The Therapy of a Public Life

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Thirty years ago, Philip Rieff wrote a book entitled, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In essence, he argued that today, in the Western world, so many people need psychological therapy mainly because our family structure has grown weak and many community structures have broken down. In societies where there are still strong families and strong communities, he contends, there is little need for private therapy; people can more easily work out their problems inside of family and community. Conversely, where family and community are weak, we are very much left on our own to deal with our own problems, and a therapist, rather than a family, has to help us.

If Rieff is right, and I suspect he is, then it follows that the answers to many of the issues that drive us to the counseling couch lie as much, and perhaps more, in a fuller and healthier participation within public life, including church life, than in private therapy. We need, as Parker Palmer brilliantly suggests, the therapy of a public life.

What is meant by this? How does public life heal and strengthen us?

In brief, public life (life within family and community, beyond our private selves and beyond our private intimacies) is therapeutic because it draws us beyond ourselves into the lives of others, gives us a certain rhythm, and connects us with resources beyond the poverty of our own limitations.

To participate healthily in other people’s lives takes us beyond our own obsessions. It also steadies us. Most public life has a certain rhythm and regularity to it that helps calm the chaotic whirl of our private lives, which are often racked with disorientation, depression, restlessness, and an almost infinite variety of obsessions. Participation in public life gives us clearly defined things to do, regular stopping places, regular events of structure and steadiness, a rhythm -- commodities no psychiatric couch can provide. Public life links us to resources beyond ourselves.

Let me try to illustrate this with an example. While doing studies in Belgium, I was privileged to attend the lectures of Antoine Vergote, a renowned doctor of both psychology and the soul. I asked him one day how one should handle paralyzing emotional obsessions, both within oneself and when trying to help others.

His answer surprised me. In essence, he said this: “The temptation you might have, as a priest, is to too simplistically follow the religious edict: ‘Take your troubles to the chapel! Pray it all through. God will help you.’ It’s not that this is wrong. God and prayer can and do help. But obsessional problems are mainly problems of over-concentration, and over-concentration is broken largely by getting outside of yourself, outside of your own mind, heart, life -- and room! And so my advice is: Get involved in public things, from entertainment, to politics, to work. Get outside of your closed world. Enter more into public life!”

He went on, of course, to qualify this so that it differs considerably from any simplistic temptation to simply bury oneself in distractions and work. His advice here is not that one should run away from doing painful inner work, but that solving one’s inner private problems is dependent upon outside relationships, both of intimacy and of a more public nature.

In support of this, I offer another example. For more than a dozen years I taught theology at a theological college. Many is the emotionally unstable student, fraught with every kind of inner pain and unsteadiness, who would show up at our college and slowly get emotionally steadier and stronger, and that strength and steadiness came not so much from the theology courses, but from the rhythm and health of the community life. These students got well not so much from what they learned in the classrooms as they did by participating in the life outside of them. The therapy of a public life is what helped heal them.

And for us as Christians, the therapy of public life also means the therapy of church life. We become emotionally better, steadier, less obsessed, less a slave to our own restlessness, and more able to become what we want to be by participating fully and healthily within the public life of the church. Monks, with their monastic rhythm, have long understood this and have a secret worth knowing, namely, a regular program, a daily rhythm, participation in community, the demand that we show up, and the discipline of the monastic bell that calls us to activities, not when we want them but when they are set for us, have kept many a man and woman sane, and relatively happy besides.

Regular Eucharist, regular prayer with others, regular meetings with others, regular duties, and regular responsibilities within ministry not only nurture our spiritual lives; they keep us sane and steady. Private therapy can sometimes be helpful in supplementing this, but public, ecclesial life, with its peculiar rhythms and demands, is what, first of all and most of all, keeps us steady on our feet.