Why Do We Need God on the Couch?

Psychotherapy in all its forms has put humanity at its center and ignored the significance and role of a Creator. But it doesn't always succeed in making people feel liberated or happy.

When God was "fired," at the beginning of the 20th century, the initial feeling was one of great relief. This helped people who were in psychological distress free themselves of feelings of guilt and a false sense of sin. These were often imposed by religions that dealt obsessively with protecting the early experience of epiphany, and had lost touch with the intentions of the Creator in the modern era. But by mid-century, the removal of God from psychotherapy created new problems: people who think they are the center of the world and have great difficulty forming human relationships that do not revolve around them; people who have lost their sense of boundaries, and don't feel they have anyone to whom they are obliged to give an accounting to; and people whose lives lack value and significance, and don't have anyone who will show them the way and give them a role to play in life.

God is really missing today in therapy. Numerous patients ask for him, but therapists, faithful to the new religion that worships the "great person" (in the modern version ) or the "unique person" (in the postmodernist version ), don't feel and don't hear.

psychotherapy illustration

There are seven intersections in a person's psychological recovery that are almost impossible to cross without God. The barriers we are not able to overcome remain with us as questions that we do not know how to solve.

Why can't I leave a relationship or situation that is very bad for me?

"Those who do not worship him, worship his 'other,'" wrote the author of "The Duties of the Heart" in the 11th century. That is to say, all of us conduct ourselves vis-a-vis something that we believe has authority in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism - or, alternatively, socialism, science or the family - was proposed to take the place of God. By mid-century, it transpired that every one of these created a new prison that was as cruel as that formed by religion.

There are times when we ask ourselves why we stay with a terrible parent, or a selfish spouse, or an abusive child, or an employer who enslaves us for his needs. Why do we remain subject to a tyrant who is slowly murdering our soul? What will we lose by leaving?

The commentators on the story of the Exodus dealt with a similar problem: Did the nation of slaves not know that it would end its days in hard labor? Did they not understand that the edict, "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river," meant that they were sentenced to annihilation by Pharaoh? Why did they not flee of their own volition from Egypt?

The Hebrew nation in Egypt, the commentators answered, had lost its God and conducted itself vis-a-vis Pharaoh. They believed that Pharaoh was the senior representative of God on earth, if not a god himself. Therefore, despite their suffering, the slaves did not act to make a change in their lives. They believed that this suffering had been decided upon by the being that was in control of fate.

The plagues of Egypt were intended, on the face of it, to convince Pharaoh to release the Hebrew nation into freedom. But Pharaoh was not convinced of this; indeed, it was the Hebrew nation that became convinced. Moses proved to his people that Pharaoh was not the source of the highest authority - there was something above him. The slave of God is the only one who is free, Yehuda Halevi wrote. A person who believes always has an authority that is higher than anything else in conjunction with which he conducts himself.

When the Hebrews raised up their eyes to God, they discovered that Pharaoh was a false deity, and they gained the internal authority to get up and leave. That is the heart of the surprising moment in the recovery process in which, whether he knows it or not, a person is free because he has found God.

I've spent years in therapy. Why do I still have no idea of who I am?

Very often people come to therapy hoping to discover a secret about themselves, something that will explain why they don't belong, or why they suffer from persistent fears. It is as if they are delving into the ruins of an old house, or peeking at the dark side of their personality. The secret that gradually unfolds may reveal to them someone else who is hiding inside, someone different from the self they know. They stop short, horrified, in the face of the truth that they may well not be able to bear. Then they turn around and flee. Or waste years in front of a door they are unable to open.

A person goes to therapy in order to help himself, but that self is likely to get lost there. Someone who has only himself cannot manage for even a moment without the "I" that he knows. A person whose identity is that of "the manager" cannot recognize helplessness. A perfectly righteous person cannot recognize his despicable sides. A person who is totally independent cannot recognize his infantile desires. Someone who has a perfect exterior cannot know that he is broken inside.

The culture that dispensed with God marketed a false "I" to people. Too big, almost perfect. Touching the forbidden part may be experienced as threatening death to the existing "I," or a return to a place in which someone died inside, many years ago, when a crisis revealed to him a terrifying truth about human existence.

A person whose path has led him to discover God has found an "I" that never ends: the "I" of the universe that was, and is, and will exist for eternity. The person who belongs to the Great Truth, to the perfect God above, is allowed to be weak, dependent and defective. He can cross the bridge of knowledge and pain, even though on the other side it is possible that his personal "I" will not exist.

Why am I so self-judgmental, or why don't I feel good even though I've accepted myself?

