Symposium Highlight

Mapping The Future

Symposium 2011 Charts Terra Incognita

Magazine Issue
May/June 2011
Mapping the Future

It’s not every conference that kicks off with an apology, but that’s how Networker Editor Rich Simon started off his welcome address at this year’s Networker Symposium. After shushing the 3,000 therapists buzzing with anticipation at the opening session, Simon asked the audience’s forgiveness for interrupting their chit-chat. “It’s really a shame I have to spoil it all,” he said, “because listening to the music of all that chattering and jabbering—the more or less sustained roar as 3,000 people talk to, between, and over each other all at once—is really my favorite part of the whole conference.” Whatever got said in the plenary session or from workshop podiums throughout the meeting, according to Simon, “the real conference will take place in the thousand conversations people have while sitting in a ballroom waiting for a keynote, at lunch or dinner, or when standing in a line schmoozing with neighbors.” In fact, he concluded, “the Symposium may be the only conference where you should get CE credits for standing in a bathroom line.”

As a professional community, psychotherapists need this kind of extended schmooze-fest more than most. After spending the winter cooped up in their quiet, monastic, little cells, toiling in obscurity, comforting the afflicted, offering wise counsel to the confused, turning the wrathful away from their wrath—mostly unrecognized and often unappreciated—the members of our particular tribe need to get out each spring and feel their connection to a wider world outside that of their day-to-day routine.

Of course, as always, this year’s Symposium assembled the brightest minds in psychotherapy—more than 175 presenters from around the world—to share their knowledge and insights, as well as some truly extraordinary talents from other fields to deliver keynote addresses. At what other conference would you hear addresses from a lineup of speakers like the following: David Whyte, a spellbinding poet Simon described as the “Michael Jordan of the English language”; Sherry Turkle, a visionary thinker, whose recent cautionary book about the psychological impact of the Internet has been likened to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; legendary TV talk-show host Dick Cavett, who’s interviewed everyone from Lester Maddox to Salvador Dalí; Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, focused on the realities of race in post-Obama America; and John Gottman, a psychologist–scientist largely responsible for whatever science exists about marital therapy? Still, you can see, hear, and/or read even such luminaries as these while sitting in a comfy armchair at home, without having to schlep to a hotel ballroom hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. So, why would you bother with all the hassle and expense of travel to attend in person?

What motivates people to make their annual pilgrimage to the Symposium, despite all the good reasons to save money and stay away, is the age-old, irreducible human need for direct eyeball-to-eyeball, voice-to-voice, hand-to-hand contact, and the need to experience the physical thereness of kindred spirits in the same space, the same atmosphere—to become part of the whole gestalt of the thing.

This is really no different from the way it is in “real” life. Most of the meaningful conversations about life and philosophy, work and society, love and war, our own nature as human beings—not to mention about our own individual lives—happen, and always have happened, in the thick of our tribal communities, with family, friends, colleagues, peers, and neighbors. The fact is that, as wonderful as all our new high-tech “communication” devices are—all those thumbs furiously pressing all those tiny keys—there’s something different about being in the actual, physical presence of keynoters, presenters, and, of course, fellow therapists.

So, there we were together, 3,000-strong, listening and often sighing as one when poet David Whyte recited a few lines of a poem: “It doesn’t interest me if there is one God / or many gods. / I want to know if you belong or feel / abandoned, / if you can know despair or see it in others. / I want to know / if you are prepared to live in the world / with its harsh need / to change you. If you can look back / with firm eyes, / saying this is where I stand….” As a single conscious, breathing being, thousands of us really got the message when Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and sociologist, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, said that all of the cyber-gadgets that are eroding the ordinary experience of solitude may, paradoxically, be creating an underlying sense of pervasive loneliness and psychological isolation. A thousand or so of us were right there with journalist Eugene Robinson, who was recalling his wonder and disbelief, as an African American, at seeing the first black man elected president of the United States. And we shared the delight of listening to the still-undefeated Schmoozmeister of the Western World, talk-show host Dick Cavett, shoot the breeze with Networker Editor Rich Simon, who earlier that morning had undergone his annual metamorphosis from tuxedoed master of ceremonies into T-shirt-clad rock star wannabe in an all-stops-out ensemble rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But, whether sitting together listening to a keynote or a workshop, engaging in the kind of back-and-forth conversation with presenters and each other that’s so much a part of this conference, meeting old friends for a glass of wine at the bar, or wandering through the happy bustle of the Exhibit Hall and Café, we were all part of what’s been called a community of practice. It’s as members of such informal communities that we not only acquire a sense of belonging to a particular field, a collective of specialized knowledge and skill, but we actually learn what we need to know to become proficient in that specialty. As it turns out, schmoozing within a community of one’s peers isn’t just a feel-good exercise or an enjoyable way to earn CE credits, but a critical element in how we acquire knowledge and form lasting connections with others in our field.

