When I went to my neighborhood polling place on November 4, I did so with a certain dread. Voter turnout, we’d been warned repeatedly, was going to be “unprecedented,” so I half expected it would be like standing in the purgatory of an endless airport security line. In fact, over the years, I’ve increasingly cocooned myself in a comfortable everyday ritual to avoid just such exposure to masses of living, breathing, unpredictable, 3-D human beings. No doubt about it—beyond my immediate circle of friends and coworkers, most of the people I’m exposed to in my life I prefer to observe from the safe distance of a television or movie screen and the Internet.

But part of the euphoria of this past election day wasn’t due just to the satisfaction of knowing that, since I live in D.C., my own presidential preference was shared by just about everyone else waiting on line to vote. I was struck by how immersed I suddenly felt in the visceral sense of being in a real, 360-degree world with other beings huddled together to make a collective decision of enormous consequence. After months and months of devouring endless campaign tidbits from the media, the election ­wasn’t being beamed to me from somewhere else—and not being viewed on a TV, Blackberry, iPhone, or my laptop computer. It was unfolding in real time, real space, in the palpable here-and-now.

Which brings us to the theme for this issue, “Face-to-Face: Therapy in the Age of Screenworld.” With the proliferation of electronic devices, our old ideas of what “reality” means are becoming passe, and along with them, our sense of what constitutes genuine human connection. It’s now possible, as Michael Ventura powerfully demonstrates in his essay, “Screenworld,” to “go” almost anywhere, “see” almost anyplace or anything, “talk to” almost anyone online—which means onscreen. For millions of people, Ventura tells us, “images of reality supersede reality itself, editing reality, transforming it, playing with it in any fashion, until the source of the image ceases to matter while the image becomes all that matters.” We’re in danger of becoming facsimiles of reality beaming signals through cyberspace to other facsimiles of reality.

Maybe that’s why the concrete act of going to the polls and doing something as ordinary as voting seemed like such a revelation and departure from routine. There’s a tactile, unpredictable, unprogrammed quality to real reality; a richness and thereness to the exchanges between you and other flesh-and-blood creatures that simply can’t be replicated onscreen. That’s why, as Ventura points out, psychotherapy remains such a powerful antidote to the colonizing power of Screenworld.

Indeed, central to therapy is the experience of being intensely alive to the face-to-faceness of the clinical encounter. As Nancy Napier shows us in her piece, “Finding the Pulse,” the most memorable moments in our practices are those in which there’s a shift from life that’s just happening to “lived experience.” In fact, in its moment-to-moment unpredictability, Robert Taibbi writes, psychotherapy shares something with the up-on-the-tightrope quality of improv theater. In both, nobody knows exactly where things will go, but the process itself heightens the enlivening prospect of not knowing how the story will end.

Finally, being face-to-face with another human being is akin to standing face-to- face with the day-to-day mystery of existence. At those moments when we grasp the fuller, deeper possibilities that existence offers, writes Fred Wistow, “the trance of habit and routine is broken, and a door opens onto something greater than the small and simple confines of your everyday life. At those moments, you manage to catch a glimpse of the world—stark and separate, beautiful and fierce—as, unmediated, it reveals itself to you.” Revelation—there it is again, right in front of us, if we can only awaken from the reverie that we too often mistake for life itself.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.