“But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer. Confounding the dignity of man with mere usefulness arises from conceptual confusion that in turn may be traced back to the contemporary nihilism transmitted on many an academic campus and many an analytical couch.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I agree that our cultures are characterized by achievement orientation, and I experience this as toxic – in its effects on the individual (sitting across from me in the therapy room or in the wider world) and in society.
Frankl’s words evoke all kinds of questions and thoughts in me:-
- What do we mean by ‘old person’ (or ‘successful’ or ‘happy’ – all these words we can use as if we know what we mean, and as if we all mean the same things)? My Dad sometimes did a bit of grumbling about the ‘old people’ on the London buses, whom he experienced as moving at a slower pace than suited him on shopping trips. He was 77 when he died – still grumbling about this. At 48, I do not see myself as ‘old’. My 7 year old niece might disagree. I do not see my husband or my best friend – both in their mid sixties – as ‘old’. It was a shock to me the other day to hear someone refer to a person of this same sort of age as ‘an old man’. It’s all about viewpoint and perspective – individual, relational, cultural.
- Does an old person – however defined – not have ‘present usefulness’? We might think that depends on the person (although I personally do not). It inevitably also depends on how we define usefulness – which is culturally influenced (I am not going to say ‘determined’, because actually my experience tells me there is plenty of space for individual/group intention, choice and decision within cultural values and pressures – a.k.a. internal locus of evaluation). So if ‘usefulness’ is paid employment, an ‘old person’ may not be ‘useful’ (nor may many younger ones). But if ‘usefulness’ is ‘engaging in loving relationship’ or ‘transmitting life experience/wisdom’, they may? Other cultures/times do not see ‘old’ as ‘less valuable’, rather the reverse – for example, the Native American conceptualization of ‘elders’.
- And there is Frankl’s contrasting of ‘valuable in the sense of usefulness’ with ‘valuable in the sense of dignity’ – what I would see and define in terms of the (infinite, unique and immense) intrinsic worth we each have as beings, regardless of what/when we manifest in the world.
- So how would I define ‘usefulness’ for myself? I suppose in terms of my purpose here on this planet – as I see that today. I dislike the statement ‘a person is not their behaviour’ – that has always seemed to me a nonsense: what is my behaviour if it is not me? But it is a manifestation of me in specific circumstances, at a specific point in my journey, at a particular point in time – not the totality of my unique and precious being as I exist in the whole of time and space. It is not my job to be ‘useful’. It is my job to be as fully present as I can be, moment to moment, to inhabit with love my own being and my own experiencing as completely as I can. If I can do that, ‘usefulness’ (which I understand in terms of ‘service’) is an inevitable and naturally unfolding consequence. When we are connected to our own experiencing with love (which we ‘achieve’ through being loved), we naturally and inevitably connect with love to others and to all that is. We develop an ethic of service, and we serve.
Rogers covered some of this:-
Proposition 18: ‘When the individual perceives and accepts into one consistent and integrated system all his sensory and visceral experiences, then he is necessarily more understanding of others and is more accepting of others as separate individuals’ (or in my recent rewording: ‘When I am able to hold in awareness and integrate all my actual embodied experiencing, I am inevitably more understanding and tolerant of others, and more able to understand, value and accept others as separate beings.’)
‘One of the most revolutionary concepts to grow out of our clinical experience is the growing recognition that the innermost core of man’s nature, the deepest layers of his personality, the base of his ‘animal nature,’ is positive in nature – is basically socialized, forward-moving, rational and realistic…..’.
Rogers comments further on the counter-cultural thrust of this perception (true now, as it was then): ‘This point of view is so foreign to our present culture that I do not expect it to be accepted, and it is indeed so revolutionary in its implications that it should not be accepted without thorough-going inquiry. But even if it should stand those tests, it will be difficult to accept.‘
He traces the lines of culturally embedded opposition to his idea through Christian conceptualizing of man as ‘basically sinful’, and Freud’s/others’ ‘arguments that the id, man’s basic and unconscious nature, is primarily made up of instincts which would, if permitted expression, result in incest, murder, and other crimes. The whole problem of therapy, as seen by this group, is how to hold these untamed forces in check in a wholesome and constructive manner.’ Rogers notes challenging voices (Maslow and Montagu), and that ‘these solitary voices are little heard’.
He speaks of his own slowness to recognize the ‘falseness of this popular and professional concept’. Accurately I think, he ascribes this to ‘the fact that in therapy there are continually being uncovered hostile and anti-social feelings, so that it is very easy to assume that this indicates the deeper and therefore the basic nature of man. Only slowly has it become evident that these untamed and unsocial feelings are neither the deepest nor the strongest, and that the inner core of man’s personality is the organism itself, which is essentially both self-preserving and social
The challenging voices Rogers notes, his own work and that of others (Laing springs to mind, Brian Thorne and Dave Mearns in more recent times) have gained some mainstream acceptance at a surface level. Many inside and outside the therapy world claim a degree of ‘person-centredness’ I sat in a safeguarding meeting alongside a client a few years ago, to hear the social worker chair state ‘we are all person-centred here’. Every other utterance and every action of hers in my knowledge of her demonstrated that she did not have the most basic understanding of the term – appearing to conflate it with making a show of listening to another’s viewpoint before seeking to impose her own, and with a presentation of warmth and friendliness (which my client and I both found unconvincing).
The deep cultural shifts that Rogers alludes to with ‘revolutionary in its implications’ – those have still not happened. So Rogers was prescient indeed – from where I am looking in 2014, we continue to fail to acknowledge and integrate his insight: that in the presence of the core conditions (offered by another in relationship and, through the healing power of that, by us to ourselves), we can be trusted to find our own internal locus, and change and become in ways that are both personally and socially enhancing. So we still structure our societies around external locus and fault/blame structures – which don’t work – and those who dismiss this central tenet of person-centred on the basis that it is ‘Polyanna’ or unduly optimistic, do so without ever having put it to the test. The evidence – of which there is much – supports Rogers. Yet we remain in a cultural blind alley.
I have used as my source Carl Rogers: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy: On becoming a person, Constable 2004, ISBN 978-1-84529-057-3 ISBN 1-84529-057-7, page 90 onwards.
Lindsey Talbott, Therapist
Palace Gate Counselling Service
 “When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
 He illustrates this beautifully from his work with Mrs Oak – well worth a read.
 Which I tend to hear in terms of ‘a bit pregnant’.