Reports keep coming about violence, overdose deaths, depression, anxiety and suicide, kids and others. All the alarm bells are ringing. The psyche of our youth is disintegrating. Help is needed but not on the way. The gun psychosis of the U.S. is on full display. While writing this yesterday the latest mass slaughter took place in Buffalo, New York. What is to be done? Get rid of all the guns? Impossible in a nation of savages that worships the Gun and shits all over their God. It seems to boil down to two options: drugs and talk-therapy.
The problem with the various drug-based therapies in vogue is the unevenness and not wholly reliable beneficial effects. Drugs for depression are about as effective as placebo treatments that inspire belief and confidence. Talk therapy is usually preferred and proven to work long-term. But the most needy can’t afford a talk therapist, so they fall back on drugs, and their mixed effects and proven mortal dangers.
My question is, Must we pay someone we can talk to about the issues of our soul life? Are we such a humanly destitute society? Are we so atomized and isolated that we can’t find anyone we can trust when we’re in a psychological jam? Do we have to shell out hard cash for a little human attentiveness? Do we have to sign up for an appointment months in advance with some kind of specialist when all we can think of is suicide? Is there no one nearby I can turn to for the word or gesture I need to carry on?
In light of the problem of talk therapist shortage, I want to say something about a basic skill we have and need to function in everyday life—the ability to communicate with each other. This is a skill that takes many forms. An obvious distinction is between good and bad motivations.
For instance, there is a large and motley category of such skills that center around advertising, profiteering, conspiracy-mongering, deliberate falsifying, assassination of character, propaganda, manipulation, denigration, vituperation—and so on. Here the aim of communication is exploitation, mendacity, if not outright destruction. We’re awash in seas of this psycho-spiritual trash.
Consider a more positive suggestion. People are suffering—we all do, sooner or later—and nobody is listening. So it might be useful to think about learning how to listen to each other. We all know people we feel comfortable baring our souls with; others cause us politely to withdraw behind our persona—Latin for mask. When was the last ‘conversation’ you had that was actually a monologue?
If enough of us managed to get pretty good at listening to one another, it might reduce the talk therapist shortage. Granted that for your garden-variety egotist, learning to listen to others might require divine intervention; but for folks who appreciate the diversity of life, tuning into the consciousness of another can be learned.
John Keats said that Shakespeare had “negative capacity,” his consciousness being so wide and open that he was free to inhabit all the characters he brought to life in his plays. We could use some of that negative capacity. If only it were an active part of what we call higher education and the humanities, the benefits would overflow the boundaries of the academy and filter their way through the general population. And we would all be a little more human than we tend to be in our current dystopia.
Each of us might cultivate our own “negative capacity,” our attunement to the mystery of the other. But it turns out we have another skill or human capacity that is a bit more mysterious than the thinking and feeling skills mentioned so far, also a bit more controversial, namely, intuition.
I could use the word telepathy, but better would be empathy. Empathic is when you directly share the feeling, inhabit the perspective of another person’s world. You feel it as if it were your own. So, in this strong sense, to listen means the ability to stretch our identity and feel the intimacy, but at the same time, remain detached.
So all this can be done, practiced and improved upon, even in the course of everyday life. Who doesn’t have incidents in a supermarket or at a gas station or with a stranger crossed in a street—a happening, an exchange of words, a mutual glance, a nod, a smile? The field of heart and imagination is everywhere. A slight but subtle exchange of good spirits that can make your day.
What is needed, in my opinion, are not more nurses, doctors, talk therapy, or drugs; what we need is a new world with new values that serve life, not the instruments of oppression, mendacity, and destruction. But where to begin? you ask. Learn how to listen to each other; it’s more pleasant than killing each other.