Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
November 2009 - Volume 09, No. 11
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Don’t Stir Things Up

There are two recurring occasions when I take a hard look at my life - and wonder if I’ve been too careful, too soft with my life, not adventurous enough. I’ll wonder how much I’ve withheld myself, how much I’ve played it safe, perhaps betraying a richer wilder part of myself.

The first of these occasions happens every couple months when I donate blood through the local Red Cross. There are those quietly intrusive ‘lifestyle’ questions designed to qualify my blood as safe enough to add to the region’s life-saving blood bank. When I lie there, giving my ‘pint’ of life energy, I glance at those around me doing the same. They also apparently ‘passed the test’ and live a clean lifestyle - and a slight sadness overtakes me. What have we all missed out on?  

When I might humorously mention this to others, the response is rather a congratulatory comment about my having done so well in life - it’s good to have been so good. I try to be grateful for their consideration.  

The second occasion is an annual one - which I just completed a few days ago. Each year I reapply for the necessary Malpractice coverage for my profession. And in the middle of those pages is the “Representation Section.”  There the fear of God (actually the fear of being sued for malpractice) hovers over me, and I breathe a breath of fresh air when I can affirm that I am still “good enough” to warrant their protection. Albeit, if I cannot summarily declare myself clean and pure in each of the seven sub-sections, there is the omnipresent  “please give full particulars in order for your application to be considered.”  Oh, the shame, the shame!

Of course, it’s a professional as well as personal compliment that I’ve kept my life within those firm boundaries. It’s generally understood that virtue is supposed to be its own reward, especially knowing that it’s the scoundrels of the world who are the most inclined to always give the ‘right’ answers. Nevertheless, would I insist my private and personal company always adhere to such safe and tight standards?  It’s an interesting question.

Scene II
A few months ago, I attended a professional seminar on Couples and Affairs - called the stealth bomber of marital happiness. The leader was excellent, and the attending professionals in general were lively companionship. But at one point, it hit me how many of my profession are at heart moralists. The leader was casually nudging us to consider some different boundaries (not what you would at first think), and the immediate and almost universal reaction was a rapid retreat to standard diagnostic boxes like ‘addictive behavior,’ and fancier “bad-makers.”  

Oh my God, I said to myself, we have become the official moralists of the culture! Even though that is contrary to what I have learned to be the essence of traditional psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. That enigma kept buzzing around my head since then.

Then - when I was filling out my Professional Malpractice coverage application, an insight came crashing down on me. It’s the insurance companies, the insurance industry, it’s our culture’s necessity to make sure everybody is safe in our hands. What the police do for the common citizen, the insurance companies do for the professional. They keep us behaving in ways that don’t challenge things, don’t stir things up too much. They prevent us from becoming outlaws.

Yet we love outlaws - and we’re often jealous of their particular brand of freedom and courage. There’s something so “true American” and alive about them. Read a women’s romance novel, and you’ll get a similar taste for the heroic ‘man of courage’ and the courageous romantic heroine, and how they fulfill each other. These each are the “really real people” that stir the juices in the rest of us. But God forbid we would ever become like them - God, and the police, and the insurance companies will protect us. Now add to that list the psychological professionals.

Scene III
In the Summer of 1977, shortly after I opened my practice, I attended a workshop on building and maintaining a Mental Health Private Practice. Among the excellent material presented, the foremost lesson I brought home, and has stayed with me ever since, was this:  It is the essence of good psychotherapy to move a person from safety to risk . The technical language would say, from heteronomy to autonomy, or from bondage to freedom, to self-differentiation (one of those $10 words I really like). We then become defined on our own terms, rather than how others would identify or label us. “Life is trouble, only death is not,” says (the wonderfully self-differentiated) Zorba the Greek, “to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”  

The workshop leader, Morris R. Shechtman, a Chicago psychotherapist, and more recently a successful management consultant, noted that if we were really doing our job, the government would be taking a closer look at us. Since then I’ve realized that the powers that be don’t have to watch us, the insurance companies and lawyers do it for them. We’ve hardly got a chance! Yet I still sometimes consider that the most subversive place in the land may be psychotherapist’s office. We rarely talk about it among ourselves. And what shows up with Oprah and Dr. Phil isn’t what I’m talking about either, nor what’s on the shelves at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

What heartens me even more, is how much our clients hunger for the same thing, and that its usually the therapists who frequently disappoint or abandon them. When I look at each of them carefully (i.e. with care ), they all want some of that radical “realness.”  And we can encourage them step by step - making sure always (1) to do the client no harm, and (2) not just be projecting our own needs and values onto  them.

