Last November, we put together a webcast series on clinical wisdom, featuring what we considered to be some of the wisest people in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. Those interviewed included a Nobel laureate, a renowned Buddhist teacher and therapist, a revered pioneer in mind-body psychotherapy, a famous therapist–novelist, and the field’s foremost environmental activist. In marketing the series, we didn’t spend too much effort in sharpening the theme or considering the “hook.” We were convinced it would have universal appeal. How could people resist it?
Easily, as it turned out. To our surprise, we had the lowest registration for that series of any we’ve ever produced. The actual webcast interviews, filled with chances to hear genuinely wise people talk about how they perceived the vexed subject of human wisdom, elicited some of the most enthralled and inspired audience responses we’ve ever received. But why would such a remarkable series of conversations—focused on essential questions, not only for therapy, but for life—draw forth a collective yawn and shrug from so many potential attendees?
Part of the answer may be the current direction of therapy itself. The pioneers in our field—Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, Salvador Minuchin, and others—all recognized that they were providing something more than just technique. They knew that to truly call themselves therapists, they needed genuine insight into what it means to be human. But does today’s short-term, empirically supported, manualized and medicalized psychotherapy really require its practitioners to be wise? Is wisdom even desirable? Maybe in today’s professional climate, with all our referral sources to cultivate, website traffic data to crunch, and marketing plans to constantly revise, it just isn’t cost effective to be wise.
It isn’t only our profession that seems to be veering away from wisdom. The search for wisdom is out of synch with our entire culture, which much of the time is one of hurry and distraction, shallow questions and quick answers, short attention spans and chronic restlessness. Who can think about, much less try to acquire, something like wisdom when we’re always in such a rush? In fact, I sometimes wonder if we keep busy just to avoid thinking seriously about where we are, what we’re about, and—most dreadful of questions—why it is we’re doing whatever we’re doing.
Still, many of us remain captivated by wisdom’s appeal. Life seems too absurd—too stupid—without at least the possibility that we can find wisdom somewhere from somebody when we really need it. You never can tell when a sage might turn up—maybe it’ll be a calm and kindly insurance man after a frozen pipe has flooded your house or a friend who talks you out of impulsively trying to get back at someone who’s wounded you or a nurse in an E.R. who comforts you in the face of a terrifying medical crisis.
Who knows, maybe there are still therapists out there—maybe you—who understand and practice the ideal that whatever the clinical model, it’s your capacity for insight, compassion, reflection, and full presence that’s the real source of healing. Now, that’s wisdom.
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.