This is a short story by Roy Charles Henry in the form of a fictional character, Harry Gospel, talking to passengers on a cruise ship.
Harry Gospel speaking:
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I am your cruise director. The first thing I am going to ask of you is to put on the flotation device you were just given. Do it now please (pause).
My name is Harry Gospel and I have for all of you some bad news and some good news. First, the news that you would rather not hear but should.
We have been at sea for some time now and there are some things you should know. Our ship is sinking (a pause to let that sink in). We are not sure how much time we have to abandon ship but we should all proceed to our lifeboat stations now in an orderly fashion after I finish my instructions.
I know some of you are beginning to wonder how long this explanation is going to take and I see that some of you have dropped your flotation device on the deck and wandered off in the direction of the ballroom. And yes, I hear the beautiful music and love to dance too but we have more pressing business here. Others, I see, have headed for the early afternoon buffet and indeed I understand the temptation of the aromas of the scrumptious food and indeed the “early bird special” is a good deal. And (ahem!), I hate to be judgmental, but I did see some couples headed back to the staterooms attracted to people, at least in some cases, that were someone else’s spouse. That’s what cruises are for afterall, but I assure you, what I am going to tell you may save your life.”
Returning to my story, errrr, instructions. This old ship can be likened to human institutions in general. Among the oldest of those is religion which was like the hull, the backbone of this vessel which was laid many years ago. Psychology is among the latest disciplines [aside] (and I use that word loosely) like radar, it came aboard only a century or so ago, the latest in our shipboard “services” as it were. However, you might be interested to know that our most up-to-date technology on this ship will not save us.”
As an example of what I am talking about, I am going to tell you about why psychology isn’t working and has never worked. I am just trying to get all of you to take me seriously in order that you will follow me to and get in your assigned lifeboats. Don’t panic, we still have time to get in the lifeboats. Oh by the way, the good news is that our ship is sinking but very slowly so just relax.
Now back to our analogy. Everyone listen up! I can see that those of you who are left have a genuine intellectual curiosity about what our shipboard radar system and psychotherapy as a coping strategy have in common. You want to know the facts and the facts will set you free and in our case keep you alive. By the way, I am so grateful to have some people remaining whose intellectual curiosity is still alive and well.
Why isn’t psychotherapy working or why is the ship sinking is what you are curious about right? Me too. But we both know that before any purposeful discussion can take place we have to set the context and so we begin with this definition of psychology. Simply put, psychology is the science of human behavior. It can tell us, for example, why some people can focus on the reality that their cruise ship is sinking and others are more interested in denial and distraction.
A common belief is that the story of the institution of modern psychology began at a medical conference in Vienna in the year 1900 when Freud presented his theories about dreams and the unconscious. Not so. The founder of psychology was Buddha with the insight that most human behavior could be explained in terms of cravings and aversions. Aha! Had you there didn’t I. People crave diversions like music, food and sex and other cannot handle fear so cope with the bad news by self-medicating.
Let’s return to the accepted, though erroneous, narrative surrounding the history of psychology, which we can emphasize is fundamentally an illusion. Freud did not exactly have high expectations for his therapeutic treatment called psychoanalysis. His highest vision of psychological health was the “transformation of neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”
That’s like my telling you: Let’s all get in the lifeboats although I think they are all going to sink. Ha! Ha! Ha! Just kidding.
Alfred Adler was the next of our founders to join the psychanalytic movement. He left the movement soon after disagreeing with Freud’s overemphasis on childhood sexual trauma as the fundamental cause of human neuroses. Adler agreed that the ship was sinking, he just didn’t think it was because of all the illicit sexual shenanigans in the ship’s staterooms. He also knew that human suffering was not caused by our experiences, he believed instead that it was the result of our responses or reactions related to our identity.
He said, and I quote: “No experience is a cause of success or failure. We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences—the so-called trauma—but we make out of them just what suits our purpose. We are self–determined by the meaning we give to our experiences.”
We are going to be experiencing a lot of stress soon and we need to remember another bit of advice by Adler regarding our fundamental nature as human beings. We can all remain calm and ironically have a good experience as we abandon this ship by treating each other with compassion. “There have always been men who understood this fact; who knew that the meaning of life is to be interested in the whole of mankind and who tried to develop social interest and love. In all religions we find this concern for the salvation of man.”
Remember, as did Adler, that we are all in this together.
Adler was clearly the most insightful of psychology’s modern founders in that he wasn’t as reductionistic as Freud who shattered the human psyche into so many pieces that reconstruction was made impossible. Adler believed that the personality was indivisible and that human beings create their own reality by the choices they make. Which prompts me to repeat. You are soon going to be making a choice about whether to abandon ship or to remain here and join the rest of the raucous and irresponsible, self-indulgent and self-medicated truth avoiders or to follow me to the lifeboats.
Ok shipmates, listen-up now! Some of you are drifting and looking around for another way out. There are no smart people on board who are going to come up with a quick fix. The engineers on this tub have a fair amount of hubris so don’t listen them. And now to continue our riveting tale of psychology as a metaphor for our sinking ship.
C. G. Jung met Freud in 1907 and broke with him in 1914 because he felt that the human psyche could only be revealed by knowledge of a person’s connection to mythology, alchemy and the influence of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Boy that was a mouthful and undoubtedly true but it is not necessary to grasp all of that to accomplish the task at hand which is to simply get off this boat.
What was the point of my talk preparing you for the bad news/ good news scenario? This ship cannot be fixed—that’s the unavoidable truth. We have to abandon ship in search of a more seaworthy form of transportation.
Now for the good news! We received radio communication just before we sounded the abandon-ship alarm that a rescue ship is on the way. All you have to do is to follow me to the lifeboat deck, report to your station and you will shortly be transported to a place beyond danger.
You can trust me or my name ain’t Harry Gospel.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.