It’s always been the case that the true revolutionary is by necessity solitary.

You think we’re quiet at parties because of the rule of confidentiality. No, those aren’t the only secrets we keep. We carry a vision that’s far deeper, sometimes more dangerous, and perhaps more illegal. We have a secret high vision of what the human heart can do, what the human soul can know, and what the human spirit can risk.

And sometimes it’s secretly, joyously, at work in what we do - and in our clients.

Now I begin to understand why I’ve spent much of my life not stirring things up myself so much - it’s so that I’m still alive and well enough to begin doing it now - finally. Being older does give us that double advantage, and more freedom. Go Bill!

Pay attention!

Comments (9)

  • Bill..
    It’s good to read that you’re more aware of the necessity of ‘stirring things up’ and more at ease with doing so with age (and wisdom). I am reminded of something you said in conversation with me, when we were on a similar subject: “it's a counterculture thing we do, for the sake of humanity”. How essential it is that we not be just helping to enforce the social/cultural norms...and how ever-so-slightly risky!

    — Michele, 11/15/2009
  • Don’t beat yourself up, Bill. Little steps at a time! I decided to ignore that this November letter came so soon after the October one. And leave it in my IN-Box a week before reading. Is that living on the edge – or what !!!!!!!!!!!!

    — Alice, 11/10/2009
  • Giving Life Saving Blood

    I think I should explain a little more what I mean. You touch so many issues in this newsletter it takes some sorting out for all of us. And yet you seem to have everything you need figured out. How do any of us safely touch another without crossing some line.We all cross those lines everyday without realizing it and hope we can be forgiven. No one is ever good enough that is why we are reaching for the unknown.

    — Carol, 11/3/2009
  • nailed

    You hit the nail on the head this time.

    — Carol Anne Hall, 11/3/2009
  • This was an amazing piece that resonated deeply with me. In total agreement on the insidious societal mechanisms in place to keep us in line. it makes it easy for the societal machine. it’s also self reinforcing as we look at others and seem them all in lock step. The life question for me has always been how far to push without activating at autoimmune reaction.

    — Scott, 11/1/2009
  • Trust me on this, not everybody who donates blood lives a clean life.

    — Jeanne, 11/1/2009
  • Billy boy, this was a little strange. Not sure I would compliment myself for being able to donate blood. Of course that is not all I read. Doubt if many humans are totally satisfied, which they would have done more, seen more, lived on the edge a bit, and then know how satisfying that is, to get out of the comfort zone.
    Might have missed the point, will reread it. Maybe because this is only the first, and you already have Nov out. Now THAT, is living on the edge but also stirring things up. There you go.

    — Jeanne, 11/1/2009
  • The unexamined life

    I’ve usually considered psychotherapy in any form to be a substitute for the quiet and deep reflection necessary to know ourselves, which appears to be the first step in living a satisfactory life. Knowing your own limitations, your own strengths, your own attitudes – there is no substitute. When one shirks that deep reflection, one abdicates his resposibilities and surrenders to whatever moral code he can find. If not some orthodoxy through a religion, then the orthodoxy of TV shrinks, or psychotherapists, or anyone willing to spend time with the person. Usually it’s a hodgepodge of reality TV, talk radio, therapy, and self-justification. Not that anyone cares what I think, but what the heck?

    As for making everything safe – I have long called these types of folks Nerf-worlders – they won’t rest until the whole planet is covered in Nerf and we’re almost perfectly safe.

    Finally, the world has always moved forward faster when there is trouble afoot. Nothing stirs up new thinking quite like having to defeat some threat. That’s why war is always a boon to medicine and technology.

    — Daniel, 11/24/2009
  • I’ve been thinking about sovereignty lately, especially individual sovereignty, and it does seem that fostering deep individual sovereignty is what good psychotherapy and good psychoanalysis do. And good vision quests can do that too. I hadn’t thought of these activities as being radical before, but you’ve changed my mind. Thanks.

    Marsha, 11/15/2009

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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