Psyche, soul, self: Translating humanness into words

Throughout my social work graduate education, I’ve been struck by the limited ability of language to capture the human condition—while immersing myself in the work of the many valiant practitioners and writers who have, nonetheless, attempted to do just that. Surrounded by colleagues who, like me, “got into this work to help people,” I suddenly find myself confronting very basic existential questions: What is a person? What is the origin of human suffering? And what would “helping” look like, given the unfathomable complexity of life on Earth?

If it seems like I’m waxing particularly philosophical … that’s because I am. This year, I’ve been privileged to become someone’s therapist—several someones, actually—and my questions burn brighter than ever. As I actively work with adolescents and adults who are experiencing grief and/or trauma, once-abstract existential questions have become deeply personal.

This is precisely the reason I went back to school in the first place. This is the training ground I have been longing for! But a degree program can’t be expected to answer the deepest questions of the heart. As my graduate education has exposed me to—or more accurately, barraged me with—multiple theories of human suffering, human health, and “helping”—I’ve been engaged in a constant process of translation.

What do we call that spark of life within the human being? Is it consciousness, psyche, soul, self, mind? I read about Theravada Buddhism and Internal Family Systems therapy; classic psychoanalysis and feminist psychotherapy; Catholic Social Teaching and critical race studies. I sift through the lexicon of these different worlds, which of course are all describing the very same thing. I parse the terms they use to describe things going right in a human life—and things going wrong. I am admonished to engage in Evidence-Based Practice; I am invited to sit with my clients in “don’t-know mind”; I am encouraged to set treatment goals and objectives; I am urged to be suspicious of my own therapeutic agendas.

And then one of my dear clients comes into the room and sits down.

There are two quotes which somehow make sense out of the mess of it all:

“True art is creation,” Carl Jung wrote, “and creation is beyond all theories. That is why I say to any beginner: Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul. Not theories but your own creative individuality alone must decide.”

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir,” Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.”

So this blog post is my own little ode to confusion. This is my white flag, planted in the midst of a dissonance which may one day melt into harmony. This is me admitting that my cognitive mind has been defeated, that my ego cannot be the one who understands all this, and that I’m very much enjoying it.