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Mapping the Future

Symposium 2011 charts terra incognita

By Mary Sykes Wylie

It’s not every conference that kicks off with an apology, but that’s how Networker Editor Rich Simon started off his welcome address at this year’s Networker Symposium. After shushing the 3,000 therapists buzzing with anticipation at the opening session, Simon asked the audience’s forgiveness for interrupting their chit-chat. “It’s really a shame I have to spoil it all,” he said, “because listening to the music of all that chattering and jabbering—the more or less sustained roar as 3,000 people talk to, between, and over each other all at once—is really my favorite part of the whole conference.” Whatever got said in the plenary session or from workshop podiums throughout the meeting, according to Simon, “the real conference will take place in the thousand conversations people have while sitting in a ballroom waiting for a keynote, at lunch or dinner, or when standing in a line schmoozing with neighbors.” In fact, he concluded, “the Symposium may be the only conference where you should get CE credits for standing in a bathroom line.”

As a professional community, psychotherapists need this kind of extended schmooze-fest more than most. After spending the winter cooped up in their quiet, monastic, little cells, toiling in obscurity, comforting the afflicted, offering wise counsel to the confused, turning the wrathful away from their wrath—mostly unrecognized and often unappreciated—the members of our particular tribe need to get out each spring and feel their connection to a wider world outside that of their day-to-day routine.

Of course, as always, this year’s Symposium assembled the brightest minds in psychotherapy—more than 175 presenters from around the world—to share their knowledge and insights, as well as some truly extraordinary talents from other fields to deliver keynote addresses. At what other conference would you hear addresses from a lineup of speakers like the following: David Whyte, a spellbinding poet Simon described as the “Michael Jordan of the English language”; Sherry Turkle, a visionary thinker, whose recent cautionary book about the psychological impact of the Internet has been likened to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; legendary TV talk-show host Dick Cavett, who’s interviewed everyone from Lester Maddox to Salvador Dalí; Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, focused on the realities of race in post-Obama America; and John Gottman, a psychologist–scientist largely responsible for whatever science exists about marital therapy? Still, you can see, hear, and/or read even such luminaries as these while sitting in a comfy armchair at home, without having to schlep to a hotel ballroom hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. So, why would you bother with all the hassle and expense of travel to attend in person?

What motivates people to make their annual pilgrimage to the Symposium, despite all the good reasons to save money and stay away, is the age-old, irreducible human need for direct eyeball-to-eyeball, voice-to-voice, hand-to-hand contact, and the need to experience the physical thereness of kindred spirits in the same space, the same atmosphere—to become part of the whole gestalt of the thing.

This is really no different from the way it is in “real” life. Most of the meaningful conversations about life and philosophy, work and society, love and war, our own nature as human beings—not to mention about our own individual lives—happen, and always have happened, in the thick of our tribal communities, with family, friends, colleagues, peers, and neighbors. The fact is that, as wonderful as all our new high-tech “communication” devices are—all those thumbs furiously pressing all those tiny keys—there’s something different about being in the actual, physical presence of keynoters, presenters, and, of course, fellow therapists.

So, there we were together, 3,000-strong, listening and often sighing as one when poet David Whyte recited a few lines of a poem: “It doesn’t interest me if there is one God / or many gods. / I want to know if you belong or feel / abandoned, / if you can know despair or see it in others. / I want to know / if you are prepared to live in the world / with its harsh need / to change you. If you can look back / with firm eyes, / saying this is where I stand....” As a single conscious, breathing being, thousands of us really got the message when Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and sociologist, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, said that all of the cyber-gadgets that are eroding the ordinary experience of solitude may, paradoxically, be creating an underlying sense of pervasive loneliness and psychological isolation. A thousand or so of us were right there with journalist Eugene Robinson, who was recalling his wonder and disbelief, as an African American, at seeing the first black man elected president of the United States. And we shared the delight of listening to the still-undefeated Schmoozmeister of the Western World, talk-show host Dick Cavett, shoot the breeze with Networker Editor Rich Simon, who earlier that morning had undergone his annual metamorphosis from tuxedoed master of ceremonies into T-shirt-clad rock star wannabe in an all-stops-out ensemble rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But, whether sitting together listening to a keynote or a workshop, engaging in the kind of back-and-forth conversation with presenters and each other that’s so much a part of this conference, meeting old friends for a glass of wine at the bar, or wandering through the happy bustle of the Exhibit Hall and Café, we were all part of what’s been called a community of practice. It’s as members of such informal communities that we not only acquire a sense of belonging to a particular field, a collective of specialized knowledge and skill, but we actually learn what we need to know to become proficient in that specialty. As it turns out, schmoozing within a community of one’s peers isn’t just a feel-good exercise or an enjoyable way to earn CE credits, but a critical element in how we acquire knowledge and form lasting connections with others in our field.

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