Archive for the ‘Semantic City’ Category

I remember my very first Astronomy course, which I selected as one of my required “real science” electives during my early education as a “social scientist.” Only a few lessons into the semester, the class tackled Albert Einstein’s famed general theory of relativity. The professor explained the theory using two chairs, a bed sheet and a paperweight. Despite this innovative approach, I left the course embarrassed to have (barely) understood relativity only in terms of furniture, linens and office supplies.

For that very reason, I have since kept my distance from Einstein—until, that is, I grabbed The World as I See It from a local bookshop shelf. The book is a compilation of various works (articles, essays, letters and such) written by the celebrated scientist between the two World Wars. While the original 1949 edition contained science-themed works, the abridged edition I brought home (released in 2006 by Kensington Publishing Corp.) conveniently leaves only content related to human affairs, from the Meaning of Life to International Politics, Pacifism to Judaism.

The World as I See It is a challenging book to review because no central idea emerges. Taken as a whole, however, the compilation reveals the thoughts and concerns of a man who cared deeply about human wellbeing and international harmony. It is fascinating to explore Einstein’s thoughts regarding subjects of relevance to us all, for once allowing an internal discussion with Einstein that does not require familiarity with his specialized set of knowledge. In this spirit, I focus this review both on the themes I felt Einstein developed with particular thoughtfulness, and on my personal reactions.

On Nature and Religion

Einstein describes himself as religious to the degree that he stands in constant awe of the scientifically impenetrable beauty of the cosmos. However, “[to] tack this on to the idea of God,” he grumbles, “seems mere childish absurdity” (p. 104). As Carl Sagan remarks in his seminal Cosmos documentary series (1980; Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue), to explain nature through magical means dampens its majesty. Regarding metaphysical postulates in general (e.g., deities, life after death), Einstein dismisses these as the desperate creations of “feeble souls” (p. 7) blinded by fear and egotism.

The universe humbles Einstein, and his willingness to stand in awe before nature without appealing to supernatural forces embodies his own idiosyncratic religion. From this particular point-of-view, the irreligious life, he believes, much like the unexamined variety, is simply not worth living. I am not certain that the romanticization of nature and our relation to it is completely warranted, yet it is nevertheless reassuring to find that genius can be compatible with spiritual sensibility. Regardless, Einstein’s conceptualization of religion as involving a sense of mystery (as opposed to one of mysticism) certainly sheds new light onto his famous assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” (1940, p. 606).

While I agree with Einstein that religious beliefs are misguided, I certainly do not consider those who entertain such beliefs to be deficient: believers’ “souls,” their inner core as human beings, are not “feeble.” Life inspires innumerable questions, and we all do our best to answer these to the finest of our ability; there is no need to demean or vilify those who settle on different answers. Life can be lived fully even when grounded within inaccurate conclusions, religious or otherwise. For example, a popular piece of secular advice urges us to be optimistic at all times, when realism is probably more sensible (Greenberger & Padesky, 1995).

And so, while I value a factually lived life, that does not mean a fantastically lived life has no value, or is feebly subpar. Those who fail to live factually do not ipso facto fail at life. Some believers, on the other hand, accuse non-believers of neglecting the God-shaped hole in their hearts, based on the degrading assumption that a person can only become “whole” once he or she accepts God into his or her heart. Jesus Christ Himself judged those somehow different from himself (whether in body or belief) to be inadequate. When blind Bartimaeus begged Him to restore his sight, Jesus offered the following words of comfort: “[Thy] faith hath made thee whole” (Mark 10:52, KJV). The man at once regained his sight. This story, whether taken literally or as metaphor, is simply offensive: Bartimaeus, whether physically or spiritually blind, was never not whole. In some translations, “whole” appears as “well,” but that does not make Jesus’ claim any more accurate: physically and spiritually blind people can lead perfectly fulfilling lives. In any case, Bartimaeus’ leap of faith was not curative, as Jesus sought to imply, because there was no “disease” to speak of in the first place.

On Society and the Self 

Einstein reminds us that we are defined by our relationships with others: “[The] individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave” (p. 10). Thus, the life lived entirely for the other is deemed especially worthy. In fact, Einstein holds in the highest regard those of generous spirit, who contribute to society via the arts or the sciences with the intent to enhance or ameliorate the lives of its members: “The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self” (p. 10).

Einstein no doubt uses the expression “liberation from the self” to denote “concern for others,” as opposed to “discounting of the self.” Taking the sentence at face value, however, I wonder: is complete liberation from the self truly necessary for us to fulfill our true worth? Many religions postulate that the self is inherently inclined toward evil, and that this inborn tendency tempts us to dabble in sin; likewise, contemporary psychology postulates that inner flaws cause unhealthy behaviors. To ensure liberation from this broken self, religion encourages relinquishing oneself to a higher power, whereas psychology prescribes, ironically enough, a hefty dose of therapist-assisted self-absorption. As we shall see, it turns out that both religion and psychology are wrong, in that self-related shortcomings do not necessarily have anything to do with behavior. In short, there is nothing in the self to actually liberate ourselves from!

The idea of the self as innately inadequate, and therefore of self-fulfillment as release from the self, can be traced back in history to the Old and New Testaments. According to the Good Book as interpreted by former evangelical preacher Dan Barker (2008), Man is inherently Evil (Psalm 14:3, Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23). He can, however, shed his deep-seated inadequacy by submitting his entire person to that of Jesus Christ (Acts 5:31). Christ, always the diplomat, said of Man that, while he is still capable of Good, he remains nonetheless intrinsically Bad (Matthew 7:11). Ironically, Christ’s own Father had Himself an affinity for the Dark Side (Isaiah 45:7, Jeremiah 18:11, Lamentations 3:38, Ezekiel 20:25, 26), sometimes preferring to live in Darkness (II Samuel 22:12, I Kings 8:12, Psalm 18:11, Psalm 97:1-2).

