Therapists, like college professors, are sometimes criticized for being too cloistered, spending too much time in their cozy offices. Typically, our specialty is dealing with the kind of pedestrian human problems that almost everybody experiences at least once or twice in a lifetime–depression, anxiety, marital fights. Not that the work is easy, but it usually takes place on our own turf, where we feel that we have at least some control over the process. In short, whatever its considerable challenges, the practice of therapy generally promises a certain level of safety and predictability to those who choose to ply this particular trade.
But there are those who step beyond the usual comfort zone of therapeutic practice, at the risk of finding both their personal safety and their entire worldview being challenged. Such forays into the wider world force us to reconsider the nature of our work, what our responsibilities really are, and whether we’re truly up to them. This issue on war-related trauma invites us to perceive the world on a scale much larger than the comfortable precincts of our own consulting rooms.
In “Bringing the War Home” journalist Cecilia Capuzzi Simon takes us right into the brutal nastiness and misery of what’s been called “the 360 degree war”–a 24/7 conflagration without front lines or time “off duty,” where, every day, you see “the worst that humans can see,” as one soldier puts it. Focusing on the treatment being offered the hundreds of thousands of vets returning from Iraq, she asks whether all of our latest techniques and neurobiologically informed methods aren’t missing something when it comes to helping them cross the vast chasm dividing war from peace, soldier from citizen.
Also in this issue, psychiatrist James Gordon describes his efforts to help health and mental health professionals in some of the world’s worst trouble spots develop mind-body tools to give ordinary people the ability to cope with the psychological trauma of war. Having worked in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Israel, Gordon describes the special challenges of applying his model in the ongoing turmoil of Gaza, testing the relevance of Western healing methods in a culture that might consider them alien, even hostile, to their fundamental beliefs.
It was probably no accident that at the Networker’s first-ever Symposium held in San Francisco this past October, Mary Pipher’s passionate keynote speech addressed the same underlying themes as Simon and Gordon. As Pipher put it, “I’ve never seen people more stressed and fearful.” As a consequence, she talked about the all-too-common effort to keep the suffering of the world at arm’s length by resorting to “us-versus-them” thinking and objectifying trash-talk about people with whom we disagree.
Our fundamental job as therapists, she reminded her audience, is “to humanize, to teach empathy and point of view” and help people explore that most basic of questions–what do we mean by “us”? It’s this ability to see things from another’s perspective, to understand their essential humanity as being no different from yours, and to look at circumstances with new eyes that has the power to change the world. Given the immensity of the world’s problems, what do we as clincians have to offer? A therapist can seek far and wide and not find a better answer to that question than the one Pipher quotes author James Baldwin as offering: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”
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.