I remember getting a call one afternoon from someone outside my congregation thanking me for the work I had done with his daughter and son-in-law who were having marital problems. “You have an amazing gift,” he told me. “God has given you wisdom beyond your years.”
I reveled in comments like that for years after. And I decided that God had uniquely equipped me to counsel others. I devoured books on counseling, attended training workshops and even considered opening a full time counseling practice. All the while I was working from the assumption that counselors are called to solve people's problems; they are fixers. My college president once described himself as a man with “dozens of solutions just waiting for problems to attach them to.” That's kind of how I saw my counseling practice: lots of solutions. All I needed was to hear someone's problem and I would sort through the list and find one that fit.
A lot has happened between then and now. For one thing, I am indeed a professional counselor now, with a full practice. I even went back to school a few years ago to get a counseling degree and began the arduous task of licensure with my State. I know more about counseling, both theoretically and practically, than ever before. And yet, the longer I do this, the more I become convinced that I've grossly misunderstood the counselor's task. I'm also convinced that for years I grossly misunderstood what was going on in the counseling “successes” I experienced. To put it simply, I'm seeing myself these days more as a caregiver and less as a fixer. I won't say God never allows me to solve someone's problem. But I will say that when I do, it's in spite of me, not because of me.
Lest you think this is merely false modesty—or worse, a perverse attempt at self-validation—let me bring some psychological theory to bear.
Thomas Szasz is regarded as the founder of the “antipsychiatry movement.” In case you've never heard of him, he devoted his career to exploding the myths of psychological and psychiatric approaches. Szasz has an entertaining, acerbic writing style (“when a man talks to God we say he's in prayer; when he says God talks to him, we call him schizophrenic”). Perusing the titles of some of his books will give you an idea where he's coming from:
1974 (1961). The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row.
1991 (1970. Ideology and Insanity: Essays on the Psychiatric Dehumanization of Man. SUP.
1997 (1977). Psychiatric Slavery: When Confinement and Coercion Masquerade as Cure. SUP.
1998 Cruel Compassion: Psychiatric Control of Society's Unwanted. SUP.
Here is how one reviewer summarized Szasz's views in Cruel Compassion: :
Cruel Compassion is the capstone of Thomas Szasz's critique of psychiatric practices. Reexamining psychiatric interventions from a cultural-historical and political-economic perspective, Szasz demonstrates that the main problem that faces mental health policy makers today is adult dependency. Millions of Americans, diagnosed as mentally ill, are drugged and confined by doctors for noncriminal conduct, go legally unpunished for the crimes they commit, and are supported by the state - not because they are sick, but because they are unproductive and unwanted. Obsessed with the twin beliefs that misbehavior is a medical disorder and that the duty of the state is to protect adults from themselves, we have replaced criminal-punitive sentences with civil-therapeutic 'programs.' The result is the relentless loss of individual liberty, erosion of personal responsibility, and destruction of the security of persons and property - symptoms of the transformation of a Constitutional Republic into a Therapeutic State, unconstrained by the rule of law.
You may wonder if Szasz was some kind of religious fundamentalist fruitcake. He may be a fruitcake. But he's definitely not a religious fundamentalist. Szasz, an MD, was for years a professor in medicine at the New York State University--in addition to his prolific writing and speaking career.
I bring Szasz to your attention not because I agree with everything he says but simply to make a point that not all caregiving professionals like the direction our industry is headed. Szasz goes so far as to accuse the mental health industry of building a “pharmocracy”(rule of drugs) akin to ancient “monarchies” (rule of kings) or medieval churchmen's desire to build a theocracy (rule of God).
The foundation for Szasz's criticism of our therapeutic culture is his radical libertarianism and humanism. I don't follow him in that direction at all, of course (I'm an unashamed Calvinist on that issue). Thus, he believes that when one person tries to fix problems it quickly turns into a coercive, dehumanizing exploitation.
So does this mean there is no job for us professionals? I don't believe that either. But if there's anything I've learned over the last few years as a counselor it's the importance of being clear on my role in the life of my clients. What am I really supposed to be doing for them? Am I caring for them or fixing them? On the other hand, this doesn't mean I just sit there and watch as they self-destruct. There are things I must say and things I must do—even beyond a listening ear and a caring hug. It is still the truth that sets us free and God calls me to be a messenger of that truth. However, note that it is not I who sets people free! And in my role as a caregiver I must always be careful to make that distinction.