By Geoffrey Geddes
Psychologist Carl Rogers’s therapeutic model rests on two philosophical pillars: first, that a person will, unless hampered by environmental factors, move toward congruency with his or her real self or, as Kierkegaard phrased it, “that self which one truly is”; and second, that the prototypical human self is intrinsically “constructive and trustworthy.” In other words, people are, by design and desire, good, and the job of a psychotherapist is to help them overcome the environmental evil forces that threaten to derail their journey to the land of joyful congruency. My tongue is not so firmly pressed into my cheek that I cannot appreciate the kind heart with which Dr. Rogers approached each day and each sufferer. Despite his protestation to the contrary, Dr. Rogers was the best kind of Pollyanna: one who applies his positive philosophical presumptions to improve our collective lot. And who knows? Maybe he was right.
My mother might have gently denounced Dr. Rogers as an optimist. As Mom always said, “people are no damned good.” Yes, she actually said that … repeatedly. But I suspect she never really believed it. I suspect instead that she was simply parroting an adage she had heard as a little girl from her depression era, pogrom-surviving parents. I wonder, though, to what extent that family proverb affected her early development. I wonder if it increased her fear of strangers, or perhaps diminished her tolerance for risk.
Ironically, I think Mom used that proverb as a tool to soothe me when she detected an increase in my fear of strangers or a reduction in my tolerance for risk. “People are no damned good” didn’t mean that humans are fundamentally bad creatures; it meant “people will not always treat you fairly or kindly; but don’t let your negative experiences destroy your goodness” – a message that Dr. Rogers surely would have endorsed. And yet, here I am, nearing my sixtieth year, still brooding over the meaning behind Mom’s favorite truism. If you didn’t believe it, sweet Mother, why did you keep saying it to your child? (Breathe; find your center…)
Rogers maintained that “freedom to be oneself is a frighteningly responsible freedom, and an individual moves toward it cautiously, fearfully, and with almost no confidence at first.” Perhaps my mother kept repeating her message to me because she instinctively knew that my childhood choices would determine the quality of my adulthood, and that choosing a path to a strong, self-confident adult would require overcoming the tremendous fear about which Rogers warned – fear that she thought she might ease by regularly reminding me that “people are no damned good; but that’s because they were afraid and made bad choices – hang in there, son.”
My mother died last year after 88 years of hearty life. She died gracefully, surrounded by a devoted circle of friends and family, each of whom she had positively touched with her bossy brand of kindness and knee-jerk optimism – an optimism that belied her favorite saying.
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin