“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” –The Imitation Game
Shortly before I fell into the lava I began a conversation with an eleven year old girl, we’ll call her Sal. This was a while back, on a Minecraft server I play on from time to time. My name when I play Minecraft has the word “therapist” in it, and Sal had noticed this.
“Hey, are you really a therapist?” Sal asked via our server text chat.
“Yes I am.” I typed back. I had been mining obsidian and using a river to cool the lava so I could chip away at it with my diamond pickaxe. In the time it took to type my reply, I managed to fall into the river and get washed into the lava. I watched myself go up in flames, and with me most of my loot. There is always a chance though, when one falls into lava this way, that some of one’s loot can be thrown clear. So upon respawning I quickly made my way back to the scene of my demise as we continued our conversation.
“Oops, burned up,” Sal said, as the server had announced just that when I fell in the lava. “Are you the kind of therapist that talks to kids about their problems?”
“Kids and adults both, yes.”
“My mother wants me to see a therapist,” Sal said.
“Why?” asked another one of the kids on the server.
“She says I have problems with friends,” Sal said. By this point I had returned to the lava pool. There was no loot that had survived.
“Sal,” I said. “Everyone needs help with their problems from time to time. That’s why there are 7 billion people on the planet, to help each other out.”
For some reason that made quite an impact with the other players. “Wow, you must be an expert!!” one typed. I’m not sure how he’d come to that conclusion.
“I’m certainly not an expert on lava,” I replied, and fortunately the conversation went back to the business of mining after some sympathetic emoticons.
I have no problem talking with kids about therapy, or being a psychotherapist. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t have the word in my userid. And it wasn’t even that I was “off duty.” I’ve had many conversations in chats over the years and heard a range of problems. In part I was a little protective of Sal’s right to privacy, although experience has again shown me that kids are often less hung up on therapy than adults, and in many ways are often more trusting of psychotherapy than adults are. Mostly the reason I wanted us all to get back to playing was that I had caught myself sounding “educational.”
* * * * *
In play if there is any such thing as an expert it is certainly not the therapist, or adults in general. Virginia Axline, knew this. In her book Play Therapy she writes, “Non-directive therapy is based upon the assumption that the individual has within himself… the ability to solve his own problems satisfactorily.” (Axline, 1947) My trainees are often as surprised to find that I am friend to both psychodynamic and solution-focused theories as I am to find that they have been taught the two have irreconcilable differences.
As I see it, my job is often to be a unique experience in the lives of patients. “It is a unique experience,” Axline writes, “for a child to find adult suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, support, intrusions gone.” (Axline, 1947) And by the time people come to us as adolescents or adults, those suggestions, mandates, rebukes, restraints, criticisms, disapprovals, etc. have become internalized. By adulthood, many of us feel as if we lack expertise in anything, except perhaps screwing our lives up.
Education has increasingly played a hand in this. We do not teach so that our students learn to think independently and feel resourcefully. Instead we teach them to think like someone else. Critical thinking and exploration become supplanted by the sense that education has to give us something tangible in a materialistic sense: A good grade; a profitable job; published ideas or maybe if we really drink the Koolaid admiration from other academics.
One thing that is so enjoyable about Minecraft for many is its’ open sandbox environment. There is an endgame you can play if you want, but there are also myriad variations of play you can do instead. Sal and millions of other children and adults can range freely through such open and creative spaces without “experts.” Education certainly can happen there, but often in a lightly curated if not autodidactive way. People have created versions of Westeros, Middle-Earth, Panem or their own creations. There are PvP versions where conflict and combat, stealth and griefing hold sway; fantasy realms where people can role-play. It is a topsy-turvy world where children can have the most wisdom, and we adult experts can trip and fall into lava.
* * * * *
In a world obsessed with measuring outcomes, psychotherapy can have a rough time of it. If Sal ever goes to therapy, she will have to be labeled as ill somehow if her mother wants insurance to help pay for it. Notes will have to be written, treatment plans planned, goals and objectives filed away so bean-counters can determine that Sal should get 14 beans-worth of help. It’s hard for me to get too angry at the bean-counters though, over the past 25 years I’ve met a few of them and they don’t seem too happy either.
Education fares little better, with things like the Common Core which tells us what should be taught; standardized testing which masquerades as achievement; and trigger warnings which are supposed to warn students of upsetting content as if they somehow were entitled to get through the mind-altering experience of learning without ever being upset.
It takes bravery to stand up to this. To let the individual chart their own course, make their own mistakes, draw on their own core. For the therapist and educator it takes bravery to get out of the way, to radically reflect the developing self. I do believe that each one of us needs help throughout our lives; but that help needs to be asked for lest we run the risk of telling others what to do and implying they aren’t up to the task of living their own lives.
* * * * *
Many therapists, social workers, and teachers I have met chose to become members of those professions at least in part as an expression of admiration for their own therapists, social workers and teachers. They had no interest in falling into the lava ever again, so they started focusing on helping other people out. It’s a thankless job if you are going to go through it secretly hoping to be thanked. I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone I work with refer to me as an “expert” unless they were being facetious about some blunder I’d just made. And I’ve made many. As an apotheosis, being a psychotherapist or academic is rather anticlimactic, not because the work is devoid of meaning or value, but rather because if we truly place such people on a divine pedestal it needs a steady stream of troubled people to hold it steady.
Perhaps an alternative for therapists, social workers, educators and our ilk is to think of ourselves as “lava experts.” We have some acquaintance with falling into pits, being consumed by intense feelings, losing all our, erm, loot. These are human experiences. This is not a secret to anyone, and I doubt most people would put their trust in someone who knows nothing of failure, obsession, overwhelm or grief.
What’s more is we’ve fallen into lava, often the same pit again and again! We know something of the repetition compulsion. We have let our yearning for whatever we think we need lead us to risky or self-defeating behaviors. We can talk to people about their problems, because we are people who have problems ourselves. We’ve been burned. Minecraft miners know mining deep is risky: We know what we’re doing even up to that moment our bones ignite.
Rather than being an expert on a pedestal, accept that you will tumble into fire, again and again, looking outside of yourself for what is precious. Straight A’s, that book you published, six or seven figures–There’s a little Gollum in all of us. It’s what makes us forget mindfulness, build empires, win arguments or wars. No one was ever oppressed by play, only the lack of imagination that comes from the absence of it.