During the past decade or so, learning theory experts have articulated something that seems obvious in retrospect; something that has always been true of human beings, but has come into focus only recently. The old idea, which we were all raised on, holds that one teacher, professor, guru, clinical supervisor, or parent holds a certain store of knowledge in his or her individual brain—a cerebral bag of groceries, so to speak—which he or she unpacks and puts on the shelves of your individual brain for you to share with someone else’s individual brain.

In fact, however, this traditional idea of learning really goes against much of what we’ve discovered about how people actually learn, and in what context. We now know that much of what we learn, we learn socially, as members of particular communities of learning and practice. Everybody in such communities takes part of their identity from their connection with it, as they actively practice the skill or knowledge around which the community centers. We’re motivated to learn at least partly because we want to belong to those communities. We want to become part of the tribe that knows how to paint pictures, write books, play an instrument, build buildings, speak a foreign language, do yoga. We want to belong to that confederation of doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, and psychotherapists. And part of that “belonging” means engaging in “shoptalk” with our peers—a form of higher-order schmoozing—because this kind of exchange helps us gain insight and expertise, mastery in our field, and a critical sense of being part of a kind of specialized guild.

At a time when not only our field, but our entire civilization seems to be racing out of our control, we need these communities of practice more than ever. As this year’s Symposium theme—“Braving New Worlds: Journey to a Place You’ve Never Seen”—suggested, our profession needs new maps for negotiating a world that’s increasingly strange and unfamiliar. Indeed, many of us feel a bit like Gary Lockwood, the untethered spaceman in the prophetic movie 2001. In that film, the malevolent computer, HAL, has cut the cord that connects the astronaut to the spaceship and supplies his oxygen, and Lockwood helplessly whirls head over heels deeper and deeper into space. These days, we feel increasingly adrift as the familiar world we used to know slowly vanishes in an Internet cloud of digitized connectivity, which often turns out to foster little genuine human connection at all.

Not only that, the social and economic position of psychotherapy has changed radically over the past few decades. Most of us—if we’re much past 40—came of age when our professional maps pointed the way to a nice, predictable future: once out of graduate school, we’d work in an agency for a few years, then slide easily into a cozy, little private practice, seeing clients with good insurance that covered mental healthcare, and stay put in that office for 30 years, until our slow fade into a comfortable retirement. That old map of our world is now about as useful as medieval Christian maps that schematically depicted the Tower of Babel, the Antipodes, and the shores of Paradise.

So, while we’re supposed to have some advantage over our clients in the Wisdom Department, we don’t always know ourselves how we’re going to bushwhack our way through the terra incognita of these uncertain and confusing times, much less how we’re going to lead anybody else through it. In all this uncertainty, however, two things are certain: we need to find the courage and honesty to realize how much our old maps no longer serve us and we need each other’s help to create new maps.

And that’s the point. Individuals don’t make maps; mapmaking—like learning itself—is a social endeavor, requiring close, attentive, coordinated conversation. We need to pool our knowledge and understanding, collaborate in our own communities of practice, each of us part of this grand mapmaking endeavor. It’s together, all of us doing our small part in a large, collective effort, that we’ll help both our own beleaguered profession and the rest of the poor, geographically-challenged human race chart a way through the wilderness to whatever bright possibilities we all trust are waiting for us somewhere beyond the next bend in the river or over the mountain peak just ahead.

So, at this year’s Symposium, each attendee had the opportunity to discover a doorway—maybe it was a special workshop, a Creativity Day event, a chance conversation with the stranger sitting nearby, a walk with a friend through the blooming trees in Rock Creek Park, a book discovered in the Exhibit Hall—that might lead to a previously undiscovered place. Perhaps you were at the conference and had an “aha” moment yourself, when you got a glimpse, perhaps only briefly, of where you wanted to go and how you were going to get there.

But the immediate, feel-good aftermath of a conference isn’t the most reliable measure of its true import and impact. That requires time, so that the effect of all the conversations generated at the gathering can move out into the profession and the wider world. We at the Networker await the arrival of new charts of the territory ahead inspired by this year’s Symposium, some of which may make an appearance in the pages of this magazine or at next year’s conference. At the same time, we know that the Symposium will live on as a tributary of the ongoing conversation that’s at the heart of our collective community of practice, the tribal connection that gives this profession its vision, direction, and pulse. 

Photo © Jacob Love

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.