According to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1988), the concepts of sin and inborn evil represent initial attempts at making sense of undesirable behavior. The postulate that we behave badly because we are inherently bad, however, appears to be misguided. As psychological researcher Robyn Dawes (1996) explains: “The assumption that behavior we dislike or condemn is due to internal problems is religious” and “not established by empirical science” (p. 282). Nevertheless, this religious assumption has found new life amongst many of today’s psychological theories about the self. Specifically, we believe that personal shortcomings cause unhealthy behavior. To rectify this, the “vile” self must be “purified” in therapy, substituting psychological weaknesses with psychological strengths, thereby bringing about healthy behavior.

While Christianity locates absolution outside of the self in the person of Jesus Christ, psychology locates absolution within the person him/herself, conceptualizing the self as not only the source of negative behavior, but of positive behavior as well. Dawes (1996) appropriately dubs such deification of the self “egoistic individualism.” As he warns, however, “[professional] psychology’s harping on the self—and in particular on how the self feels about the self—as the focus of all desirable or undesirable behavior” (p. 282) is empirically unwarranted. In his revelatory book’s empowering conclusion, Dawes reaffirms what contemporary psychology insist on hiding from us:

“It is simply not true that optimism and a belief in one’s own competence and prospects for success are necessary conditions for behaving competently. Good feelings may help, but they are not necessary. Moreover, we do not need to believe that in general we are superior, we are invulnerable, and the world is just. […] It is not true that we are slaves to our feelings or to our childhood experiences [.] More importantly, we do not have to feel wonderful about ourselves and the world in order to engage in behavior that is personally or socially beneficial” (p. 293; italics in original).

In short, both religion and psychology have failed to recognize the basic truth that inner perfections (Goodness or mental health) no more determine outer successes (saintly or healthy behavior) than inner imperfections (Evil or mental un-health) determine outer failures (sinful or unhealthy behavior). Dawes also happens to resent the idea that attaining happiness is life’s ultimate goal. He quotes poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who counseled his readership to reject “the vulgar, insultingly patronizing fairy tale that has been hammered into your heads since childhood that the main meaning of life is to be happy” (1996, p. 277). Einstein himself echoes this sentiment when he confesses: “I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves [.] The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” (p. 4).

On Goodness and Humanity

Einstein claims that the ethical life is “based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties” (p. 30). “No religious basis is necessary” (p. 30), he continues, because “there is nothing divine about morality,” it being a “purely human affair” (p. 31). In the animated musical The Prince of Egypt (1998), Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, in apparent disagreement with this, urges him to look at his life “through Heaven’s eyes” (Schwartz, track 7). Jethro’s advice, however well-intentioned, may in reality be unsound, for philosophers of the non-theistic persuasion have provided ample support for the assumption that morality is in fact, as Einstein put it, a “purely human affair.”

According to Barker (2008), there is no evidence that the Higher Power purported to exist by many religions is the source of all Good, and therefore the benchmark against which to measure all values. In nature, God’s own creation, the higher the life form, the more capable of destruction it is. In fact, there is nothing to say that God, the highest power, could not create the most heinous crime. The Old Testament, after all, is laden with offences committed by God: mass-murder (e.g., the flooding of Earth, the razing of Sodom, the eradication of Egypt’s firstborns, the slaying of the 42 youths near Bethel), endorsement (Leviticus 27:28-29) and acceptance of human sacrifice (Judges 11:30-39, II Samuel 21:8-14), endorsement (Exodus 21) and practice of slavery (Judges 3:8, 3:14, 4:2-3, 6:1, 13:1), sexual molestation (Isaiah 3:17), emotional blackmail (Leviticus 26:14-38), hateful speech (Leviticus 21:18-23, any verse on homosexuality), the list goes on…

Yes, as my boyfriend reminds me, there is much debate concerning the latter verses, and there are countless examples of God behaving exemplarily. But if God cannot Himself act ethically in any clear way, He cannot possibly expect our own behaviors to be unmistakably black or white either. Despite this, He is known for making snap judgments regarding those He feels have offended Him. Without ever awarding a fair trial, He imposes sanctions (e.g., exile, death, misery) sometimes spanning generations upon individuals every bit as real (supposedly) and complex as you and me. Many believers regrettably tend to dehumanize these ancient victims as undeserving sinners with no hope of rehabilitation. Yet, it is crucial to our present Humanity that we do not forget theirs. We can therefore add a staunch dislike for due process to God’s list of offences.

While God is not necessarily all Evil, it appears He is not necessarily all Good either. And if He is, there is no way to tell for sure. As such, it would be unwise to rely wholeheartedly on Him, especially when trying to figure out how to live the Good Life. Besides, as Barker (2008) asks: why should we trust God to know how to overcome life’s challenges here within Time and Space? Indeed, has He ever truly experienced genuine distress, be it lack of anything or punishment of any kind? The experience of being downtrodden is especially inaccessible, since all-powerful deities do not—by definition, cannot—answer to anyone. Christians will mention that Jesus came to Earth to give His Father a taste of what it is truly like to be human, but one can hardly deny that the suffering experienced by Jesus pales in comparison to that experienced both voluntarily and involuntarily by the whole of Humanity, including, most notably, the kind of pains only those not of Jesus’ own gender can experience. Moreover, knowing that one is God’s progeny and that one will be reunited with His parent once the torment ends effectively takes away from the genuine experience of suffering.

It is for these very reasons, Barker (2008) concludes, that morality should be conceived in natural terms; that is, according to humans and their experience of the natural world. Besides, values are subjective products of the human mind; and so, only that which the mind processes can be used to decipher these values. Thus, not only is morality a human affair, as Einstein stated, but it also should be.

What does the mind process? The external and internal natural world. The external world consists of nature itself, with its own set of laws (e.g., of motion and gravity) that can potentially affect core human needs and functioning, whereas the internal world consists of human needs and functioning themselves. Moral behavior entails avoidance (minimization of harm) and approach (maximization of quality of life) needs. Thus, scouring the external world, we can induce the values: because human bodies cannot withstand large objects crushing into them, it is unethical to remove stop signs from an intersection, or b) because human bodies cannot fall back up, it is ethical to grab someone accidentally teetering over the edge of a cliff. Likewise, scouring the internal world, we can induce the values: a) because humans need food to survive, it is unethical to intentionally starve another, or b) because humans function together as members of a worldwide family, it is ethical to volunteer our time in a local homeless shelter.

