Mary Pipher devoted her keynote address at the 2006 Networker Symposium West, held in San Francisco this past October, to exploring how both good writing and effective therapy rely on the ability to move beyond the self to understand how the world looks and feels to another person. She argued that this quality of “moral imagination” was crucial to our ability to face the enormous challenges that face us, not only in our consulting rooms, but in the wider world we share with one another.
I became a writer in my forties. As a girl, I’d always loved books. I read old-fashioned books by Willa Cather, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Pasternak. I learned the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and worked constantly to build a better vocabulary. I was surprised when my friends in high school didn’t flock to join my club to read all the Great Books.
When I was 10, I told my father I wanted to be a writer. He was a child of the Great Depression and very security conscious. He said, “Writers don’t make any money. Be a doctor, like your mother. Then you can support your family if your husband dies.” That same year, I wrote a sonnet for my teacher. She gave me a big red C and wrote trite on my paper. I gave up on myself. I thought the world was composed of two kinds of people—the brilliant, charismatic ones and the dull trudgers like me.
I didn’t attempt another creative piece until 35 years later. Finally, my children were old enough and my clinical practice sufficiently established that I had some discretionary time. I pondered what to do with it. I certainly didn’t want to work more, clean my house more carefully, or take up golf. I realized with a jolt, that, damn it, I wanted to write! I didn’t expect I’d be any good at it. I didn’t hope to be published. I just wanted to do it. I signed up for a college course in creative writing and joined a writer’s group.
I came to writing as person with a psychology and anthropology background who was interested in social change. My topic was always the same: how does culture affect mental health? For example, with Reviving Ophelia, the question was how our culture impacts teenaged girls. I asked of my writing not just whether it was good, but what it was good for. I wanted to help people understand the point of view of others, to genuinely care about them, and to act on their behalf.
Of course, learning how to accomplish this took years of hard work. As Cather said, “Nobody is good at the beginning.” Writing is a skill, like playing violin or practicing medicine, that a bright, dedicated person can learn in about 10 years. Writing to Change the World is my seventh book, and I’m working on my eighth. My life after 59 years seems governed by happenstance, and yet somehow, in retrospect, it feels like it was inevitable, as all good stories are.
Our skills as writers and therapists have never been more essential. The survival of the human race, not to mention democracy in America, is at stake. I’ve never seen people more stressed and fearful. We all seem to require a great deal of alone time and inner architecture to stay calm, clear, and focused. The great cultural interest in meditation, yoga, tai chi, and retreats is about our yearning for inside scaffolding as the outside world becomes more overwhelming.
“More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we’ll have the wisdom to choose correctly.”—Woody Allen
Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”
We’re witnessing the rise of fascism in this country. Fear and anguish are employed to pit us against one another. Language is being weaponized. Increasingly, our national discourse employs hate speech and dehumanizing language. Two terms that come to mind are illegal alien and terrorist. Once people are called these words, they’re somehow no longer included in the human race. All vile things between humans happen because of objectification and depersonalization. The job of both therapists and writers is to humanize and de-objectify—to teach empathy and point of view. As Gloria Steinem said, “Empathy is the most radical of human emotions.”
Therapists and writers foster the growth of moral imagination in other human beings. We help people explore the question of who we call us. Our work widens the category of “us,” and narrows the category of “them” in the lives of people we teach. Humans are hardwired to construct a circle of caring. Even Hitler cared for dogs. The crucial question is how inclusive the circle is. Most people are good to their own families, but we differ on how kind we are to people who are outside our families. The people who have the best moral imagination (like Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt) develop a circle of caring that includes the entire human race.
Let me tell you a story about moral imagination that applies to both psychology and writing. It’s about my cousin Paul, who gave me permission to tell this story because he respects therapists. Paul is in his forties now. He’s a tall, fierce-looking man with long hair and tattoos. He wears black boots and black leather and has lost most of his teeth. He’s had rough life.
Paul grew up in a rural, working-class family in Ozarks. He inherited the mental illness that runs in my father’s family. As a boy, he was smart, funny, and lovable. He was a master storyteller. In his twenties, he had psychotic breakdowns and, since then, has been seriously and chronically mentally ill. He receives disability payments because he can’t work. He’s easily rattled by stress. Still, he’s honest, kind, and dignified. He cares for his disabled mother.
