We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World Is Getting Worse by James Hillman and Mike Ventura
This gripping and inspiring book grew out of a dialogue between Hillman, a Jungian therapist, and Ventura, a writer. Through conversations and letters they explore the apparent paradox encapsulated in the title: as the aim of psychotherapy was to produce better people, why hasn’t this resulted in a better world? One of the many strengths of this book is that the authors allow their ideas to develop without feeling the need to tie them down to practical applications. Instead they allow ideas to take on a momentum of their own, and even push them to extremes, in colourful and expressive language far removed from the dry and detached tone of most books about therapy.
Previous critiques of therapy, such as Jeffrey Masson’s Against Therapy, have concentrated on abuses within the client-therapist relationship. Hillman and Ventura start with the proposition that, by locating all problems within the individual’s inner self, therapy ignores the outer world and encourages political passivity. If an individual experiences distress at the state of the world, he goes to therapy to deal with these feelings and change himself, instead trying to change the world.
Hillman and Ventura point out that in locating the causes of human problems in childhood, therapy propagates the archetype of the inner child through our thinking about ourselves. A child is powerless to bring about social and political change; for that you need concerned, active, adult citizens. The idea that an individual’s current problems stem from what happened in her childhood, decades ago, is unique to our modern western society. Provocatively, they suggest instead that each of us has a destiny to fulfil, and that childhood ‘problems’ may result from the child sensing some inkling of that destiny and either acting to fulfil it – Picasso was taken out of school at ten because he refused to do anything but paint – or being scared witless by it – the young Churchill had problems with both writing and speaking because he ‘knew’ that fifty years later he would have to save the Western world through his speech! (Hillman later expanded this idea out to book length in The Soul’s Code, which I confess I didn’t get all the way through)
Along the way they dismiss the notion, underlying therapy and prevalent in society generally, that we live and die essentially alone. This again is a very culturally specific idea; before the Industrial Revolution this idea would not have made sense. People lived their whole lives among people who knew them, in tribal or village groups, and died believing that they were joining their ancestors. Their lives had a context and meaning, both in location and time, which as individuals in the increasing fragmentation of Western society we desperately miss. All of the needs of the soul which used to be met by these communities are now expected to be met by ‘significant others’ and the nuclear family; no wonder these relationships are increasingly falling apart under the strain.
Along with many other ideas in this wonderful and stimulating book, the authors suggest that therapy can properly concern itself with social and political change as well as changing the individual so that ‘the consulting room becomes a cell of revolution’. This book came along at just the right time for me, as I was looking for ways to change my stress management seminars* to focus more on the ways in which organisations and communities can nurture and support the individuals within them.
This book is so rich in ideas and so obviously needed that it is bound to speak to many other readers just as deeply. Buy it!
* I don’t really do stress management seminars any more, although you could probably tempt me back if the price was right