Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dear Young Therapist: Perspective is Everything

When I was in fourth grade I became somewhat obsessed with learning about the native people of the Americas. I poured through all the age-appropriate books in my school and public libraries, wrote age appropriate papers, and made a few age appropriate art projects. 

Somewhere tucked away in a box is a coffee stained crayon drawing that I made depicting the life of Seminole Indians. Mr. Sturgeon, my fourth grade teacher pictured on the left, wrote me an apology for the coffee stain. 

I was particularly fascinated with the people who lived in Central and South America: The Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. The age appropriate books I read showed images of the savagery of the Aztecs. My young mind was particularly aghast over their sacrifice of humans to their sun god. I was horrified at the descriptions of beating human hearts being removed from people with flint knives. I worried about how that must have felt for both the sacrificed as well as the priest wielding the knife. 

It was such a strange juxtaposition--being attracted and repulsed at the same time. 

What I didn't know in fourth grade was that the history I was learning was from the perspective of the conquerors. We tell stories of native peoples as savages, in part, to reinforce a white Western European superiority. 

Myriad are the things that weren't included in suburban grade school lesson plans.

I got to thinking about all of this while reading the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. There are three interesting passages worth mentioning here. 

The second myth is that in its appetite for death as spectacle the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire) was fundamentally different from Europe. Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris--Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park. (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, there was a crowd of "at least 12 or 14,000 people.") In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings. "The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes stand out against the sky, in so many old paintings, are nearly a realistic detail," Braudel observed "They were part of the landscape" Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed 75,000 people. At that time, its population was about 3,000,000, perhaps a tenth of that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 2,700 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel.  
In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped. In both places the public death was accompanied by the reading of ritual scripts. And in both the goal was to create a cathartic paroxysm of loyalty to the government--in the Mexica case, by recalling the spiritual justification for the empire; in the European case, to reassert the sovereign's divine power after it had been injured by a criminal act. (Mann, 2005, pg 145-156)

One wonders who the savage was. It's also extremely interesting to note that the population of England in the 1500s was only a tenth of the size of the population of the Aztec Empire at the same time. 

In what may have been the first large-scale compulsory education program in history, every male citizen of the Triple Alliance, no matter what his social class, had to attend one sort of school or another until the age of sixteen. Many tlamatinime (he who knows things) taught at the elite academies that trained the next generation of priests, teachers, and high administrators. (pg. 146)
Imagine that. Every male child had a compulsory education. Meanwhile, Europe was trying to pull itself out of the dark ages and only the most wealthy of boys had access to education. Perhaps only about a third of the population was even literate.

The native people of the Americas had a rich intellectual and philosophical tradition that most of us have never even heard about. Our high school and college curriculums, still busy promulgating the myth of the Native American savage, teach a history of ideas and thoughts that are completely rooted in white Western European thought.

I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't until I got to graduate school the second time that I started discovering intellectual traditions from other parts of the world that had been hidden from me.

Though I shouldn't have been, I was shocked when I recently signed up for an edX class from the University of Texas/Austin. The course, Ideas of the 20th Century, could better be called White European Ideas of the 20th Century. From what I've seen so far, the only ideas the course views as worthy to teach are ideas rooted in white European thought. It's as if no one from any other continent had any thoughts that pertain to the development of who we are.

Of course there are lots of ideas and rich intellectual thoughts that have grown out of every corner of the world. The book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus offers just one example of the Triple Alliance leader, teacher, and poet Nezahualcóyotl. If you'd like to hear about the language he spoke and wrote in, Nahuatal, try here or here.

Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Be it jade, it shatters.
Be it gold, it breaks.
Be it a quetzal feather, it shreds apart.
Not forever on earth; only a little while here. 
Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472) 
Like a painting, we will be erased.
Like a flower, we will dry up here on earth.
Like plumed vestments of the precious bird,
That precious bird with the agile neck,
We will come to an end. 
Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472)

So young therapist, you might be wondering what this has to do with our craft of psychotherapy. 

Increasingly, and without much thought or discussion, psychotherapy has become a colonial force. Our ways of understanding people, cloaked in the vestments of science and authority, have supplanted other ways of understanding the human experience. Our ways of knowing as a therapist, almost entirely rooted in white European thought, have been promulgated around the world. 

We make the theories, use them to describe and diagnose normal and abnormal, and enforce them through our therapies. Psychotherapists have, in many ways, become modern day conquistadores.

Kenneth Gergen writes:

My concern extends as well to the slow eradication of alternative discourses of understanding the self, and the alternative forms of action that are invited by these discourses. We are losing, for example, the rich discourse of deficit provided by various religious traditions. The discourse of "guilt," "need for spiritual fulfillment," and "getting right with God," does not invite therapy and medication, but prayer, spiritual consultation, and good deeds. There are also many common vernaculars, or grass-roots terms, that can be enormously serviceable. Being "hung up on her," has entirely different implications than being "obsessed;" having a "case of the blues" is indeed an honorific term, in contrast to having a "depression." "Working too hard," having an "overly indulgent chocolate craving," or "loving sex too much," invites dialogue with friends, loved ones and colleagues, as opposed to entering an addiction program. As "quick to anger," "highly excitable," "fear of flying," "unrealistically suspicious," "too active," and "shy" are increasingly translated into a professional terminology so are the capacities of people in their local surrounds to deal with the normal infelicities of life in a complex society. Much needed at this juncture are instigations to grass-roots resistance, movements not likely to kindle the interests of professional psychologists."

So young therapist, are you paying attention the ways in which your practice includes the colonization and hegemony of Western psychology? Are you aware of the ways in which you are wielding your power to describe and name behavior--and dictate what is acceptable and unacceptable experiences--based on your own personal world view? Do you regularly and without thought substitute your judgements and understandings for those of your patients? Are your interventions based on problems you want to solve or those your patient wants to solve?

A final thought from the Task Force on Indigenous Psychology:

Psychology, like any other language game, is a living conversation, for which translation is the key to the perpetuation and permutation of the discourse. As Western psychology is translated into other cultures, the more we make sure that the influence is going both ways, and the more we allow conflicting voices to inhabit the terms we use in psychology, the more likely it is that alternative ways of doing psychological science will emerge.

Can you find the courage to listen closely to your patients and let their own wisdom emerge?

For more letters to a young therapist see Dear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid of the DarkDear Young Therapist: That Time My House Burnt DownDear Young Therapist: Cultivate Patience and Listen to the MusicDear Young Therapist: Consider Your De Rigueur Requirements | The Post-Doctoral Tie IncidentDear Young Therapist: Are You Ready to JumpDear Young Therapist: Perspective is EverythingDear Young Therapist: Sometimes We Can't Put Humpty Back Together AgainDear Young Therapist: Sometimes Race and Sex MatterDear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid to Love; and Dear Young Therapist: Allow for the Unexpected.

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