The theme of this year's Networker Symposium was "The Power of Relationship: From Isolation to Connection." Of course, with its impossible four syllables, relationship is an abstract mouthful of a word. Still, no better term has replaced it when discussing . . . well, relationships. The same can be said of isolation and connection. But that's the trouble with big, important-sounding conference titles—they often remain an abstraction, lacking a lived meaning.
So the job of a good conference, particularly one with a grandiose title, is to recapture the sense of vibrant meaning in a collection of overused words. At its best, a memorable professional gathering offers its attendees a rollercoaster of emotion: exhilaration, momentary boredom, intellectual absorption, and exhaustion, along with conversations that soar and quiet spur-of-the-moment insights. When they work, conferences induce an altered, trancelike state that may just be an enlarged version of the therapeutic enterprise itself. After all, therapy is drama, the coalescing of character and conversation in what—at times—can become a sacred space. In fact, these were the elements of the drama developed by the ancient Greeks, who came together to watch the play of men under the canopy of the heavens. Now, a few millennia later, in huge hotel ballrooms that seat thousands, the drama of a good conference can be both theatrically epic and therapeutically intimate.
This year's Symposium opened with the first public performance of the 80-member Symposium Tabernacle Choir and Marching Band, a ragtag assemblage of volunteers recruited at the last minute to welcome the multitude of 3,600 therapists during the opening ceremonies with a rendition of "Old Friends," a hymn to enduring relationship composed by Stephen Sondheim. The production number was marked by its utter rank-and-file amateurism, along with balloons, kazoos, and red-Styrofoam noses. The implicit message: it's good not to take yourself too seriously. What therapist (or modest human being) doesn't know this? Yet this is an awareness that can be forgotten in the stiff professionalism of too many therapist gatherings. From its opening moments, the Symposium brought home to its participants a simple, visceral insight: play softens the world.