We’re a close family. Last time I was at my Aunt Henrietta’s trailer, Paul asked me if I’d read his life story, which he’d written down through the years in a spiral notebook. I read it that same evening in my hotel room. It contained many sad chapters. Because of his vulnerable and often homeless life, Paul had witnessed many traumatic events. Once he’d saved a man’s life by swimming into a lake for him. He’d come across domestic violence, injured animals, and late-night car wrecks, and he’d tried to be helpful. Once in a rural area of Arkansas, he was arrested while psychotic. His parents were looking for him, but these local police hadn’t read the all-points bulletin. His jailers were cruel. Paul was teased and kept in chains. No one would give him water to drink or let him make a phone call. When he grew frustrated and swore at them, they poured kerosene on him and then burned him. He still has the scars on his arms and back. Another time he was on a street hallucinating and bikers rescued him. They took him home before he could be picked up and taken to jail.
When I returned Paul’s notebook, I asked him what he wanted from me—feedback or help publishing? He said, “All I’d like you to do is to write at the end of the book, ‘I understand.'” Writers and therapists strive to develop the moral imagination that allows them to say those words.
Both therapy and writing are whole-person work. The most effective of us work from a centered and focused place. The individual, authentic voice is what matters. In fact, dishonesty is always apparent. Dead words smell bad, like old fish.
Part of learning our craft is finding our voice. This isn’t a matter of style, but involves figuring out the best way to use everything we are and everything we know in the service of our work. Anne Frank is a good example of a writer with an authentic voice. She was an adolescent girl in a terrible time and place who used her whole self to tell her story. Voice is “what you alone can say.” Figuring this out is a worthy life mission. Voice goes much deeper than charisma or word choice: it’s about character structure and point of view on the universe.
As a therapist, I struggled with finding my voice. I was young, female, plainspoken, and incapable of much in the way of artifice or sophisticated strategies. Furthermore, I was working in rural Nebraska with women whose husbands expected them to butcher pigs in their basements and make blood sausage and jaternice over the weekend, with families going under during the farm crisis, or—and this was when insurance covered therapy—with factory workers, some of whom left their kids in the pickup while they drank. Others had no idea how to express unhappiness except by fighting. Most of the leaders in our field at the time I came of age were older men from Europe or the East Coast, theoretical and intellectual, given to complex and paradoxical interventions and to flying by the seat of their charisma. I didn’t resonate with their ideas and, believe me, those rural, working-class Nebraskans didn’t either. I think it was about 10 years before I truly figured out how I could incorporate my clinical training with the person I was and the place where I worked.
So both writers and therapists need their own authentic voices: they need to say what they alone can say. It’s worth noting that the therapy room is a place where the client’s voice is respected. Clients are attended to as they tell their deepest, most personal stories in their own language. People leave our offices thinking, as did my cousin Paul, that someone truly understands their point of view.
Both professions are matters of trust and relationship. Writers and therapists encourage people to go on a voyage of discovery. With likable, authoritative guides, people will travel anywhere. If they don’t like and trust us, however, they won’t take one step. With writers, establishing trust is a matter of being an honest and reasonable narrator. With therapists, it’s a question of building a relationship grounded in respect, steadfastness, and common sense.
Both professions are damn frustrating. Writers have harsh inner critics. We must cope with writer’s block and constant internal voices saying, “You aren’t getting it right. This isn’t that good.” Our work requires stamina and persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Writing a nonfiction book is a little like building a barn with matches. Helping a couple who’ve been feuding for 20 years to resolve their differences and improve their relationship can feel that way, too.
Both fields require that we confront failure. We constantly reach the edge of our capacities for creativity and connection. We often don’t know the effects of our actions. If we succeed at something, we often don’t know why. We grow by learning to “fail better,” in the words of Samuel Beckett.
