Thinking About Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Day. I come from a New England family, Mayflower descendants even so Thanksgiving was always sort of “our” holiday. After we moved back to the States from Japan, where my father was stationed during the Korean War, he was mistakenly sent to Ft. Knox, KY and we were there Thanksgiving the year I was 8. While he waited for new orders, my dad was put in charge of the mess halls for reasons known only to the Army. We were to eat there with the troops but I got the mumps and so we missed that. I remember my mother learned from the mess hall cooks to cook the turkey in a paper bag that year. Other than that year, all of the Thanksgivings of my childhood blend together. 

Not being a big turkey lover, I confess I found it hard to wholeheartedly embrace the feast. It seemed to me to be mostly about me doing a huge amount of cooking for a meal that lasted only a fraction of the time it took to prepare — and then came the clean up. And I have felt growing ambivalence about the myths surrounding Thanksgiving, the myths that make my people the heroes and good guys and the Native Americans at best ignorant savages. 

My town was among the first in Maine to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. And that movement has grown, not without pushback but slowly the change grows. It is time now to face the reality of Thanksgiving. 

The holiday arrives in the midst of a national struggle over racial justice, and a pandemic that has landed with particular force on marginalized communities of color. The crises have fueled an intense re-examination of the roots of persistent inequities in American life. NY Times

Against this background, I have been reflecting about how we do need a thanksgiving but one not so connected to our history of racial injustice.

Every day we are confronted with the horrible mounting death toll from this pandemic. As I write today, the toll is at 262,000 souls. And rising. It is unimaginable. I try to visualize the number — little lights all over the map going out one by one. In my small town, recently the woman who tended the garden in Post Office Square became one of those numbers. We all must live with the anxiety of knowing that this invisible force, this virus is everywhere in our lives. Many, hopefully most of us wear masks, avoid unnecessary trips outside of our homes, do whatever we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Many of us have forgone spending this holiday with family in order to avoid travel and the spread of infection. But millions have not heeded the warnings from public health officials. Still the death toll rises and likely there will be a spike around Christmas. To fully realize what is happening is to face into horror — so many people dead. So many people ill. A terrible toll exacted from doctors and nurses caring for the ill. 

It came to me the other day what we might do at the end of this, maybe a year from now if the effort to vaccinate everyone has succeeded and we enter a recovery period. When the crisis has ended, I feel we will need two events to mark what we have passed through: first a National Day of Mourning to publicly acknowledge our dead and our grief. And then a day of Thanksgiving that we survived, we passed through this terrible time. 

I am just one person living in a small town in Maine. I have no idea how to bring these events into existence. By writing this, by linking to it on FaceBook and Twitter, maybe enough of you will share my idea and maybe we can together actually make it happen. Feel free to share the link with anyone you believe might be interested. Please share your feelings and thoughts in the comments below.

What would I do?

Like many of you the tensions surrounding the election and the renewed intensity of the pandemic sapped my creative energies for a while. So for the past couple of weeks I have been reading, knitting and watching Netflix to take care of myself. I hope that you have also been tending to your needs.

Today I woke up and I feel ready to write again. So here goes as I consider what to do when a patient presents a really thorny issue that might reach into  the territory of a moral dilemma.

A while back, someone asked me how a psychotherapist deals with the situation in which something the patient has come to understand she would really like to do to improve or change her life is likely to cause suffering to someone in that patient’s life? Situations like this are not uncommon, as for example someone wants to divorce her husband, an action which will doubtless cause upheaval and pain for all involved.  

But this questions contains, I believe, a misperception about what therapy is about and what the role of the therapist is.  

A new patient comes to me. I gather a bit of basic data and then ask her to tell me why she is here, to tell the story in whatever way makes sense for her. I listen. Very rarely is what I hear framed as a moral dilemma. I ask and ask many times during the time we work together “What is the life you want?”, because this is a pivotal issue. And as she frame possible actions, I ask if that action will take her closer to the life she wants. And we do that process again and again. I don’t tell anyone what to do. I am not really a problem solver.  

I deal with what is the life the person wants, what keeps them from having that life, and how/if it can be achieved and what the cost of achieving it might be. In my years of practice, to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen a pedophile or rapist or person who engages in behavior that I think is beyond the pale — those people don’t come in for therapy, at least not to me. Once I saw a person who might have been a murderer. I checked with colleagues and the appropriate state agency to see what my responsibility was to him and to the community. I saw him 3 times and discharged him to a more appropriate facility. That was a professional decision not a moral one.  

So how do psychotherapists navigate these waters?  

I don’t give answers when asked what people should do. I can help them look at why they want to do it and what the consequences are and whether it will get them what they want. But I do not make the decision.  

In two sets of conditions, I am bound to act on what I hear. If I am told by someone that they abuse someone or are abused, in most states, I am mandated to report the abuse. If someone threatens the life of another, case law says I must inform the authorities, but statute does not — so I consult and then report or not. Otherwise, my task is to listen.  

I am not Dr. Phil. I am not a priest. It is VERY hard sometimes not to try to tell people what to do. Because the work I do is not short term and because I usually work with people over the course of months, and  years, we have time to sort through issues, to examine them from as many sides as possible. And ultimately what they do is up to them. 

“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. “
-C.G. Jung