nothing happened, then the scales of justice shuddered and a grinding, terrifying sound came out of nowhere.

I looked up. One side plunged.

I cannot tell you how I knew, but beneath her blindfold, I’m certain Lady Justice was winking at me.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

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The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/

Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

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The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.