Reality being complex, inducing values from it can easily become a challenge. Still, we can always rely on sound empirical study (both individual and professional), driven by reason, compassion and determination, to help us a) locate the different varieties of harm that can afflict humanity, b) understand how to best avoid them, and c) implement ways of remedying them when they do impose themselves upon us.

(Note: It was mentioned previously that the meaning of life is not grounded in a quest to be perfectly happy. And so, it is important to mention that while morality seeks to maximize happiness while minimizing harm, and while life should generally be lived morally, there remains nevertheless more to life than maximizing happiness: for example, experiencing Love, creating Art, generating Knowledge, etc. To enact these for their own sake, as ends in themselves, often requires painful amounts of tireless dedication. As in the case of necessary evils, even doing Good sometimes means doing Bad. And so, happiness and misery are equal parts of life’s fabric and purpose.)

On Science and Specialization

Exploring the culture of Science, Einstein recognizes a growing tendency among its members that I too have come to find particularly disconcerting: more and more, scientists voluntarily relegate themselves to “an ever-narrowing sphere of knowledge, which is threatening to deprive the investigator of his broad horizon and degrade him to the level of a mechanic” (p. 17).

I cannot comment on other fields, but I can testify to the truth of this admonishment in relation to experimental and (despite it not being a science) clinical psychology as well. In the case of the former, our researchers have regrettably become increasingly specialized. Gone are the days when authors meticulously explored particular subjects and phenomena by gathering not only knowledge from their home field, but by integrating knowledge from various sibling fields as well. In the case of the latter, we are trained to administer particular so-called “treatments.” Yet, query any intern or licensed practitioner regarding either the philosophical underpinnings or historical antecedents of their favored approach, and not only will they likely not know, but they will also question the very relevance of knowing.

Exploring the notion of Zeitgeist, Einstein recommends that each of us (scientists and laymen alike) “do his little bit towards transforming the spirit of the times” (p. 8). In the case of professional helpers and their clients, I believe it is our ethical duty to oppose psychiatry’s current stronghold over psychology in defense of secular humanistic conceptualizations of human behavior and relationships (specifically, the sorts of relationships that cause or alleviate distress).

On the Jewish People, Judaism and Israel

Einstein idealizes the Jewish People and Judaism, investing many hopes in the prospect of a Jewish State. According to him, “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence” (p. 103) are the mark of the Jew. Einstein even goes so far as to liken rejecting one’s Jewish Heritage to a disorder with its very own set of causes (see p. 119–121). Seemingly unimpressed with religion, Einstein also rather incredibly seeks to redefine the meaning of “serving God” in the Jewish tradition. In other religions, he explains, serving God entails fear-based submission; in contrast, Judaism defines serving God as “serving the living” (p. 104), a truly humanistic endeavor that is free of self-loathing, and, most importantly, that is more in line with Einstein’s own values and beliefs regarding life and how one should spend it.

Einstein expresses the following hopes for the Jewish People: “We Jews should once more become conscious of our existence as a nationality and regain the self-respect that is necessary to a healthy existence. We must learn to glory in our ancestors, as a nation, cultural tasks of a sort calculated to strengthen our sense of community” (p. 114). To Einstein, a common goal, a Home in Palestine, was necessary for this to come to fruition. In fact, within its settlers resides “the most valuable sort of human life” (p. 118).

While Einstein’s impassioned views regarding everything Jewish are not noteworthy in and of themselves, they do nonetheless stand at odds with his views regarding the subject of nationalism. Einstein generally condemns nationalism: “The greatest obstacle to the international order is that monstrously exaggerated spirit of nationalism which also goes by the fair-sounding but misused name of patriotism. During the last century and a half this idol has acquired an uncanny and exceedingly pernicious power everywhere” (p. 65). Further, only when Man overcomes “national and class egotism” will “he contribute towards improving the lot of humanity” (p. 87). Yet, despite all this, Einstein chooses to praise Jewish nationalism.

How did Einstein come to forego his own anti-nationalistic principles? Perhaps, his (rather selective) change of heart was a reaction to the persecution of his own ethnic group. I am reminded of philosopher Karl Popper’s observations regarding the post-World War II Jewish people: “Admittedly, it is understandable that people who were despised for their racial origin should react by saying that they were proud of it. But racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception” (1976/2002, p. 120).

Einstein retorts that while “there is something in the accusation” (p. 122) that he is committing the offence of nationalism, “it is a nationalism whose aim is not power but dignity and health” (p. 123). Lending credence to Popper’s hypothesis, Einstein subsequently succumbs, revealing the reason behind his change of heart: “If we did not have to live among intolerant, narrow-minded, and violent people, I should be the first to throw over all nationalism in favor of universal humanity” (p. 123). Thus, in the face of Germany’s declining treatment of the Jews, it appears Einstein struggled to reconcile his disdain of national pride with his hopes for his People. Redefining the very term “nationalism” somewhat solved the cognitive dissonance that naturally ensued.

I have previously admitted that, even as a Jew, I am more than slightly perplexed by Jewish nationalism, not to mention any other variety of racial pride. When asked whether the late-life revelation that he was Jewish caused him to reconsider his antireligious stance, Christopher Hitchens revealed: “My attitude toward Zionism has always been […] that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people” (2011, p. 62). Thus, while nationalism may arise in response to prejudice, it will not necessarily free us from it. I have also expressed that, in an age of ever-expanding globalization and transcended borders, and in light of the escalating necessity for humans to become better global citizens, we should feel proud not of our national heritage, but, more importantly, of our cross-cultural one. Paradoxically, Einstein himself echoed this when he observed: “The world is to-day more than ever in need of international thinking and feeling by its leading nations and personalities, if it is to progress towards a more worthy future” (p. 36).

Final Thoughts

Suffice it to say, The World as I See It made me think. A lot. And this review only focused on a brief sample of the many topics addressed throughout. However rich in content The World as I See It is, it does not lack entertainment value. Take, for example, Einstein’s scathing indictment of soldiers: “That a man can take pleasure in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed” (p. 6). Or, his humorously trenchant description of government: “Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work” (p. 85). In the end, it is incredibly humbling to ponder important subjects along with Einstein. That the book also provides a humanizing peek into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most productive personalities makes it all the more unique.

