“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read… And then you realize that your suffering does not isolate you, that your suffering is your bridge. And all you can do is bring light to that suffering, enough light to the person suffering so that he could begin to comprehend his suffering and begin to live in it and change it… We don’t change anything; all we can do is invest people with the morale to change it for themselves.” -James Baldwin
The Significance of Insight and Encouragement in Self-Realization
In that statement, James Baldwin succinctly described psychotherapy. The question I’m most frequently asked is, can I really change? And while the process isn’t easy, the answer is simple: yes. But, how? What’s meaningful for those who suffer isn’t guidance so much as it’s encouragement; they need to know that autonomy and other forms of mastery are possible for them. Baldwin’s point was that we never really heal anyone, because we can’t. Accepting that insight has the power to profoundly change us. And, in addition to his main point, gives us the freedom we need to become as useful as possible, by helping us discard our obligatory guilt: Our duty is transformed into their duty, and we become mere fellow travelers on their journeys.
James was a psychotherapist in his own way because he helped the downtrodden, especially those mistreated by a prejudiced system that bludgeoned them into submission. But, his help didn’t come in the form of guidance, for he was simply, and profoundly, a light-bearer, speaking our collective truth.
When I initially became a therapist, I frequently made the rookie mistake of mapping out others’ futures, believing that it was the best solution to what ailed them. And each time, as would have been expected by a veteran of the field, I fell flat on my face. Most of us, despite our sometimes destitute appearances, actually know what we need to do to make our lives better, but learned helplessness prevents us from acting.
In psychological literature, learned helplessness is defined as the environmentally induced belief that one isn’t in control of his/her life. This results from reoccurring psychological and/or physical trauma, in which the victim “learns” that she’s helpless in the face of life’s capriciousness. People with a sense of helplessness may be highly intelligent and successful in various areas, but they have severe deficits in managing distress. What all of this means is that, more often than not, they actually need encouragement and practice in order to self-actualize, meaning become the best versions of themselves (to the extent that that’s possible), not guidance.
In my writing, as well as in my sessions, I share my personal stories with my patients in order to help them feel less isolated in their suffering. I work with them on discovering their strengths to balance out their ruminations over their weaknesses. I believe that, in a sense, each of us ought to become motivational speakers for those in our lives, for it is through us that they learn to see themselves. Baldwin’s writing attested to the suffering that all of us experience, and his hope was to use it to unite us. He knew that whether through psychotherapy or literature, mankind’s future rested on its acceptance of unity, that it had to perceive itself as an interconnected, and inter-dependent, organism which utilized each one of its parts for survival.
Can I Ever Change?
Thus, this brings us back to the primary question of this article: Can we really change? My experience and decades of psychotherapeutic research indicate that we can. And empathy, as instilled through literature and therapy, has the potential to foster the interpersonal bridges that Baldwin referred to. Through it, and from it, we acquire the desire to become compassionate to those who’ve suffered as we have; essentially, it is the great catalyst of change. When I learn that you suffer as I suffer, I’m able to become a different person, better than I was before.
So, the question of change can be deconstructed into questions of insight and encouragement. Can I begin to teach others that they aren’t alone in their sorrow, while presenting them with my belief in their abilities to become responsible for their lives? The cure, if one can call it such, is truth; and, that’s what James Baldwin, in his art, was attempting to tell us.