Modern society has exchanged the religious sin for the social sin. A person is measured according to the norms of society. That is, according to what everyone else does. The constant comparison with the norm has created a new kind of Pharaoh: People feel guilty because they are not like everyone else. They are not accepted like the others. They don't come from a family like everyone else has. They are not slim like everyone else. They can't buy the things that everyone else can. They aren't successful the way everyone else is. They aren't happy like everyone else.

Post-modern psychology has tried to heal the guilt feelings of those who believe they are different and has created for them a new ideal - that of "I am special." That is, I am uniquely myself and I don't resemble anything else. This special "I" has freed many people of the tyranny of normalcy. Those who are other have been taken out of the closet and are interviewed every week in the newspaper. The new norm is to be different and to wear a shirt on which is written: I am compulsive, I am fat and I feel good, I like boys, I have a double chin. (See the TV series "Glee." )

From the developmental point of view, babies experience such feelings in their first years. The baby eats when he is hungry. He sleeps when he is tired. He is carried in our arms, and he urinates and defecates where and when he wants. And we look at him and are awe-struck. Perhaps we complain a bit, but we try not to be judgmental.

A child who has experienced such acceptance knows that he has permission to express his deepest needs. A person who has received a gift like this goes through the world with the feeling that he will be loved for what he is, even if he does not do something special. Among those who go to therapy, there are many who need permission to undergo the corrective experience of feeling the unconditional acceptance of others who are attentive to all their needs without judging them.

But being nonjudgmental - which has become the sole value in most approaches to therapy - invites the patient to remain permanently in the first stage of development and does not invite him to proceed to the next stage. But it is only in the next stage that he will grow, specifically when challenges are placed before him and concessions are not made for him, even when it is difficult for him to face up to them.

The ban on being judgmental in therapy does not make it possible, for example, to see that it was negligence that led to the dismissal from a job. That neglecting the relationship led to divorce. That refraining from putting limits on the children turned them into monsters. That running away from social responsibility makes the our country a place where we don't want to live. That our avoidance of studying the Torah leaves us dependent on those who have turned that study into idol worship.

"For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me," the author of Psalms says of an important virtue. Taking responsibility for his sins gives a person ownership of his life once more. Recognizing the sin is the key to the Jewish theory of rehabilitation, and in the world of therapy there is no other approach that believes as it does in the ability of a person to change his entire world at any time.

A person who does not have sins is sentenced to a narrow life in which people tell him that what happens to him is the fault of his parents, or of the society that did not accept him, or of an inappropriate diagnosis. And they try to lessen his suffering with the aid of medication that will correct his defective biochemical balance. For children, whom it is forbidden to confront with their sin, all that is left is to give them Ritalin.

Why can't I form a relationship even though I'm good-looking, successful and have a sense of humor?

In the psychiatric clinic of a hospital where which I worked years ago, every Monday morning they present a case study, at the end of which they decide on a diagnosis for the patient that comes from a dictionary of psychiatric diagnoses. There are numerous diagnoses, but there is a fundamental that repeats itself in most cases: "narcissistic tendencies." That is what they say about most patients today.

In the 21st century, "narcissistic personality disorder" heads the list of psychiatric diagnoses, and even those who aren't classified with that are likely to at least be said to have such traits. We are a generation that revolves around itself.

At parents meetings in schools, the teacher always reports to the child's parents that he is "very special." If he does not excel or have unique talents, we want to hear at least that he has special problems and requires the kind of consideration that no one else gets. There is nothing worse for the parents than for someone to say to tell them their child is ordinary. But when we are all special and we are all in the center all the time, it becomes difficult to form a relationship with someone else who also feels he is entitled to everything. That is to say, everyone expects to be in the center while the others serve as his audience.

Psychology, the daughter of the culture that places the human being at the center of the world, has to educate to a different value in which the hero is the ability to recognize the limited value of a human being, in his fragile situation and his temporality. The exemplary figures of the Zionist movement were people who did their work away from the limelight and they were "the faithful guardians of the image of God in the world." Two people who have a God are able to meet and stop arguing about who is more important.

Why aren't I happy even though I have everything?

Many years ago, when we were modest, the world belonged to God. And everything that we found in it was a gift that had been left for us by our Creator, who invited us into the garden he had planted with his own hands. When we started to be more active in the world, we got used to seeing increasingly large parts of our environment as having been made by human beings. When we got rid of God, we started to see around us only what we had made by ourselves: houses, roads, tools and even the park planned by a landscape architect. Observing the world proves to us how big we are.