References

Barker, D. (2008). Godless: How an evangelical preacher became one of America’s leading atheists. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press.

Dawes, R. M. (1996). House of cards: Psychology and psychotherapy built on myth. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Einstein, A. (1940). Science and Religion. Nature, 146, 605–607.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Hitchens, C. (2011). Christopher Hitchens in conversation with Noah Richler. In R. Griffiths (Ed.), Hitchens vs. Blair: Be it resolved religion is a force for Good in the world (The Munk Debates) (pp. 55–66). Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press.

Popper, K. (2002). Unended quest: An intellectual autobiography. New York, NY: Routledge. (Original work published 1976)

Szasz, T. S. (1988). The myth of psychotherapy: Mental healing as religion, rhetoric, and repression. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver can best be described as a primer to dystopian literature. It is reminiscent of Zamyatan’s We (1921), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s 1984 (1948), only geared toward younger readers. While it may lack the maturity and literary ingenuity of its predecessors, The Giver remains no less engaging.

Jonas lives in the Community. In it, the Committee of Elders takes care of everything for everyone: they carefully select one’s career, life partner and children. To ensure the longevity of the Community, developmentally delayed infants, the elderly and multiple recidivists are “released” into Elsewhere. In the name of Sameness, scientists have eradicated variation from nature: life is unburdened by things that give contrast to the world, like color and weather. Within the Community, order and predictability are the name of the game; a pain-free life, the prize. Thus, there are no surprises, and no surprises equals no hurt. That is not to say that members of the Community do not feel unpleasant things; in fact, family units engage in a nightly ritual known as the Sharing of Feelings. However, those feelings are subdued versions of more heightened emotional fare.

Every December, the Community attends the Ceremony, which marks a variety of milestones reached by different cohorts of children. The most anticipated milestone is that of the Twelves: they are revealed their Assignment, the career for which they must begin training. To the Community’s surprise, Jonas is bestowed the rare and coveted title of Receiver of Memories. The Receiver is the recipient of all information that has been committed to memory since the beginning of humanity. To ensure the Community may live in harmony, the Receiver must bear the load of all memories that may compromise this idyllic existence: enviable memories of pleasure and happiness—like sledding down a snow-covered hill, rocking on a hammock below palm trees by the beach, or exchanging Christmas presents by the glow of a roaring fireplace—and disconcerting memories of horror and sadness—like gory wartime battles and merciless animal poaching. As part of his training, Jonas must meet daily with the previous Receiver, now the Giver, so that the physically and emotionally taxing transfer of memories may be performed.

Lowry’s message goes beyond saying we can only feel pleasure if we also know pain; rather, we only attain true happiness when we risk getting hurt. That is, we can only wholly experience the amusement of sledding if we are willing to accept we might fall and injure ourselves, the tranquility of a beachside nap if we accept a wayward coconut might cause us a concussion, and the comforting warmth of a crackling fire if we accept it may spread and consume our home. The point is: when we protect ourselves from the possible pain such experiences might provide, we also shield ourselves from their potential pleasures. Think of experiencing a sled, a beach or a fireplace in virtual reality: while diminishing the inherent danger does not fully eradicate the enjoyment, it restricts the qualitative appeal. So, by building an environment where no risk of harm exists, the Community has barred its citizens from the full experience of pleasure.

A few months into his perspective-shattering training, Jonas grows steadily angry with his friends and family. His life has become increasingly textured, both emotionally and intellectually; by contrast, their lives remain painfully unchanged. Jonas cannot understand why someone would settle for a monotonous life, let alone embrace it as a fulfilling choice. We feel his frustration: it is disconcerting when we witness otherwise intelligent individuals willingly de-individualize themselves, because they have deluded themselves into thinking they have become self-driven by buying into “the Community.” It’s as ironic as thinking you’re special for owning the Louis Vuitton shoulder bag that thousands of others also own, or covet. Still, the survival of certain societies, namely capitalist ones, relies upon this core misconception. Ultimately, while Jonas’ (and our) world is thought of as “perfect,” it is ultimately constrained and limiting.

Despite its riveting premise, The Giver is not a perfect book. We understand the universe Lowry has created is distinctly dystopian; yet, its overall functioning is only superficially explored, sometimes lacking in detail (although its intended audience probably wouldn’t notice that the fine points of the Community do not hold up to the most intense scrutiny). I would enjoy a tactfully produced movie that expands on the universe Jonas inhabits. Making one’s way through the story, we also realize that its characters behave the way they do because the overarching theme and primary message require it, causing the story not to progress as organically as it should. Still, The Giver is an intellectually stimulating read, providing much food for thought.

When Jonas encounters the memories that have been kept from him all his life, he becomes conflicted. What is he to do with all this newfound knowledge? The Committee wants him to keep it a secret and bear the emotional weight of it until a subsequent Receiver is selected toward the end of his life, but something inside him tells him the Community might actually benefit from experiencing the memories for itself. While the ultimate consequence of Jonas’ decision is left to interpretation, it would be hard to disagree with his ultimate choice. We identify with his journey, his challenges; they resonate deep within us.

In many ways, Jonas’ story is as timeless as the very first story: Adam and Eve’s. Since everyone’s needs are satisfied and pain is non-existent within the Community, it embodies Paradise on Earth. In fact, if Adam and Eve had never left the Garden of Eden and society had been free to develop within its boundless confines, the modern world would probably be like the Community. Another parallel: in both cases, the governing body has invested a natural being with a precious body of illicit facts. Indeed, the Giver of Pleasurable and Painful Memories is to the Community what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is to the Garden of Eden. Standing before this remarkable being, Jonas is faced with the same question Adam and Eve were before him: is a safe, albeit oppressive, life preferable to an uncertain, albeit free, life? (Of note, one of the first colors Jonas sees is the red of an apple.) Psychiatrist Marvin P. Osman’s (2000) enlightening interpretation of Adam and Eve’s story reflects Jonas’ dilemma:

