The Psychology of Torah vs. Other Schools of Psychology
Not long ago a young man in his early 30’s came to see me. Tall, handsome and articulate, he seemed put together. That is, until he began to share his story. At first he spoke calmly and deliberately. Even as he discussed himself he did so as if he was speaking about another person, totally aloof and detached.
But then the dam broke. With tears in his eyes he shared with me how he was violated and deeply wounded as a child, in ways that I would prefer not to graphically describe here.
Hearing how an innocent defenseless child has been hurt tears your heart out. I too began to well up. But then things got worse.
This man, at no fault of his own, told me how his entire childhood and growth into adulthood was haunted by one prevailing feeling: “I am damaged goods.”
And if this wasn’t bad enough, he related how, after years of intense therapy, he sensed that his own therapist agreed with him. “In one of our last sessions,” he told me, “I asked my therapist if he sees me making any progress. I still am having extreme difficulty dating and building a healthy relationship. I don’t feel that I trust anyone, and am pretty sure that no one trusts me. So where is this therapy going”? The fellow continued: “My therapist’s tepid reply made my heart sink. He told me that healing takes time; it can often be a lifelong experience, and even then some things may never be fixed.”
“So what the [expletive] am I paying top dollar for therapy when things may never be fixed?!” he blurted out to me – and, I guess, to his therapist.
I asked him for permission to call his shrink and try to get some clarity. With his blessing I unabashedly picked up the phone and had a conversation with this mental health professional. Long story short, this particular therapist believes that therapy can soothe, minimize and alleviate some of the pain, hopefully enough to allow this fellow to function better, but damaged goods are damaged goods, and he didn’t have much hope that this individual would become functional enough to build a healthy marriage and family. “Some people are not destined to find true happiness, especially in that way. We need to help them find some comfort in other ways.” I didn’t expect that he would share this sentiment with his paying client…
When I pushed him further, wondering what his role as a healer of souls may be, he finally conceded that some damages cannot be repaired. He actually presented a plausible and even scientific (based on his axioms, that is) argument: Just as body parts can be severed (G-d forbid) in an accident, with no hope of growing back, so too can our psyches incur irreversible damage.”
Whoa… I thought to myself: This certainly opens up a Pandora’s box.
Is this true? Do many – and how many – psychologists actually believe that certain life experiences damage you forever? How many feel that some people are actually damaged goods? And how does this bode for the benefits of modern psychology and its interventions?
I went to search for the definition of “damaged goods” and discovered that most dictionaries offer a gloomy definition: “A person who is considered to be no longer desirable or valuable because of something that has happened.” “A person considered to be less than perfect psychologically, as a result of a traumatic experience.”
I reminded myself of Josephine Hart’s damaging quote: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” Is that good or bad news?
The questions mount – and challenge our very perception of ourselves, as well as the perception of our professionals.
How deep are the effects of psychological trauma?
Trauma results from a violation of a person’s familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. This can also be experienced when people or institutions, depended on for survival, violate or betray or disillusion the person in some unforeseen way.
Traumatic experiences in people’s lives, especially in children, completely overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope or integrate the ideas and emotions involved with that experience. This sense of being overwhelmed can be delayed by weeks, years or even decades, as the person struggles to cope with the immediate circumstances.
We know that a severe traumatic event, especially one that is repeated or enduring, can lead to serious long-term negative consequences that are often overlooked even by mental health professionals. Trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects.
But how deep are these affects? Do they cause permanent damage? Once broken, can a soul be repaired?
Are some of us then damaged goods? Are some situations pretty much hopeless? Do some professionals believe that, but simply choose (for many reasons) not to share that information?
Doesn’t this question lie at the heart of all healing? How powerful is the healing process when it comes to human psyche and soul? For that matter, what does our soul and psyche look like? What potential do they have? Can we ever completely heal?
Theories abound about these fundamental questions – cutting into the very core of the human soul. These theories surely span the spectrum from one extreme to the next: Some argue that like all things in nature the human psyche can get irreparably damaged. Others feel that some healing can be achieved. The differences of opinion range as to how much healing. But the consensus more or less is that we cannot expect a traumatized or wounded psyche to ever fully rebound.
I would like to humbly submit the Torah/Chassidus view on the matter. You can compare the different modalities and draw your own conclusions. May the best man win.
