The primary thing is wisdom: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.
– – Proverbs 4:7
[Key Words: Book of Proverbs; wisdom; comfort with ambiguity; certainty; patience; life-skills versus technical skills]
For many, the Book of Proverbs must serve as an emollient against the various scars we take on in living. The book informs us about the importance of wisdom for living out our lives, and facing all that life brings our way. If the work of counseling entails being present with people as they struggle with what life throws at them, and if life-struggles require that we develop the necessary skills to navigate such struggles, then the Book of Proverbs, indeed, has something to offer all of us, whether therapist or client.
As a professor and professional counselor, a question that periodically emerges for me is: Exactly what do I impart to my students, interns, and clients? How do I know if I am serving them well? The approach I take as a counselor draws on what are called the four dimensions of existence (discussed in another essay on this blog), one of which is the spiritual dimension. As one with core spiritual beliefs, I find these questions, rather than having simple answers, call on one to engage the many struggles involved with personal meaning in life.
In my work with both Practicum students and graduate interns, one of the more frustrating experiences I observe in them is their desire to do something for the client, to provide them with an exit from or a way around their dilemmas. Obviously, as a professor, I desire that my students learn, and, as a therapist, I hope to be of legitimate help to my clients. But I believe the frustration surfaces for students and interns when they want to provide quick, clear, cut answers for their clients. Moreover, they want to see their answers (rather than the client’s) work. If they work, then they feel as though they have provided something concrete for the client. Now I recognize that not only students and interns experience this gravitational attraction toward the quick fix. Seasoned therapists do as well. And I experience the same pulls as a professor and a counselor. Legitimately, counselors want to know and be assured that they are doing something for their clients, that the time they are spending together, and the money that the client is paying, are bearing some sort of fruit. But when might counselors’ desires for such proof bring about difficulties for them? And what might I impart to my students and interns to encourage them as they engage these common professional tensions?
Angst and Ambiguity
Although it spawns our growth of knowledge, the quest for certainty can become an enemy of patience. The excessive desire for certainty can throw us into turmoil that we seek to alleviate by turning into an oracle. As such, we hope to provide answers as though they are pills dispensed from a medicine bottle. The process of counseling, however, involves periods of doubt, searching, and ambiguity, both on the part of the client and the counselor. Patience is, indeed, a virtue when we are required to be still and wait out such ambiguous experiences. Admittedly, I strongly believe that one of the most important skills counselors can develop is the ability to sit comfortably with ambiguity. If they can develop it early in their training, it will serve their professional experience well. Therapists need to be comfortable with allowing clients to stew, reflect, struggle, and figure out things for themselves.
Although I do not believe that the work I do as a counselor is identical to what I do as a professor, there are some parallels between the two pursuits. Students want clear-cut answers to the questions and processes they explore as counselors-in-training. Just as counselors experience pressure from clients to shine the light of day on life’s riddles, professors, likewise, feel the pressure from students to provide crystal-blue clarity to the ambiguous processes of human interaction. At times, one may be tempted to throw out a quick formulaic response rather than let the students wrestle with how they conceptualize the work they hope to do. As a professor, I do not view my position as one where I pour answers to academic questions into the minds of my students. I believe one of the more important skills that professors can develop is to find ways that set students on the path of thinking and learning for themselves. The parallels between my work as a counselor and a professor emerge from the fact that life involves learning, and learning, rather than being merely academic, is about life.
No doubt at times, the pull from people to provide them with a panacea is overbearing. When we detect in our clients’ expressions and eyes that they are lost, confused, hurting, and perhaps hopeless, we feel a weighty desire to reach into their struggles so we can say: this is it; do this; go this way; take this path; this choice is a good one. And such a pull, no doubt, provokes angst. We, as counselors, do not relish angst-provoking situations anymore than our clients do. Many times, however, providing such on-the-spot answers might be the exact wrong thing to do. More times than not, what people may seek when they experience doubt or confusion is comfort and acknowledgement that their struggles are real. Another person’s validation may be more helpful to people at such times than another person’s formula or prescription for their dilemmas.