It would seem that the first children were limited to the role of being mere extensions of the Creator, confined to the Garden’s peripheral foliage while the fruits of the trees of life and knowledge were out of bounds to them; they were excluded from forms of self-expression that could intrude upon grown-up prerogatives. The innocent children’s need to maintain a secure attachment to the Divine Parent succeeded for a time in constraining them to remain within the circumscribed area to which they had been assigned. In due course, however, the biblical children matured, physically, psychologically, and sexually. It is this maturation that threatens the hegemony of the Almighty, thus producing the tension between them and their creator that leads inexorably to temptation, transgression, and abandonment. One might conjecture that the primordial children contentedly reposed as subordinates of a seemingly all-giving entity while they lived within the matrix of what the God/Parent chose to provide: that they were spared both the harshness of life in the external world and the realization that there would be an end to their existence. However, the attractions emanating from outside the parental matrix, the discovery of which is the inevitable consequence of psychic and physical maturation, facilitate movement away from one’s progenitors. This heralds the inevitability of death, but it also holds forth a myriad of possibilities for fulfillment in a wider world. (p. 1297-1298)

Much in the same way God cared for His creation and spared it from Evil prior to the Original Sin, the Committee is an “all-giving entity” that protects those under its care from the cruelties of the outside world, Elsewhere. However comfortable God’s Garden was, though, it remained a prison nonetheless, and this is exactly what Jonas realized of his own Community. Such realizations arise from experiential growth. Ironically, Jonas’ maturation process begins sexually: upon experiencing Stirrings for the very first time, he is ordered to begin a course of medication. Only later does he develop critical thinking. The moment Jonas realizes there is more to life than can be provided to him by the Committee, he ceases to value the Community. Enticed by the promise of a fuller life, Jonas delivers himself from the prison he was born into. If we select the less hopeful interpretation of the conclusion of The Giver, Jonas’ premature death mirrors Adam and Eve’s newfound mortality upon escaping the Garden.

We long for perfection. We so wish our lives to be just right—low on conflict, high on harmony—that we involuntarily invent symbols of perfection we come to mistake as truth and foolishly begin to strive for: religions have their Heaven and Nirvana, secular institutions have their Self-Actualization and Mental Health. Yet, what we do not realize is that paradises, especially manufactured ones like the Garden of Eden and the Community, are inherently limiting. In contemporary society, we have internalized such outward representations of perfection, substituting them with manufactured states of mind like those provided by psychotropic drugs in our relentless quest for mental fitness. Paradises, be they religious or secular, are inherently limiting because they are lacking. To be sure, happiness can exist without pain. While eternal happiness is theoretically possible, provided pain can be totally eradicated, it does not come without a price, for as soon as we eliminate the risk of pain, the happiness we are able to enjoy is effectively dulled. Technically, it is still happiness, but it is not the genuine sort of happiness that typically coexists with real pain. In this way, The Giver reminds us that paradisiacal perfection is neither enviable nor desirable, for it may just cost us our Humanity.

Reference:

Osman, M. P. (2000). The Adam and Eve story as exemplar of an early-life variant of the Oedipus complex. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1295-1325.

I was at the bookstore the other day, killing some time before a movie, when I wandered uncharacteristically into the Graphic Novel section. My eyes aimlessly scanned the rows of spines, when they settled on one colored white and blue. The cover depicted a young woman wandering about what looked like a developing country and announced an ironic promise: How to understand Israel in 60 days or less. I was instantly intrigued; I visited Israel myself in 2008 and returned with more questions than those I had initially packed at home. The back-cover summary informed me that the novel chronicled the physical, cognitive and emotional adventures of Sarah Glidden during her Birthright tour of the famed land of milk and honey. (This was the same tour group with whom I had traveled.) The short review excerpts praised the book as heartfelt and evenhanded. I impulsively decided to forego my compulsion to first gather evidence from reader reviews at Amazon.com–a decision even more uncharacteristic than my trip through the Graphic Novel section–and immediately purchased the book, subsequently voraciously consuming it within two days.

To the goys among our readers (and if you’re not sure if you are a goy, then you are), Taglit-Birthright Israel is a charity that sponsors free cultural heritage trips to Israel for Jews around the world who have never visited their homeland. It is meant to awaken a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish history and culture. A few days into her trip, Sarah meets with her cousin, who is currently completing his university studies there. Enthusiastically relating her experiences so far, Sarah is promptly diagnosed with a case of “Birthright glow.” I must confess that I, too, contracted the glow during my visit. So much so that, upon my return, I immediately purchased Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (2003), which counters common arguments against the existence of the Jewish state. But, by then, the Birthright glow was quickly subsiding, and the book remains unread. Still, Glidden’s illuminating novel managed to momentarily reawaken my decidedly fleeting interest in Israel and, by association, Judaism.

While I have never believed in a supernatural being, I did not renounce religion until my young adulthood. In The Simpsons episode She of Little Faith (2001), Lisa Simpson, dissatisfied with her Christian church, begins to shop around for alternate religious options, in the end settling on Buddhism, thanks to Richard Gere. Like Lisa, I was also unimpressed with what Judaism had offered me so far, and spent some time researching what else was available to me out there, only to realize that religions were, as far as I could see, all alike. My conclusion: like with capitalism, while we are given many choices, these amount to no more than an illusion, as they are truly indistinguishable from one another. To be sure, this does not mean these choices are hollow, especially since they possess great personal meaning. Yet, that is exactly the problem: religions bury truths about humanity beneath stratums of extraneous meaning. As expressed in an earlier post, religious beliefs mystify (just the same way psychiatric beliefs medicalize) our most human of hardships and longings. I admit the inherent utility of religious (and psychiatric) beliefs, but deny their extrinsic reality. As such, I prefer to excavate Truth using my trusty (not to mention time-tested) Occam’s razor.

To put it bluntly, the difference between, say, Judaism and Christianity is, to me, analogous to the difference between “outdated” cathode ray tube televisions and “modern” liquid crystal display televisions. The difference is illusory, yet we continue to believe there is one because differences “sell.” Indeed, to enlist a share of the consumer/follower base to a particular brand/religion, one must claim his respective product to be “new and improved!” Think about it: to a first-century man going religion shopping at his local Jerusalem Soul-co, his choices would have been “outdated” Judaism and “modern” Christianity. Evidently, nothing has changed.

