RH: A true grassroots organization.
PIPHER: Most of us are educated to believe we’re powerless, and that we need some superhero to come along and rescue us. In fact, neither one of those things is true. We aren’t powerless; we only lose it when we give up. It looks like tomorrow a bill is going to be heard and voted on in our capitol that basically gives our state to the pipeline. Everyone in the organization, we’re going to be there listening to the testimony, even though we know we probably can’t affect the vote. And it may be an important turning point for the worse in this struggle, or it may be a catalytic event that really helps the entire state just say no to these legislators.
RH: So what do people need to become more involved in fighting for the things they believe in?
PIPHER: People are eager to hear that they have power and that they can do something. Now it turns out you can have a lot more power than you think. Take, for example, all the news right now about the pink slime, this strange ingredient in beef. It’s led to companies going bankrupt and supermarkets dropping certain products, but it all started with one investigative journalist whose article went viral, which led to the exposure and downfall of the pink slime.
With our cause, it’s really a matter of honor. I mean, why are you alive if not to protect what you love? Most people feel that way, although right now, that particular idea isn’t very well articulated in the culture. I want people to hear it from me. Why are you alive if not to protect what you love?
RH: Does it feel like there’s a lot of overlap between therapy and activism for you?
PIPHER: One is written small and one is written large. The cycle that leads from trauma to transcendence, from confusion to clarity, from helplessness, anger, and grieving to empowerment, is the same cycle as the one that leads from a recognition of injustice to activism. Therapy and activism have a common aim of increasing the moral imagination. Individual therapy works to help clients have more sustaining relationships. Community work and activism are all about relationships. It’s becoming part of what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.”
Ultimately, therapy is really about action. You want clients to do more than talk. You want them to be able to make behavioral changes and have their lives be meaningfully different in some way. It’s the same with activism. Action is really an essential part of any kind of transformative process. So I think they’re very, very similar. I’d encourage therapists interested in having an impact on the world to start by calling a meeting of the people they know in their living room to see what problems need to be addressed.
RH: Are you saying we should be activists?PIPHER: The skills of the therapist and the skills of the community organizer are the same skills. Dealing with people, negotiating conflict, defusing situations, framing situations, elevating the conversations, these are all the same skills. I work with community organizers who say, “You’ve really missed your calling. You should have been a community organizer.” I just laugh, because, really, that’s what we are—only the largest community that we usually try to organize is the family.
RH: When I talk to colleagues about becoming more involved socially and politically, they worry their clients might be turned off if they get more politically involved.
PIPHER: When I was a therapist, I had a lot of conservative clients, and I didn’t want my political views interfering with my therapy practice. But if your goals are to help all living beings, to give our grandchildren a future—that isn’t a political goal; that’s a human goal. Anyone should be proud to be identified with that. Therapists are messengers: they know how to use language in a way that offends no one. So the answer I’d give therapists who are worried about becoming politically involved is to engage on the deepest level, which is beyond the political level.
RH: What about people who don’t have the time to get involved?
PIPHER: A lot of people see activism or advocacy as one more thing on their To Do list that’s already too full. But actually, it ends up being an energy producer. Some of the reason we’re so busy and stressed and despairing is we’re running around in circles. My activism over the past few years has not only been pleasant, but has led me to make new friends, feel empowered, and enjoy myself mightily. Despite all the hard work, I’ve had more energy this year than I’ve had in a long time. To be sure, my life hasn’t gotten simpler, but there’s no doubt that my activism has given me more energy.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.ryanhowes.net. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.