At first glance David Reynolds’s philosophy of Constructive Living [“Necessary Guilt: An Interview with David Reynolds,” Michael Toms, November 1993] seems like a reasonable, peaceful way to come to terms with familial pain of the past. But on closer scrutiny, it reveals itself to be incredibly incomplete. The people whom he seems to be addressing are basically psychologically healthy adults whose parents loved and supported them with integrity while perhaps unwittingly disappointing or hurting them sometime during their childhood, as imperfect but well-intentioned parents are apt to do. Practicing an attitude of mutual responsibility and forgiveness might be beneficial in these instances. But Reynolds doesn’t speak to adults who were abused or neglected when they were growing up. Nor does he address the inherent imbalance of power between adults and children. Children are dependent on adults for physical survival and emotional development; adults, on the contrary, are not dependent on small children for these things. The psychological or physical harm that a child might be able to inflict on a parent can’t be compared to the trauma that a child may experience at the hands of a parent. The cases of a child killing a parent are rare and usually occur as an act of survival against abuse.
Reynolds would like survivors of parental abuse to be able to come into his office, close their eyes, and describe the room with a Zen-like awareness. Lovely. That survivors of incest, battery, or other trauma are reeling from their considerable pain and can’t seem to perform this feat doesn’t seem to impress him. What if we compared psychological pain to physical pain? If the person sitting in his office had a severed leg and was bleeding all over the floor, would that person’s ability to calmly list the objects in his office be relevant then?
Children already experience unreasonable guilt in relation to a parent’s suffering. It’s common for children to appropriate responsibility for their parents’ divorce and to believe a parent who tells them that they’re worthless or stupid. Children are routinely steeped in shame and guilt. Abused children who grow into adulthood bearing these scars should be supported and encouraged in a therapeutic setting to affirm their legitimate suffering and loss of self. Rage and grief at parental abuse and injustice are essential to the process of healing and reclaiming one’s own soul. Forgiveness of one’s parents is optional. We may come to understand our abusers and oppressors, but we don’t have to love or forgive them. We’ve survived them. That’s enough. Many parents continue to deny their child’s experience of abuse anyway, so there can be no exchange of understanding or forgiveness.
I know of a child whose father frequently tries to toughen her up by pinching her burns or cuts very hard for several seconds while she screams in pain. He’s doing it for her own good, he says, so she won’t grow up to be a crybaby. The child is afraid to appeal to her torturer for medical attention, solace, or comfort because the pain he’ll then inflict on her will be much greater than the accidental one. When she grows up, should she ask her torturer’s forgiveness? What does such a child need to be forgiven for?
The interview with David Reynolds is yet another instance of Sun-sponsored therapy bashing. In his hyperbolic assumptions regarding modern psychotherapy, Reynolds badly misrepresents it in two crucial ways.
First, he is mistaken in his contention that there is a single psychotherapeutic model that espouses the denial of personal responsibility, fostering positive self-esteem at the expense of “reality.” In fact, there is no single school of therapeutic thought. Rather, a vast array of hypotheses and treatments exists. Reynolds’s argument is based on faddish psychological pablum, not on the many serious efforts to define and remediate the estrangement of the individual from his or her instinctual life and the community.
Second, various schools of psychotherapeutic thought have for decades worked on fostering responsible action and responsibility (Logotherapy and the Existential School, Reality Therapy, Radical Psychiatry, Behaviorism, Hillman’s work for social action). In truth, not one concept mentioned by Reynolds is even slightly original or outside the mainstream of modern psychotherapeutics.
Far more insidious, however, the focus on acquiescence in Morita and Naikan therapy seems geared more to harnessing the energies of the masses for the corporate State than to fostering the health of the individual. For hundreds of years, such conformist cosmologies have been used to build military-industrial complexes and Holy Roman Empires at the expense of the lives and bodies of their subject peoples. That this collective “progress” comes from the sacrifice of spiritual, aesthetic, and emotional experience is appalling and tragic.
Reynolds’s fawning adoration of Japanese culture is quite curious in light of the emerging statistics reporting the suicides and declining health of the worker-masses who “responsibly” abdicate their health and families in eighty-hour workweeks. But laying the issue of culture aside, his approach is one that completely ignores the plight of the individual within families and social systems that sometimes truly are lethally abusive. To deny such individuals their outrage and protest is to foster a society that is founded in denial and fascist in nature.