Still, all of these musings could not shake away the fact that I was born Jewish, and a part of me desperately wished to make amends with my imposed origins. To this end, I recall reading two books during this time. First up was Michael Carin’s thought-provoking The Future Jew (2001). In it, Carin puts forth an attractive argument: to empower themselves, and permanently reclaim all that history keeps taking away from them, the Jewish people must finally renounce God. This reading was followed by the less controversial God Optional Judaism (Seid, 2001), which outlines, as the subtitle explains, Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, And Community. What I learned from these authors is that one may still be Jewish even though they do not believe in God, by appreciating their history and cultural heritage, and communally sharing that appreciation. Still, I could not and still cannot help but feel that while history and heritage may define what I am, they do not define who I am. Let me explain. I consider my being Jewish and gay similarly: both describe me, neither define me. I am no more proud of being Jewish than I am of being gay. And that is certainly not to say that I am ashamed of either. These attributes are neither good nor bad; they just are.

Still, many Jews boast a Jewish identity that is to them a great source of pride. Toward the end of her Middle Eastern journey, Sarah attends a lecture given by Rabbi Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute. To Sarah’s (and my own) surprise, Hartman proclaims:  “The difference between Jew and non-Jew does not exist. We are all members of the human condition… As a Jewish state, Israel should be leading the protests of the atrocities in Darfur. We pray for two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Beautiful. But why can’t we pray for one million Africans? We must get out of this family mode” (2010, p. 198–199). Hartman’s hopes for his country are admirably affectionate and open-minded. Yet, in them lies an inevitable paradox: how can Israel, a family state, rise above a family mode?

In Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (1976), philosopher Karl Popper wrote of the post-World War II Jewish people: “Admittedly, it is understandable that people who were despised for their racial origin should react by saying that they were proud of it. But racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception.” (p. 105; it should be mentioned at this point that Popper’s parents were born Jewish, converting to Lutheranism later in life, prior to their son’s birth). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jewish nationalism is evil, I will admit that I am more than slightly perplexed by it. I cannot help but attribute a certain level of arrogance to national pride, of any kind. Implicitly embedded into it lies a worrisomely divisive “us versus them” philosophy. In agreement with Popper’s remarks, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who was also born to Jewish parents but does not consider himself Jewish, observes: “[If] Jewish is beautiful, then gentile is ugly” (The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression, 1973, p. 143). Incidentally, Popper’s arguments regarding Jewish nationalism are equally applicable to Gay Pride, but perhaps that is the subject of another post…

Sarah’s journey continues to complicate these issues for her, making her question all national pride, be it Jewish, Palestinian, or otherwise. She, at one point, encounters members of the Bereaved Family Forum, an organization that encourages dialogue between families on both sides who have lost loved ones to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a moving and inspirational speech, one of the members, Maha, explains to Sarah and her trip-mates: “We ask only one thing of you and that is not to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but to be pro-Peace. And when you go back to your country explain to your friends about what we do here and help them be pro-Peace too” (2010, p. 152). While I know of Israeli-Palestinian pacifist groups, I have only ever met people who are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine in their rhetoric. Indeed, nationalism implies one-sided allegiance, effectively limiting the number of options available when conflict arises, and certainly eliminating the possibility of mutual cooperation. In some way, national pride amounts to deciding the answer to a problem before it is even stated: we wish for what’s best for our people, not all peoples involved, whatever the sore point. Being pro-“Us” begets more conflict, while being pro-Peace begets resolution.

On the last night of our Birthright trip, my group was asked to sit in a circle and express what we had learned during our journey “home.” My discovery: “I feel no more or less Jewish than when I first arrived here.” Indeed, I feel no more or less Jewish than when I was first born, and I don’t remember feeling particularly Jewish then. It was just how I was born. In an age of ever-expanding globalization and transcended borders, and in light of the escalating necessity for humans to become better global citizens, I think that is something to be proud of.

Serial killers have captured our imaginations for centuries. Some have even proposed that stories of mythical creatures such as werewolves arose out of efforts to explain mysterious strings of murders. Such gruesome interest has motivated the publication of countless books, not to mention the production of countless movies (for example, Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

I must confess: the ubiquitous serial killer literature piques my interest. However, I don’t have too much patience for the sensationalist fare written by crime-chasing journalists; I prefer to go to the source. Some of the most informative books on serial killing by serial killers include the philosophical The Gates of Janus (2001) by Ian Brady, and the confessional Panzram: A Journal of Murder (1970) by Carl Panzram. Of note is Jason Moss’ autobiographical The Last Victim (1999), which chronicles his attempts to interview notorious serial killers for his undergraduate thesis. I’m sure it goes without saying: making one’s way through each of these books is a disturbing experience, both viscerally and intellectually.

Thus, the more sensitive among us may be forgiven for indulging in less realistic, overblown depictions of serial killers, since their exaggerated details allow some detachment. For example, based on a series of books by Jeff Lindsay and adapted for television by James Manos, Jr., Dexter (2006 – Present) manages to make serial killing an almost respectable trade. This well-regarded series follows the seasonal adventures of a man attempting to harness his homicidal impulses to improve society.

Contrary to Brady and Panzram’s harrowingly factual accounts of their gruesome deeds, Dexter takes many, many artistic liberties. In fact, the criminal psychologists among its fans cannot help but cringe at least once an episode: think of the psychodynamic explorations of the protagonist’s motives, or his apparent lack of regard for his victims’ actual risk of reoffending. Still, Dexter’s universe is downright realistic compared to the one inhabited by John Wayne Cleaver, the hero within first-time author Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer (2010).

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a teenager with aspirations of becoming a serial killer were to face-off against a supernatural monster? Yeah, I hadn’t either. Yet, this is the question Wells poses, and answers, in his delightfully twisted book, the first of a three-part series.

John Wayne Cleaver would be your typical small-town teenager, if it were not for his undying passion for serial killers. Now, this may seem a tad unusual, but not necessarily alarming. The real problem is: John is resisting his own impulses to kill, serially. Have I mentioned that his deathly passions are compounded by the fact that he helps his mother prepare bodies for display in the mortuary below their house? When his hometown is plagued by a string of murders, he gets involved, naturally; after all, who better to track down and kill a serial killer than a (budding) serial killer himself? Alas, John’s purely theoretical knowledge of killing is no match for his very first chosen victim, whose practiced killing abilities appear to be, for lack of a better expression, out of this world.

