This is the 35th anniversary of the Networker Symposium and, after all those years, the source of the conference’s enduring appeal is becoming clear. Sure, it’s a fun party and a highly efficient one-stop shopping destination for CE credits, but that’s not all. The truth is that, when you get right down to it, every Symposium is an investigation of the issues and human qualities central to every therapist and every therapeutic encounter. If you try to tap the irreducible core of why, year after year, 3,500 clinicians make a pilgrimage to the Omni Shoreham Hotel each spring, it has to do with our field’s endless fascination with that mysterious, indefinable, but utterly indispensable, quality of any good therapist: wisdom.
Wisdom is undoubtedly helpful in just about any line of work or way of life, but in what other profession is it the single most important quality to have? After all, where do people generally go when they need somebody to help them negotiate the messiest, most excruciating, most personally difficult passages of life? Deep in the throes of great loss and pain, feeling as low, miserable, and unworthy as it’s possible for humans to feel, who are they going to consult? An investment banker? a politician? a corporate executive? their dentist? Or—however much we may adore them—Brad Pitt? Lady Gaga? Even Jeremy Lin?
Let’s face it, in our Secular Age, the traditional wisdom dispensers—priests, ministers, and rabbis—just don’t have the caseloads they once did. And unlike our competitors, with all our latest exploration of the brain and of the connection among mind, body, and spirit, we alone seem to be in adding to the store of human wisdom, rather than holding on for dear life to the certainties of the past. In fact, as the research seems to be telling us increasingly, it’s not our methods but our Selves that’s the primary active ingredient in the consulting room, and clinical wisdom seems more and more like the absolute sine qua non of competent practice. Compared to that, nothing else—no acquired skill, no theoretical belief system, no exalted professional credential—really matters.
When the Symposium first began decades ago, we thought we knew for sure where we could find wisdom. It resided, like eye or hair color or tone of voice, within certain people—it was part of their character, their very being. A wise person was Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Fictional characters like these leave such an impression because we so want there to be people like them in the world—calm, saintly, infinitely compassionate figures who’ll help us know what we should do in life, and never let us down. It may be a childish fantasy, but it’s a universal one. It’s not an accident that our field ascribed the same quality of superhuman wisdom to many of the great progenitors of psychotherapy—Freud, Jung, Rogers, Sullivan—and, of course, the less we actually knew about them, the deeper their ascribed wisdom.
But then, in the 1970s and ’80s, a bunch of charismatic iconoclasts inspired lots of us to knock these old gods off their pedestals and replace them with our new gods of family therapy. In the early ’80s, we knew for a fact that the founders of family therapy—Ackerman, Whitaker, Satir, Bowen, Minuchin—had wisdom in spades. They exemplified wisdom in their very beings. They emanated wisdom from their pores, leaving a kind of luminous glow around their persons. We knew they were wise because . . . well . . . they knew they were wise. Everything they said exuded confidence, assurance, certitude. They, and we, believed that their clinical wisdom would transform history, reconstitute families, cure schizophrenia (really!), end poverty. We loved their pithy pronouncements, the more gnomic and elusive the better. One famous family therapist liked to periodically announce, “Wet birds fly at night.” Whenever he did so, his students inevitably would puzzle and buzz about what grand key to fundamental knowledge was encapsulated in this mysterious little nugget.
Well, part of growing up is being disappointed sooner or later in those same gods we set up in the first place; discovering that our iconic heroes are merely human after all and have feet of clay, just like the rest of us. In this presidential election year, I think I need say no more about that.
Should we then be skeptics about the possibility of wisdom? Disillusioned with our heroes for not having enough of it? Of course not. The problem isn’t with wisdom, but with where we’ve always looked for it. In these highly individualistic United States of America, we’ve assumed that wisdom is a kind of magic substance people carry around inside them—maybe in little wisdom packets located somewhere in the vicinity of the spleen, or in the more fashionable parlance of the moment, among the neural circuits of the anterior cingulate gyrus or the medulla oblongata—and you can quote me on that.
No. The truth is—and maybe we’re just beginning to get this—the best way to approach the great mystery of human wisdom is to recognize that wisdom resides in the community, especially in a certain kind of generative community conversation that taps into the best part of everyone participating in it. For our species, with all our miraculous talents as well as our many lamentable blind spots and Stone Age emotional reflexes, genuine wisdom is best considered a collective project, in which we gradually achieve most of whatever limited wisdom we have through, and with, and from other people.
What many of us go through our lives yearning for is something like wall-to-wall wisdom—a flawless, intricately patterned carpet of wisdom (think antique Persian silk) extending through our lives, manifesting in every particular. Anchored in all this wisdom, we don’t yell at our spouses or kids, or anybody else; we don’t seethe with anger and resentment; we don’t experience envy and greed; we always feel genuine loving kindness for all creatures. We’re fonts of sound judgment, selfless generosity, fine discernment, farsighted vision, and penetrating insight—and besides all that, we have a great sense of humor.
But as we get older, many of us come to realize we’re very lucky if, rather than wall-to-wall wisdom, we have even a small throw rug, a frayed placemat, or even a gummy postage-stamp-sized piece of true wisdom. Fortunately, even the humblest, most misguided of us usually has our little wisdom patches of various sizes, shapes, and colors, ranging across different subjects and different areas of life. Most of the time, they’re big enough to sustain us through restricted regions of our activities—as long as we don’t try to step too far outside our own customary boundaries.
The problem is that it can get a bit boring, even claustrophobic, staying within these narrow boundaries. Nor are we much help to anybody else if we’re only focused on balancing precariously on our own little placemat of wisdom. But if we could somehow find a way to step from mat to mat to rug, or even combine all these different floor coverings, we could actually traverse the floor of life without getting our feet cold and dirty and chewed up by all the sharp, nasty pebbles and glass shards along its path. Creating this combination wisdom-rug is a collective enterprise, and the product is rarely neat and tidy. In fact, it looks a lot like the oddball, crazy quilt of throw rugs—and, yes, postage stamps—that I’m looking out at right now.
I think it’s no accident that we’re all here at a conference that isn’t sponsored by a group of experts and specialists. After all, this is the annual gathering of the Psychotherapy Networker, and you can be sure that there are no geniuses or Old Testament prophets in our offices. In fact you could say we at the Networker specialize in being experts at not being expert. Our true specialty is ignorance, albeit ignorance seasoned with what we like to think of as a healthy dose of curiosity and openness to learning. In each issue of our magazine, or in trying to assemble this crazy quilt of a conference each year, we go forth armed not so much with great knowledge or deep wisdom as with curious minds, a willingness to ask questions—even questions that may sound dumb—and a real desire to hear the answers. In fact, trying to get at least temporary, partial answers to those questions—What is psychotherapy? What are we learning about it? How can we make it more effective?—is why we put on the Symposium each year.
So, in a way, every Symposium is like every other Symposium and, really, that’s its glory. The Symposium is, after all, the same old community, engaged in the same old conversation, in search of the same old wisdom—always the same and always different. In the days ahead, we can all look forward to the opportunity for all of us to lay out our various little wisdom throw rugs or mats or postage stamps, with all their quirks and gaps and threadbare patches. And as we join them together and overlay them in this great wisdom bazaar over these next few days, we can look forward to experiencing the closest thing to a magic carpet ride the field of psychotherapy has to offer.