Reynolds is also off the mark when he states that “becoming doesn’t happen in the real world. There’s firewood, and then there are ashes.” Whoaaaaa, what happened to the fire? This is the problem with his entire argument. It is lifeless, and utterly excludes the vital inner process of the mysteriously complex enterprise of self-reflective living.
David Reynolds responds:
I appreciate the clearly considered responses of William Larsen and Sally Deveaux. William Larsen is correct in pointing out that not all psychotherapists practice the destructive versions of psychodynamic theory popularized in the West. Among those who practice reasonably and sensibly are Constructive Living instructors. If it is also the case that Constructive Living lies within “the mainstream of modern psychotherapeutics,” I am pleased and much relieved. My goal is not to promote something original (the ideas of Constructive Living have been around in many cultures throughout much of human history) but to remind all of us of what seem to me to be solid bases for living well.
If Larsen were to sit in on the International Association for Constructive Living meetings each year, he would abandon his idea that Constructive Living produces passive, obedient servants of the status quo. The instructors and their students are notably independent and varied in their goals and methods. Each individual decides what needs to be done in the Moritist context, and each individual makes personal judgments of self based on his or her own values in the Naikan context. No instructor tells a student what needs doing; no instructor tells a student how to define what has been received from others and returned to them. Sometimes action to change the status quo is what needs doing. Rightly or wrongly I consider myself engaged in such action these days.
I wonder on what basis Larsen sees within me a “fawning adoration of Japanese culture.” I am not a tourist in Japan. I live there for at least several months every year. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese people better than most. If the Japanese people all practiced what I propose there would be no need for Morita and Naikan therapy in Japan. Although Constructive Living ideas are not solely Japanese (read Merton, Heinlein, Laotzu, Boulanger, Needleman, and Idries Shah, for example), it is a historical circumstance that I first encountered the ideas in Japan. So I owe a debt to those who taught me there.
Now firewood, now ashes. Now neurotic suffering, now no suffering. Larsen posits some firelike process in between. Such a belief keeps lots of psychotherapists in business. Their patients pay them to discover and define the process for them. Beware of exorcism in modern guise.
Sally Deveaux focuses her remarks on children who were seriously abused by their parents or other adults. Such abuse is a terrible thing. If Deveaux actually knows of a child who is currently hurt in the way described in her letter, she should get protection for that child immediately. Now is the time for concrete help, not in some therapist’s office later. Adults in therapists’ offices are not helpless children.
I am convinced that many people have bought into a belief system that focuses attention on the self as victim and promotes a feeling-centered life as opposed to an action-centered life. Their attempts to somehow fix past traumas do nothing more than interfere with their getting on with living. I shall state my position clearly.
1. You cannot undo past hurt. You need not undo past hurt. No one knows how to undo past hurt. You can live well now whatever your past may have been. You are not bound by the feelings of your past.
2. To build an artificial image of parents as only evil and hurtful is unrealistic in that it ignores the life, food, shelter, and other benefits that parents provided. To build an artificial image of children as only passive victims is unrealistic in that it ignores the troubles children caused parents and children’s failure to repay their parents for benefits they received. Of course I am not arguing that children’s behavior excuses adult abuse. I am arguing that the picture of parents as bad guys is more complex than some would have you believe, more complex than some readers want to believe. It’s seductively convenient to blame our parents for our current inadequacies. But unidimensional villains exist only in fiction.
3. The reciprocity aspect of Constructive Living helps people achieve a more balanced, realistic view of their childhood. This balanced view is fostered by looking in detail at what one received from one’s parents, what one did for one’s parents in return, and what troubles one caused one’s parents. These queries generate information missing from an exclusive focus on the troubles parents caused us. It moves our perspective from helpless recipient to active participant in our childhood. Such a view of self is positive and healthy.
Some readers don’t find Constructive Living to their taste. Clearly I am presenting an alternate belief system to one that is commonly encountered in many Western forms of psychotherapy. Take your pick among them. But keep in mind as you ponder any belief system the following question: who profits from promoting such a system? If the belief that childhood trauma cannot and need not be repaired — the belief that we are not helpless and passive victims of our past — achieved prominence in our society, many psychotherapists would be out of business. I recommend a perspective that emphasizes humility and possibility and purposeful action rather than self-centeredness and limitation and wallowing in feelings.