Despair is deeper than normal suffering. It is the cry of the soul, a message of pain from the core of our being. True despair is not the same as clinical depression; it is not a psychological illness to be quickly cured by the latest psychiatric drug or mechanistic technique. Rather, despair is part of the human condition, a painful yet normal part of the journey. If we live long enough, we will know "dark nights of the soul," times when despair invades and faith and hope seem far away.
Despair is often associated with the loss of connection. We human beings have this wonderful capacity to love, to connect deeply with others. But when this connection is lost, either by death or by some other severing event, we are often plunged into despair. In my work as a psychologist, I have seen many people in this condition. I remember a mother who sat in my office and cried session after session because her little girl had drowned in a backyard pool. I remember a divorced couple weeping together because their teenage son, whom they both loved more than life itself, had suddenly died. I recall a woman in her late twenties, her young daughter sitting beside her, telling me how much she missed her husband who had been killed in a plane crash and how much her daughter missed her daddy. Despair is real and it descends upon us when we lose those we love.
I have also seen another kind of despair, one that invades life not because we have lost our connection with someone else but because we have lost contact with our own soul. This despair is very real and often goes unrecognized. The soul suffers when it is not cared for, when we forget to nourish it with love, goodness, truth, and beauty. When we neglect the soul, it begins to wither and die. And when the soul dies, despair is the inevitable result.
A good, caring psychotherapist can often help when we are in despair not because therapists have a "magic pill" or can always take away the pain but because when we are in despair we need another human being to bear witness to our despair, to honor it, to walk with us through the darkness, and to help us find the strength to carry on. Psychotherapy, when characterized by a deep appreciation of the spiritual dimension, can address the pain and suffering of the soul. In the Greek language the word "psyche" means "soul," and the word "therapist" originally meant a "servant" or "attendant." Thus the word "psychotherapist" literally means "a servant or attendant of the soul." At its best, psychotherapy is the process by which we assuage the pain of despair by learning to reconnect with our souls.
But to reconnect with our souls and to learn how to nurture and heal at that level, we must find paths to the soul, ways to access this inner dimension of our being. Fortunately, humans have been accessing and caring for the soul for thousands of years, and this makes our task easier. I would like to suggest some paths to the soul that can be used in therapy.
First: the therapist's relationship with the client is a primary route to the soul. We have known for many years that the quality of the relationship is a crucial factor in therapeutic healing. Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist at Stanford Medical Center, said there are literally hundreds of research studies showing that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is significantly related to therapeutic outcome. He said the most important lesson the psychotherapist must learn is that "it is the relationship that heals."
But what does it mean that the relationship heals? I believe this is another way of saying that the therapist nurtures the client's soul and through this nurturing the client is healed. Love is the most powerful healer of the wounded soul, and in the therapeutic relationship love manifests as empathy, caring, warmth, respect, honesty, and acceptance of the client. The presence of these factors turns therapy into a container for soul-making. They make soul-to-soul contact possible, and they heal because they soothe and nurture the client's soul. If loss of connection is at the heart of despair, then it becomes clear as to why psychotherapy can sometimes help. In psychotherapy reconnection often begins to take place. The client and therapist connect as two human beings and the client begins to reconnect with his or her own soul.
This has implications for the therapist. I can only be a healer of the soul when I am in contact with my own soul. We can touch the other only as deeply as the place from which we come within ourselves. If I reach out to my client from a shallow place within myself, I will not be able to make contact with the soul of my client. But if I am familiar with the regions of my soul and can readily access this dimension of my healing, I will he able to make contact with my client at a more profound level and foster a relationship in which healing of the soul becomes possible. As Paul Tillich said, "Depth speaks to depth."
Second: The therapeutic relationship is important, but it is also important that the client sees therapy not simply as a situation where people come to have their souls nurtured by someone else. Psychotherapy is an apprenticeship in which clients learn how to care for their own souls. The client should be shown that there are countless activities and experiences that feed the soul. In fact, almost anything that touches, stirs, or speaks to our depths has this capacity. Literature, poetry, music, paintings, sculptures, movies, plays, dance, religion, nature, and the creative process are all potential sources of soul-nurturing.
Like a shaman carefully choosing roots and herbs for a ritual healing, the therapist must help each client find those things in life that nurture and heal his or her soul. It is extremely important that the therapist realizes that what nurtures the soul differs dramatically from person to person and avoids falling into the elitist assumption that only classical music, art, literature, and so forth can nurture the soul. While some clients may find Mozart, Beethoven, Van Gogh, or Rilke wonderful sources of soul food, for others a country song by Willie Nelson or Garth Brooks may go straight to the soul. A hike in the mountains or a camping trip to the desert may nurture the soul of another client who would find art galleries and operas a bore. So if we wish to help our clients nurture and heal their souls, we must first help them discover the activities and experiences that truly meet the needs of their own unique soul.
It is also important for the client to begin a regular, consistent program of engaging in these soul-nurturing activities and experiences. For one person this may mean taking regular walks on the beach or along the river; for another it may mean collecting poems or making a tape of all the songs which touch him or her most deeply; for still an other it may mean going to the theater more regularly. A few years ago I had a client who went to see Phantom of the Opera and then wept in my office as she told me how profoundly the story and the music had touched her soul. A few years ago when I was going through a difficult time in my own life, I happened to see the movie Dead Poets Society. The films existential themes touched my soul and gave me a new perspective. I know a woman who loves Beethoven's music and once got through a painful depression by playing his works over and over. She says the music is what sustained her. I know an older colleague who holds two doctorates, one in psychology and one in literature. For years he has helped clients in mental hospitals nurture and heal their souls by encouraging them to write and share poems with one another in therapy groups. A few years ago I had a client who was in great pain and was feeling somewhat suicidal. When I asked her what she felt would help, she said to get away by herself to the seashore. Somewhat cautiously I agreed, on the condition that she promised me she would not harm herself and that she would stay in contact. She agreed, and her time at the beach was deeply healing.
Thus, psychotherapy from the perspective of soul means that the soul is placed at the very center of the therapeutic endeavor. Psychotherapy then becomes an arena in which the therapist nurtures the client's soul, and a training ground for the client to learn how to nurture his or her own soul. This does not mean that other techniques based on other theories are not used; but it does mean that everything is placed in the service of soul and is evaluated from that perspective.
I believe there is hope even in the midst of the deepest despair. Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man's Search for Meaning, was my graduate professor. In World War II Frankl was imprisoned in the concentration camps of Hitler. All the members of his family, including his twenty-four year old wife, were killed in the death camps. Yet Frankl emerged from this "dark night of the soul" and spent his life in compassionate service to others.
Ultimately, faith is the only answer to despair. Carl Jung said, "Man is never helped in his suffering by what he thinks for himself, but only by revelations of a wisdom greater than his own. It is this which lifts him out of his distress." When Frankl was freed from Auschwitz at the end of the war, he had no place to go. His family had been killed, the city that had formerly been his home lay in ruins, Europe itself was decimated. The despair of the war still hung in the air and filled Frankl's heart. His long, dark night of despair had done irreparable damage that would stay with him all his life. Nevertheless, there came a time when dawn lit the eastern sky and new life put forth its first green branches in his heart. A few days after the liberation Frankl was walking along a country road near flowering meadows. Larks rose to the sky and sang their jubilant song. Frankl tells what happened next:
I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world and I had but one sentence in mind always the same: "I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space." How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until again I became a human being.
Frankl's long dark night of the soul had finally come to an end. He had been lifted out of his distress by a wisdom greater than his own.
David Elkins, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. A former minister, he is also a published poet. He is the author of "Beyond Religion."