As you can probably tell, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a ridiculous book based on an even more ridiculous premise. Yet, it works. And it works well. To be sure, it is a truly kitschy, pop-fiction type of book. But Wells seems to know this and runs with it, interspersing his otherwise outlandish storyline with genuine bits of drama and tension when needed. This self-awareness of sorts effectively raises the book above pulp literature into the “legitimate” realm of fiction. I Am Not a Serial Killer would make for a terrific graphic-novel. In fact, if it is ever adapted into a film, I believe its only chance of surviving the transfer from page to screen would be if the director treated the source-material as if it were a graphic-novel, by not taking John’s story too seriously and instead harnessing its pulp quality (much in the same way del Toro and McTeigue did with their excellent adaptations of Hellboy (2004) and V for Vendetta (2006), respectively).

Since its publication, I Am Not a Serial Killer has given rise to two sequels, and the first one, Mr. Monster (2010), is a worthy successor. In it, John’s hometown is once again assaulted with serial murders. Knowing more than he lets on about the initial spree, he attempts to help the police find the new culprit. As he continues to struggle with his homicidal impulses, John must also learn to cope with another variety of impulses: his attraction to love-interest Brooke. While plagued with a few too many distracting typos, the continuing story of John Wayne Cleaver remains engaging. The concluding installment, I Don’t Want to Kill You, will hit bookshelves in the spring of 2011. With Mr. Monster ending on a promising cliffhanger, I look forward to reading Wells’ next entry into the decidedly unique Serial Killer Thriller/Supernatural Fantasy genre.

Most are familiar with the story of the original sin. According to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s interpretation, Adam and Eve, in their infinite innocence, sampled critical thinking from the Tree of Knowledge. Preferring His creatures to be foolish and subservient, God promptly evicted them from His heavenly Garden. Szasz, however, identifies a second sin committed by humanity later in its history: having become critical thinkers, humans began to accumulate more and more knowledge, elevating themselves, along with their Tower of Babel, to godly altitudes. Jealous of this, God sabotaged humans’ intellectual ascent by confounding the one language they spoke at the time: the language of critical thinking. As a result of God’s interference, language was muddied and humans forgot how to speak clearly.

In The Second Sin (1973), Szasz reclaims the type of plain language that God and other authority figures—religious leaders, psychiatrists, politicians—so despise, by dedicating an entire book to the clear and simple discussion of a wide variety of human-related topics. Divided into thirty-four sections, The Second Sin features a collection of razor-sharp and often humorous aphorisms regarding subjects such as marriage, ethics, emotions, law, psychiatry and mental illness. Its sequel, Heresies, was released in 1976. Defining “heresy” as “being right when the right thing to do is to be wrong” (p. 1), Szasz continues to expose the truth behind topics historically distorted by so-called authorities.

In a way, The Second Sin is less about what is said, and more about the way it is conveyed. Indeed, the book is an experiment, an exercise in plain writing. To be sure, its goal is not to simplify, but to not complicate.

There are many advantages to speaking clearly. Szasz quotes 1984 author George Orwell, who explained: “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself” (1973, p.  xxi). However, Szasz adds, “[when] a person speaks or writes in political, psychiatric, or sociological jargon, he expresses himself with a certain indirectness and ambiguity; and like the hysteric, he dramatizes what he says as something profound, although it may be trivial” (p. 24).

This inappropriate use of language is dangerous, as the more language is used improperly, the more confusion ensues. And therein lies its power, for as confusion arises, so does the opportunity to dominate, since confusion incapacitates defenses. Indeed, “[in] the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined” (Szasz, 1973, p. 20). In life, the opportunity to define embodies a rare commodity. Unfortunately, the most powerful among us have the ability to force the rest of us to adopt their definitions (even if these are one of many possible working definitions). In fact, “[those] whose social defenses are weak […] are most likely to contract invidious definitions of themselves” (p. 23).

This is not to say that there cannot be advantages to choosing to not speak clearly. The misuse of language can appease uncomfortable states, such as the angst inherent within the difficult questions of existence. For example, the concept of mental illness is often used to explain troublesome and seemingly incomprehensible breakdowns in individual and social human behavior. Indeed, “[mental] illness is a myth whose function is to disguise and thus render more palatable the bitter pill of moral conflicts in human relations” (Szasz, 1973, p. 98). Since mental illness is simply a metaphor meant to help us make sense of behavior, it is crucial that we do not confuse the metaphor with reality. However, the metaphor does confuse and distract: “[It] is precisely the technical idiom of medicine and psychiatry that stands in the way of recognizing and remedying these moral problems” (p. 30-31). (For more details on Szasz’ views regarding mental illness, see The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, 1961).

If the rhetoric of medicine and psychiatry is not appropriately suited for the task of describing humans and their experiences in accurate and constructive ways, which type of language should we favor? It is interesting to note that Szasz uses religious terminology to title both books: The Second Sin and Heresies. This begs the question: could we use the language of religion? On the contrary, psychiatry merely perpetuates the mistakes of religion: the former medicalizes (unacceptable behavior becomes mental illness) whereas the latter mystifies (unacceptable behavior becomes sin).

Indeed, in many of his books (e.g., The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression, 1978), Szasz observes that psychiatry appears to have replaced religion in modern society: we no longer kneel at the altar of God, but at the altar of Mental Health. (Some of us, of course, hedge our bets on both sides of the God/Mental Health spectrum.) Both concepts, incidentally, are symbolic representations of the same thing: the ideal human situation. In other words, religion presents a picture of ideal moral behavior, whereas the mental health system presents a picture of ideal healthy behavior. Yet, for some reason, we prefer to avoid labeling these behaviors simply as “ideals,” preferring instead to couch them beneath extraneous layers of meaning.

If not the language of religion, should psychiatrists simply adopt the language of their clients? Szasz counsels against this, arguing that either party’s attempts to impose his image of the world on the other is ultimately fraudulent because of their underlying motivations. In fact, a client’s claim that he will not venture outside his house because the world is a cruel place is no more accurate a description of his predicament than his psychiatrist’s contention that he suffers from something called agoraphobia.