We try to compensate for the loss of hesed (divine benevolence ) by way of a career and shopping. We advance, get status and collect products. We fill our house with them, register them in our names, and hope they will compensate us for the experience of feeling unconditional love, which no longer exists.

The latest fashion in therapy, "positive psychology," tries to correct something in our never-ending occupation with what we are lacking - with what I'm entitled to and they didn't give me, or they took from me, or was never there to begin with. The "positives" say that it is worthwhile for a person to count the little gifts he has received once a day.

When I say "thank you" for the hug I got from a child, for the beautiful flowers in the garden or for a stuffed pepper - I leave behind the compulsive occupation with my troubles and bond with a pleasant world. If I dare to say "thank you" to my God for sending the love of this child to me, and "thank you" for teaching people to plant flowers, and "thank you" for the generosity in the heart of the woman who cooked the pepper - suddenly my day becomes a story of love of the mysterious Creator who leaves me innumerable gifts in my world.

Why am I still so dependent?

Post-modern freedom has expanded the term "therapy" to describe many approaches of medical, emotional and alternative treatments. Everyone has a therapist. And people who have been treated with various and strange approaches will tell you that the therapy helped them a great deal.

It is possible that the reason all the therapies help a little is because in all of them they give us something we need desperately but which it is forbidden to say - we want to go back to being little. To ask Mom and Dad to come, to see us, to touch us. To embrace us. To say they understand what is happening. To say they know what has to be done. To promise that the problems will go away.

The heroes of the Bible recognized their total dependence on the one above them. They were well connected with their infantile sides. They believed we need therapy at least twice a day. Whenever life became difficult for them, they turned to their permanent therapist and asked: Please God, who will help me if not you who have created everything? Don't let me fall. You are the shadow that walks to my right. With you, I don't fear the lightning and the thunder, or the warming of the globe. You will prevent all harm from coming to me and save my soul. Take care of me when I leave the house and take care of me when I return. From now, and forever after. (Psalm 121 - as described by a patient ).

Prayer connects a person who turns to his Creator with the child inside of him. It makes it possible for him to grow from there, to internalize the presence of the guardian of the world and to find peace, suddenly.

What is my mission and how is it possible that I still haven't found it?

The Bible at one time offered a revolution in the human creature's understanding of himself. People, all of them, were invited to become partners of the mysterious Creator in completing the world. The biblical texts propose reading the history of mankind as a multigenerational enterprise of deciphering and fulfilling man's role. In this journey, the story says, the group we belong to has a unique role: presenting an alternative to the desire of a person to flee from the human mission. An individual does this, typically, either by going back to behaving like an animal or, by contrast, by feeling superior - say, because of his modern technological abilities or economic success - to his Creator and deciding he can do without and also replace the divine entity.

In either situation, a Jewish mother might respond to her son by saying: I don't care whether you become a shoemaker or a doctor - the important thing is that you be a human being. That is to say, what matters is that you be a partner to the enterprise of making yourself into a person. Out of that enterprise, you will find your role, and it can be realized in different professions.

The post-modern position, which cancelled a person's belonging to a family or society that had the authority to order his role for him, has given its believers the authority to do whatever they want and has removed from their actions the feeling of special value or significance. The hunger for significance has given birth to a new generation of patients. They go to therapy and demand of the therapist to help them to find their mission. They are sure that if the correct diagnosis is made, all the other things will fall into place.

The therapist who is not trained to find a person's mission, and who is forbidden to bring values to the therapy, answers the request but reduces it to a limited sphere. He seeks a deep wish that the patient has not dared to listen to. The mission will take the form of a certain profession, or sexual inclination, or hobby that has been neglected.

A lawyer goes to therapy. He says he does not derive satisfaction from his life. He wonders whether he was intended to do what he does. The therapist examines his past and finds that in his youth he wanted to be an artist but he gave in to his family's expectations, followed in his father's footsteps and went to study law. He tells his patient that the reason has been found for his suffering and if he dares to realize his original mission, he will find happiness in life. The lawyer goes to study painting, enjoys himself, but does not become happy. He looks for a different therapist.

There is no one among his therapists who will dare to propose to him a simpler explanation for his distress, something that is considered old fashioned: In the way you make money, even if it is legal, you lose yourself many times as a human being. The little daily losses come together as a creeping despondency. There was one moment, last week, when you turned down a case that aroused slight repugnance on your part. Your partners in the office did not understand why you refused the opportunity to turn an acceptable profit, but you suddenly felt happy. Because that small moment in which you do the right thing is the main reason you have been created. Because in that moment, together, your Creator and you produced a human being.

Dr. Yair Caspi is the director of the Tel Aviv-based institute Psychology in Judaism.