Bertoldt Brecht wrote, “In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.” Writers and therapists are storytellers, constantly crafting stories of hope. We deftly handle complexity and ambiguity, illuminate nuances, deal with resistance, follow tangents, and build resplendent metaphors. We continually break mindsets, fight habituation, and try to keep our perceptions fresh and clear. In addition, we must be open to magic, something writers call many names—the muses, cruise control, automatic writing, and serendipity. Both professions deal in epiphanies, which we can’t schedule, but we can facilitate.
We’re dreamcatchers, seizers of the teachable moment. These moments involve accepting an invitation to engage with the world in all its glory and wretchedness—the portals into understanding the bountiful universe as it really is, not as we’ve been programmed to see it.
The work is both about process and product. Writer Rosellen Brown has this advice for writers: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and don’t get attached to results. That’s good advice for therapists, too. And yet, all writers care about results. We want to be heard. We want our words to matter. One of my happiest memories is of a speech I gave about refugees to a conservative audience in western Nebraska. Afterward an old rancher came up to me and said, “I didn’t think I’d like what you said, but you’ve changed my mind about those people. I’ll treat them differently from now on.”
We therapists hope we’ve been useful. We want the dad to stop hitting the mom, the teenager to overcome her eating disorder, and the teacher to stop drinking. But with both writing and therapy, if we care so much that we lose sight of what’s happening moment-by-moment, we’ll fail.
Writers and therapists are coaches for authenticity, teachers of empathy, inspirers of curiosity and good works, and proselytizers for openness, kindness, and clarity. We have the best work in the world: we help people do what my grandmother said was everyone’s life work—to make good use of their time and their talents.
“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”—James Baldwin
A few years ago, I visited a market on the Burmese border. It was a profoundly unsettling experience. I walked past frightened, impoverished people hawking Leonardo DiCaprio beach towels, dried fish, Nike knockoffs, and counterfeit cigarettes. Old women with no teeth sat behind piles of peppers or rice. Listless children with dead eyes lay on ragged blankets behind their parents’ stalls, or sat watching shoppers walk by. Police grabbed a skinny teenager, beat him, and tossed him into a black van. His mother ran after the van, screaming and pulling her hair. Everyone in this tawdry market seemed almost comatose with grief and inertia. Gradually, I realized the underlying cause of what I was witnessing—a total absence of hope.
However, one man was different. He squatted in the gutter, almost naked, selling children’s Magic Slates. As I walked by, he quickly scrawled on his display pad “Freedom from Fear,” which is the motto of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a former leader in Burma. A Western-educated exile, Kyi returned to Burma to work for the restoration of democracy. She’s currently under house arrest there, but her ideas have kept hope alive for the citizens of that beleaguered country.
I looked at his words on the little plastic slate and then into his eyes. He smiled at me, a fierce, desperate smile; then he quickly erased what he’d written. This man’s voice had almost been silenced. But he took a leap. He dared to make a connection with a Westerner. He used heroic words to carve out a Magic Slate-sized piece of freedom, and he shared those words with me. He changed the world by a millimeter.
Baldwin returned to this country after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls. He’d moved to Paris years earlier because, as a black, he found America in the 1950s intolerable. But after that bombing, he came home to fight. He said, “The Civil Rights Movement should not be carried on the backs of little girls in the South.”
I’ve been haunted by the story of the five Amish girls who, earlier this fall, were killed by a demented man, living in a violent, gun-filled, pornographic society, which no longer takes care of anyone but the rich, the greedy, and the entitled. I can’t help thinking of the oldest girl, age 11, who tried to buy time for the younger girls by saying, “Shoot me first.” And when the gunman obliged, her 10-year-old sister said, “Shoot me next.” These girls possessed moral imagination and courage. For the rest of my life, when I’m frightened to speak out, I’ll remember them.
Where are our leaders with this kind of moral imagination and courage? Where are the grown-ups standing up to the bullies and thugs that rule the world? We writers and therapists must do this to save our planet, our country, our children, and ourselves.
Norman McClean said, “One of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe.” We therapists are lucky. We have the potential to change the world, at least by our little millimeter, every day. If you have any interest at all in writing, I encourage you to give it a try. You have your own voice to offer the world. Show up. Tell your truths. Speak out.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2007 issue.
Mary Pipher is the author of 11 books including her latest one, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence.