Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

Apr 17, 2021

Perhaps you’re thinking, Really? You were lucky enough to get a book contract, and now you’re not writing the book? Boo-hoo! Try working twelve hours a day in a factory, for God’s sake! I understand how this comes across. I mean, who do I think I am, Elizabeth Gilbert at the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love when she’s crying on the bathroom floor as she thinks about leaving the husband who loves her? Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project who has the loving, handsome husband, the healthy daughters and more money than most people will ever see but still has that niggling feeling of something missing?

As the late psychotherapist John Weakland famously said, “Before successful therapy, it’s the same dam thing over and over. After successful therapy, it’s one damn thing after another.”

If it seems strange that this clinic is letting me, a person who has performed exactly zero hours of therapy, take on somebody’s treatment, it’s simply the way therapists are trained — by doing. Medical school was also a trial by fire; in medicine, students learned procedures by the “see one, do one, teach one” method. In other words, you watched a physician, say, palpate an abdomen, you palpated the next abdomen yourself, and then you taught another student how to palpate an abdomen. Presto! You’re deemed competent to palpate abdomens.

There was an unspoken irony to all of this. People wanted a speedy solution to their problems, but what if their moods had been riven down in the first place by the hurried pace of their lives? They imagined that they were rushing now in order to savor their lives later, but so often, later never came. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had made this point more than fifty years earlier: “Modern man thinks he loses something — time — when he does not do things quickly; yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains expect kill it.” Fromm was right; people didn’t use extra time earned to relax or connect with friends or family. Instead, they tried to cram more in.

One day at me new practice, in the long lull between patients, I found a video online of MIT researcher Sherry Turkle talking about this loneliness. In the late 1990s, she said, she had gone to a nursing home and watch a robot comfort an elderly woman who had lost a child. The robot looked like a baby seal, with fur and large eyelashes, and it processed language well enough to respond appropriately. The woman was pouring her heart out to this robot, and it seemed to follow her eyes, to be listening to her. Turkle went on to say that while her colleagues considered this seal robot to be great progress, a way to make people’s lives easier, she felt profoundly depressed. I gasped in recognition. Just the day before, I’d joked to a colleague, “Why not have a therapist in your iPhone?” I didn’t know then that soon there Would be therapists in smartphones — apps through which you could connect with a therapist “anytime, anywhere… within seconds” to “feel better now.” I felt about these options the way Turkle felt about the woman with the robotic seal. “Why are we essentially outsourcing the thing that defines us as people?” Turkle asked in the video. Her questions made me wonder: Was it that people couldn’t tolerate being alone or that they couldn’t tolerate being with other people? Across the country — at coffee with friends, in meetings at work, during lunch at school, in front of the cashier at Target, and at the family dinner table — people were texting and Tweeting and shopping, sometimes pretending to make eye contact and sometimes not even bothering.

Note: [this came up again in the context of the pandemic](Sherry Turkle).

I think of something else Wendell once said: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.” It was a paraphrase of something he’d read that had resonated with him both personally and as a therapist, he told me, because it was a theme that informed nearly every person’s struggles.

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