Sixty four years ago this week (the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat 1950) my mentor’s mentor (Rebbe’s Rebbe) ascended on high. His name: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Chabad Rebbe. The last discourse he published in his lifetime was issued for study that very day. The Chassidic discourse, titled Basi L’Gani, Come to my Garden (a verse in Song of Songs), consists of twenty chapters.
When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, assumed leadership of the movement, he began his first discourse with the same verse, and elucidated on the original discourse. Every year hence, on this day, Yud Shevat, the Rebbe would focus, in consecutive order, on another one of the twenty chapters of the discourse, in 1952 – chapter two, 1953 – chapter three, concluding with chapter twenty in 1970. Then he began the order again. Based on this cycle, this year, 2014 (5774), corresponds to the 4th chapter of Basi L’Gani.
What is the theme of chapter four?
You guessed it, the nature of the “damage” or the way it’s described in this discourse, the nature of the forces that “conceal” the pure and healthy divine soul.
In the words of the chapter: Though, as stated above, the world obscures G-dliness — i.e. the spirit of folly stemming from the animal soul can obscure the light and truth of the G-dly soul — this affects only the middos, the emotive attributes of the G-dly soul, but not its essence.
The question is how deep is this concealment? How deep the damage?
Each and every person has a healthy divine soul that always remains intact in its health. Upon birth this soul enters into a material body and animal soul, which conceals the purity and health of the divine soul.
The healthy soul, which is essentially divine, is aligned with its purpose. Like a healthy machine that follows its engineer’s plan. But once inside the body and animal drive, their selfish desires dull his healthier senses, causing the person to deviate and get misaligned from his or her life calling. Conflict has been born – a split between who you truly are and what you do, between your core and your behavior.
This is the root definition of all “disease” – a body that is misaligned from its soul. From this stems every form of dissonance. In its more extreme form this is the effect of trauma, which overwhelms the individual and causes a part of him or her to break off from itself and its soul connection.
But – as explained in chapter four of the discourse – even the most extreme form of trauma and dissonance only impacts the emotional faculties of the soul, its self-perception, self-awareness and feelings. This damage is only as strong as the feelings vested in it. But beneath the surface of our consciousness, the core soul remains intact, healthy and as connected as ever.
Indeed, what is even more amazing – as the chapter explains – is that the very concealment and dissonance itself was created for you: your challenges are a vote of confidence in you and your ability to overcome this temporary concealment, and recognize your true inner divine power.
The reason that the “animal soul” has the power and ability to conceal your healthy core is because its power is rooted in the divine desire to overcome these challenges and transform them into colossal forces of good.
And therefore, though initially and ostensibly life’s traumas can cover up and conceal the outer dimensions, the conscious feelings, of the healthy soul, they do not in any way compromise the core itself.
Our faith and connection to the core gives us the strength to overcome these overwhelming forces and discover the unscathed soul within.
So there you have the psychology of Chassidus:
There is no such thing as damaged goods.
In a man-made world with man-made objects things are built and then broken. In a world subject to the laws of erosion, aging, deterioration and death, things always get damaged; the arrow travels in one direction, from healthy to less healthy, from complete to broken. This process cannot always be reversed.
But in the divine-made world of the immortal soul, nothing is ever permanently damaged. The expression of the soul – its feelings and outer faculties – can be concealed and temporarily blinded. Trauma can impede our functions. But they can never damage our core souls.
You are only as damaged as your perception and feelings convince you to be. Otherwise known as projection. In truth, beneath it all, on the foundation level, where it matters most, you are not damaged at all. Your beautiful soul sits waiting for you to believe in it and set her free.
As Michelangelo famously explained how he sculpts such beautiful angels in the marble: I saw the angel in the marble, so I carved and carved and set her free.
Life’s travails can wear us down. Loss, pain, trauma etch their wounds into our psyches. Our pure souls get entangled and trapped in marble, concrete or even more sullied substances. But their effect goes only as far as our perception and feelings allow them to go. They do not touch the core essence of who you are.
This is the foundation of all true healing.
Believe in yourself because G-d believes in you. Indeed, your very challenges – the ones that control your initial perception and feelings, concealing the inner power of your divine soul – were created for you to overcome them and seek out the divine within.
Thus, even your feeling like “damaged goods” is meant to motivate you to transcend that feeling and reach the true you.
So the next time your despondent voice whispers to you that you are “damaged goods,” and the next time your therapist concurs – tell them both that you just read in a discourse of a mystic and healer of the highest order that it just ain’t so.