Symposium Highlight

The Courage to Connect

Highlights from the 2017 Symposium

Magazine Issue
May/June 2017
A man on stage holds his hand out to someone in the crowd

A record-breaking crowd of 4,500 attendees celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Networker Symposium this year, drawn not only by the prospect of exploring psychotherapy’s latest advances, but by the hope of making sense of their role in healing a deeply polarized society. What follows are some of the moments that captured the distinctive flavor of this year’s gathering.

Rich Simon on The Search for Connection

In his welcoming remarks, Networker editor Rich Simon contrasted the anticipation of the usual calm and safety of the Symposium atmosphere with the disorientation and apprehension many therapists are feeling these days.

In his welcoming remarks, Networker editor Rich Simon contrasted the anticipation of the usual calm and safety of the Symposium atmosphere with the disorientation and apprehension many therapists are feeling these days.

To put it bluntly, there’s something about this conference of therapists, even about being a therapist in the first place, that seems deeply incongruous with this strange second decade of the 21st century. After all, this Symposium is premised on the belief that ongoing, intimate, face-to-face dialogue—carried on in real time and real physical space between real people who trust and respect each other—is actually important for emotional healing and human well-being. Not only do we believe this, but we somehow manage to make entire careers based on this odd conviction.

How totally reactionary and out of step with the “real world” is that? Everybody today knows that all communication between earthlings should be instantaneous and involve no direct contact—the preferred modes being Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, WeChat, HeyTell, Talkatone, Kik, Line, and Viber, to name a few. Any interaction that takes more than, say, a minute or two—long enough to text somebody, long enough to read a reply—strains the outer limits of our 21st-century attention span. Besides, who has the time to concentrate and focus on a single, boring, ordinary, human when an infinite proliferation of enticing, ever-new and ever-changing voices and images are a few clicks or thumb presses away?

This all-pervasive digital culture has enormous power to shape our consciousness and connections with each other, without our even being aware of it. Take the way our leaders communicate with us. In the 1930s and early 40s, Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous fireside chats—live, informal radio talks about the important issues of the day. Families gathered together around radios all across America—the citizens of the whole country, basically, listening to this one calm, reassuring voice, talking candidly about the state of the nation and the policies he was pursuing. Even during the worst days of the Depression and World War II, people were reminded not to succumb to fear, not to give up hope, but to retain confidence both in the country and in themselves as Americans. Above all, he unified people with his message. We’re all in this together, he said. In fact, as he put it, “the basic idea of society and of the nation itself [is] that people acting in a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could even hope to bring about.”

The novelist Saul Bellow recalled hearing, as a young man, a fireside chat while walking in Chicago one summer evening. “The drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd, patrician Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”

Now, 80-odd years later, our current president tweets in the middle of the night, releasing off-the-cuff, 140-character messages that explode like incendiary devices, leaving social and political firestorms in their wake. But what could be more characteristic of our time than these out-of-the-blue tweet-storms? They reflect a culture geared to speed, isolation, social and emotional detachment, with a deep, underlying sense of free-floating anxiety, yearning, depression, and sheer boredom, which often gets expressed in the spontaneous combustion of online flame wars among people who may not even know each other.

Of course, one reason FDR’s voice had so much resonance—he was like a therapist for the masses—was that it was just about the only public voice that everybody could listen to at one time. The Americans of the 1930s didn’t live their entire lives in cyberspace. They didn’t have access to news and infotainment—real news, fake news, celebrity news, lifestyle news, sports news, crime news, business news, health news, news ad infinitum.

But this explosion of media culture is antithetical to what you might call the Therapist Culture. You could say that we’re so old-hat, so outdated, so anachronistic, so out of touch, that we actually like to meet people in the flesh and talk to them in person. We like making conversation—the more the better! In a sense, this is our job description—we make a living talking to other people. And this conference testifies to the fact that even when we’re not at work, we go to some effort and expense to talk and listen to our colleagues, directly and in person. In fact, look at us: we fly across the country just to engage in this weird behavior.

And while here, we engage in even more weirdness. We sit in lined-up chairs, or on the floor in some cases, just so we can listen quietly while another colleague stands on a stage to talk to us about talking and listening to people. If so moved, we may ask serious, polite questions, listen to answers—and engage in more conversation about conversation, always mindful that this is a tribe that places special value in talking and listening, especially with people with whom we disagree, as a fundamental expression of our humanity.

We’ve designed this conference with an awareness that we’re a professional tribe that delights in deepening and extending our capacity for emotional connection. And we’ve been on a quest to bring you the new clinical methodologies, sources of creativity, and scientific advances that will shape the future of our field and prevent us from becoming an anachronism. Now it’s your turn to pursue your own individual quests and focus on what matters to you at this stage of your personal and professional journey. I wish you luck in finding the answers to all your questions along the way, and hope you encounter some happy surprises as you discover answers to ones you didn’t even know you had.

Photo © Dylan Hintz

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.