He went like one that
hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
These lines conclude Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They describe the man to whom The Mariner has just told his tale. The Mariner is compelled to travel the land, telling his tale to those whose faces declare their need of it. His ability to read the soul of another reminds me of these words by Freud:
"When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden within them . . . I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore."
The Ancient Mariner seeks out people who, like him in his earlier days, will sacrifice anything for their own happiness. He is a kind of therapist, but his 'client' has just left as "a sadder and a wiser man." What kind of therapy is this?
Therapy aims to help people "become better." Sometimes what that means is taken for granted, but perhaps it should be less clear.
The assumption that is readily made is that therapy should help people feel better. This makes sense. Our emotions tell us when something is wrong. They register the meaning of events. They are like a compass, pointing out what we need to attend to and where we need to go. So when people feel better it can be for a good reason, and can register that things are good in certain respects, including that good changes have happened. And feeling good can give us the energy we need to do better. However we need to ask, What is made invisible, or traded in, when we demand to feel better above all else? Is there a risk that therapy can amount to a training in hedonism?
A man comes to mind whose marriage had ended, after his wife discovered he was paying women for sex. What struck me most were his subtle demands and accusations toward me. His unacknowledged but strongest demand was that I make him feel good about his losses. His implicit accusation was that if I did not acquiesce then I was a cruel person and bad counsellor. Rather than face up to the loss of his family with all the pain involved, rather than facing what he needed to do now as a father, rather than attending to what he had done in betraying his wife, he ignored all this and simply treated me as somebody he could pay to make him feel better, like an emotional prostitute. He had learnt no lessons.
Ideally the result of therapy is to become a happier and wiser person. And certainly that is a common outcome of successful therapy. But wisdom and happiness do not always correlate. Good therapy can lead to becoming a wiser person with the same emotional struggles as before. Importantly, I think we need to leave space for the idea that sometimes a person will, after therapy, find themselves to be “a sadder and a wiser man." Perhaps the man I spoke of above needed to become sadder and wiser first if he was to be a good father and to achieve a happiness worth having.
There are forms of happiness that are not worth having. And suffering that is good. The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote, "Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture." What sort of people do we become when we only value good feelings? Most of us want to feel better, but not at the cost of becoming selfish or superficial. True happiness is a by-product of living meaningfully; of living, say, with depth and kindness. The ancient Greeks often said "Call no man happy until he is dead." They meant that the possession of happiness is a matter of luck, and some people get very unlucky. What matters is living well rather than feeling good no matter what. There is more to therapy, because there is more to life, than quick-fix happiness and pleasure. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner points to the deeper goals of living, and so the deeper point of therapy.
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.