Alternately, we could use anti-psychiatric language. Ironically, language that romanticizes mental illness (e.g., viewing “schizophrenia” as a transformative journey leading to untold insights) is as equally misleading as its psychiatric counterpart. Still, the romanticization of deviant experiences dates back centuries. In The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), for example, the Marquis de Sade details the sexual adventures of four libertine men, explicitly describing a wide variety of sexual crimes committed on a quest for hedonistic bliss. The resulting text is a narrative survey of different types and varieties of sexual behaviors, normal and deviant, in which people engage. By glorifying all that is sex, and doing so indiscriminately, De Sade infused sexual activity with meaning it does not inherently own.

Unfortunately, De Sade’s romantic take on sexual deviance was replaced 100 years later with psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s medicalized approach. In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Krafft-Ebing approached sexually deviant behaviors from a scientific point-of-view, attempting to survey, categorize, and explain them. By sanitizing and clinicizing all that is sex, Krafft-Ebing committed the same kind of crime against meaning that De Sade did. Approximately 80 years later, the anti-psychiatry movement, with psychiatrist R. D. Laing as its poster-child, attempted to reverse the tables on psychiatry by elevating the mentally ill to idealistic heights, much in the same way De Sade did with the sexually deviant. Resenting the suggestion that he is associated with this movement, Szasz rather affectionately titled his book on the subject: Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared (2009).

In sum, the languages of religion, psychiatry and anti-psychiatry are equally unsuited for the task of describing humans and their experiences, adding extra layers of meaning that are not warranted and are potentially misleading. In regards to anti-psychiatric romanticization, however, I am inclined to think that its impact is less damaging than religious mystification and psychiatric medicalization: romanticization strips power away from the oppressor (i.e., the righteous, mentally healthy) and confers power upon the oppressed (i.e., the sinful, mentally ill), however misguided the exchange might be. While not perfect, at least this system of thought flips everything on its head.

Sadly, helping professions are wrought with misusers of language. This is not surprising, as modern psychotherapy is, to put it bluntly, the bastard offspring of the religious and medical schools of thought; as such, it is inevitable that its linguistic development suffered. Psychoanalysis is, in my experience, perhaps the biggest culprit, with its inscrutable layers of symbols upon symbols. Psychoanalytic language is also terribly conceited: when a client does not cooperate, we call it “resistance,” and when the client responds to the therapist the way he would to someone else, we call it “transference.” While not exempt from blame (think of the laughable term “cognitive restructuring”), cognitive-behavioral therapy fares somewhat better, limiting its range of terms to basic and more salient facets of human experience: cognitions, emotions, physiological reactions, and behaviors.

In his diminutive On Bullshit (2005), philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt explores the philosophy of bullshit in a suitably tongue-in-cheek fashion. According to Frankfurt, bullshitting is marked by an absence of concern for truth. The bullshitter, he explains, uses words to describe concepts without bothering to submit to rules of enquiry that may increase the accuracy of his descriptions. “[His] fault is not that [he] fails to get things right, but that [he] is not even trying. [The bullshitter]’s statement is unconnected to a concern with the truth” (p. 32-33). In this sense, the bullshitter stands apart from the liar because the latter is (at least) familiar with the truth; he merely chooses to misrepresent it. Indeed, bullshit may be objectively truthful; its supplier simply does not care.

Here’s a personal example: during a conversation with a colleague, she stated an argument as agreed-upon fact. When I asked if any research supported this perspective, she replied: “There must be.” That, readers, is bullshit epitomized. This is not to say that my colleague was wrong. In fact, she could very well have been right. Her argument was bullshit, however, because she did not care if her statements represented reality. What was more important to her in that particular moment was making her point.

Frankfurt identifies advertisers and politicians as bullshitters. But how about psychiatrists? If they have looked into the veracity of their truths (especially the extent to which they stem from and involve the proper use of language) and are convinced of them, they are neither liars nor bullshitters. I submit, however, that those who have never bothered to investigate and instead mindlessly adopted their so-called truths during their training qualify as bullshitters. Indeed, such psychiatrists are probably not concerned with truth to begin with, for “[the] bullshitter does not care whether the things that he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose” (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 56). In the case of bullshitting psychiatrists, I suspect that purpose to be existential: they are unable to accept the drama of life, and wish to thwart its finality by elevating their life work (i.e., helping others overcome the drama of life) to the level of medicine, perhaps society’s most respected profession.

Following is an example of psychiatric nonsense: a psychiatrist teaching a course on psychopharmacology I completed during my own training once warned the class that psychotherapy, like medication, has its own side-effects. While this is metaphorically true, he said this without an ounce of lightness. He was, in fact, dead serious. That, to me, is bullshit. If that man had taken the time to think twice about what he was trying to say, he would have probably realized that beneath his metaphor laid a basic truth about relationships, such as the one between a therapist and his client: while some may prove helpful in overcoming difficulties, complexities inherent to relationship development may still obstruct the helping process.

If psychiatrists are full of (bull)shit, and clients’ own accounts of their experiences are potentially unreliable, how are we to describe clients and their experiences? Szasz (1973) proposes that “[a] dignified and humane understanding of man—his experiences and conflicts, his strengths and weaknesses, his saintliness and his bestiality—all this requires a rejection of the languages of both madness and mad-doctoring, and a fresh commitment to the conventional, disciplined, and artistic use of the language of the educated layman” (p. xx).

Thus, if I may be so bold to present my helping philosophy: when attempting to understand my clients and represent their experiences in my mind, I try to resort to the simplest terms possible. In addition to helping me better appreciate all that my clients are and want to be, refusing to add unnecessary levels of meaning helps me avoid confusing both myself and my clients. If my clients are not assaulted and incapacitated with deceitful language, they can correct me should my understanding be mistaken, affording them power and ownership in the process of reaching their personal goals. In the end, I believe my clients and I are better able to work together toward overcoming whichever difficulties trouble them. Of course, I am not immune to misuses of language, but I find it helpful to at least consciously strive to avoid committing semantic crimes. When one treads a thin line between sense and nonsense, he is often told: “choose your words carefully.” In an age when medicalized jargon has become the default, this maxim could not come more recommended.

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