I walked out of Antioch University about 45 minutes ago, for all intents and purposes, a Master of Psychology, insofar as many thousands of dollars and books and lectures can make you one.  It was nice, though, to sit in a room one last time full of colleagues—some ten of us out of the fifteen in the consultation were finishing—and feel it.  What I mean is that it’s not the dollars spent and tomes read and penciled through and lectures duly short-handed.  Mastery is a fallacy, an antiquated choice of words that confers something both more than and totally different from what we have acquired.  What we’ve acquired is mostly understanding of ourselves and our relationships, especially of how pain works.


Our instructor asked us to share pieces of wisdom with the two people in the room who were just this quarter starting their clinical work.  What I found myself saying, after I ducked the pressure to say something clinically “useful,” was that you start to look at pain differently.  The same horror and trauma that devastated me the first quarter inspires me, if not in equal parts to the devastation, than at least to some measure, now.  Sitting with kids’ agony and legacies of abuse and maltreatment calls my attention now to their resilience.  To their pride.  To their strength and survival.  The debilitating sadness—or anger—that played behind the stories of abuse and shame has been cut down by another sound that comes at a different pitch but is unmistakably, irrevocably present. I realize how naïve it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how useless it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how unethical it is to look at people as victims.  I realize how inevitable it is to look at people as victims and to feel like victims ourselves. I realize how indispensable it is to change the way we look at people, at ourselves.  And for me that has only come from the mandate to sit face to face in small, airless rooms with troubled people for the last sixty-five weeks. 


I want to say some more about this.  I want to say some more about why as a society we need to see people as victims.  For a very long time I saw myself headed into human rights work but was somehow waylaid by the siren song of writing, which produced a spectacular stumble, from which I recovered to find myself standing semi-upright in the world of psychology/therapy.  And for a very a short time now I’ve been able to see that I am in human rights’ work—that abuse, addiction, mental illness and the traumas they produce are very commonly about oppression.  If we hurl this into the political realm, we hear right wing politicians talking about “entitlement programs” and people looking for “handouts.”  What they mean is that people have a “victim mentality,” which, by implication, is simply un-American.  If we jump over to the progressive side, we encounter people who would never use the callus language or strike the callus pose of their supposed ideological foes, but people whom see a world rife with victims, too.   Victims of genocide, slavery, institutional racism, police brutality, educational inequity, imperialism and colonialism—in short, of oppression.  And of course it is true that people are victimized by these savage legacies their vicious ghost dance in the midst of which we all live. 


But I’ve come now to ask myself whether one conception of victimhood is any better than the other.  Insofar as reality is interpersonal and transactional, very empathic, progressive people can easily reinforce internalized notions of victimhood by overemphasizing the trauma and injustice that others have been subjected to, whether in a macro way—slavery and its legacy—or in a micro way—an abusive, disturbed mother and absent father.  When I look at a kid like S (one of my most maltreated clients) now, I don’t see a victim and I don’t think it and I don’t, therefore, communicate that to him.  He has taught me that, like all of us, he contains multitudes, but more importantly that the identity at the forefront is survivor.  He has taught me how to look at him and as a result I can serve him and build with him on his resilience and strength to a far greater degree than if I were straight-jacketed by the horror and injustice he’s been subjected to.  (Of course, on a macro level, reactionary ideology will all too easily manipulate anecdotes like this to their benefit by insisting that cutthroat policies of “entitlement programs” (social service) slaughter is aimed thusly: at the notion that people can’t be coddled, lest they internalize victimhood.  We must remember that reactionaries are not interested in liberation and therefore have ulterior motives). 


But both ends of the spectrum need victims—that’s what I was starting to say!  The ideology of the right needs victims because they need someone to blame, the need for an “other” to galvanize the increasingly fractured ranks.  The Mexican that steals your job and the black man that ogles and perhaps rapes your wife and the Arab that attacked your way of life and the queer that wants to tutor your kid.  There has never been a society that existed without leaders’ effective use of this “other” strategy.  And the ideology of the left—especially the most privileged left—needs victims because it gives us a way to feel morally superior—as long as we can identify the impacts of oppression, we are more human than those who would deny it (which is true, but being more human than right wing reactionaries isn’t a very high bar).  And at least some portion of us will therefore take action—even if it’s only by voting—to kick some ballast into the picture, support programs and policies that benefit the oppressed.  Which also, then, allows us to shudder and close our eyes and wave our hands in front of our faces when we hear of the horrors of oppression—we don’t have to hear it, we know, we know, and that’s why we support Obama and a hike in the minimum wage.


So I guess maybe the “progressive” conception of victimhood via oppression is the best we’ve got.  It’s better than seeing the inheritors of oppression as inferior, weaker, less than or deserving of their lot.  But it’s not the best conception we could have.  A better conception, maybe, has to do with recognizing that moonlight falls, too.  As I walk away from this chapter in my life, which I thought was about learning how to identify mental illness and “treat it,” I realize I’ve learned, mostly, one simple cognitive lesson: When we hear horror stories of abuse, trauma, oppression in all its forms, we must recognize that the fact that someone is alive, right there in front of us—in our therapy session or on CNN—to tell us about it is in fact the luminescence of resilience, pride, survival, strength and, yes, beauty.




  1. a wonderful reflection on what you have gained through participation in getting this Antioch degree: holding onto that realization of your role as resilience reflector will benefit many young people in pain who can move onward with support/recognition…… I am thrilled that your educational path has indeed taught you new insights/skills! Congratulations on your Masters!

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