Patience in Human Interaction
Although I appreciate outcome research in therapy that emphasizes interventions and techniques for working with clients, I believe that much of counseling revolves around human interaction. The variety of ways that clients gain something fruitful from counseling is not easily generalized from research. There is more to human interaction and experience than science can measure. Moreover, much of outcome research focuses on particular diagnostic categories delineated in the DSM-V; however, many clients who enter therapy do not suffer from a diagnosis. (And whether or not the diagnostic categories themselves are scientifically sound is a hotly debated topic.) Many people search out counselors because they are struggling with various concerns in life. The nature of many struggles calls on people to do just that – struggle. Although we all possess that human tendency to avoid or circumvent our struggles, their resolution tends to lie in facing them head-on and working through them. The counseling setting is a place where clients can find the time and space to reflect, explore, and seek to reach conclusions about their paths in life.
I do not mean to imply that counselors do not have something to offer clients, or that counselors do not bring particular skills to the therapeutic arena. The counselor’s role might involve validating clients’ struggles, being present with them in their emotional pain, and serving as a guide for them as they work through their dilemmas. And no doubt, at times, interventions and specific technical skills are highly useful and appropriate. But as I stated above, one of the more important skills that counselors can develop is comfort with ambiguity. I am not sure that the word skill accurately captures that ability. Such presence on the part of the counselor is perhaps better described as an attitude toward experience, or better yet, a way of being. It requires that we, as counselors, become centered in our own being, aware of what we are experiencing in the session, noticing our reactions to clients, including the pull from them that we do something. It requires our being genuine about not knowing what exactly to say at times, much less do. It requires self-integrity and honesty. And such presence requires that we develop the ability to wait things out – in a word, patience. Such a life skill is far different than a technical skill; it pertains to a way of living and is developed through life experience.
I realize that phrases like an attitude toward experience or a way of being might not comfort students or interns’ uneasiness about what they experience with clients. Interns ask questions we have all wondered about as counselors. What do I do when my client is so depressed, he won’t do anything? What should I do if my client is suicidal? What does it mean when my client gets angry and leaves the session early? What can I do when my client is so anxious, she talks the entire session, so I can’t say anything? No doubt, questions such as these beg for quick and efficacious answers. Legitimately, these questions deserve discussion, pondering, and exploration. They also call on counselors to be grounded in who they are, to be aware of their experiences in the session, and to have some understanding of how they personally work as therapists. Such grounding can go a long way in helping us face the tensions we experience in our work with clients. Our awareness of these tensions also informs us that they are the same tensions cached in living.
Conclusion: Acquire Wisdom
Like all human understanding, our knowledge of human interaction is grounded on tectonic plates that shift, which is our development. We are always gaining understanding and developing our knowledge. The Book of Proverbs is an open invitation to gain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom for dealing with the many vicissitudes of life and the varieties of difficulties that emerge due to human interaction. It tells us that the wise will increase in learning; it’s never a finished process. The overarching theme of the book is wisdom, which can form a core bedrock foundation on which we can rest. From my perspective, wisdom is the opposite of certainty. Wisdom allows us to stand in the midst of life struggles when we are not certain how they will turn out. The Book of Proverbs calls us to acquire wisdom, get understanding, and continually grow in knowledge. Acquire, get, and grow are words that call for action. Obtaining understanding, knowledge, and wisdom requires action on our part. Simultaneously, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom are long-term processes that require reflection on our part. We gain our wisdom in life, not only by experiencing it, but also by reflecting and meditating on what our experiences have taught us. And in the case of those who believe as I do, what God is trying to teach us.
Such reflections allow us to act more prudently toward life. There appears to be a tension between reflection and action, two poles of existence, between which we are always navigating. Sometimes we have to take decided action; other times we have to find rest, be still, and wait things out. Such navigation appears to be a riddle of life we are always seeking to solve. One of Solomon’s stated reasons for writing the Proverbs was so that readers could gain understanding of the wise and their riddles.
So what can I impart to my students and clients? A Solomon, I am not. But I can encourage the people I work with to pursue and acquire wisdom. I don’t possess it so as to offer it externally to anyone in a nutshell. It’s an internal pursuit. I am on the same path as my students, interns, and clients. Hopefully, our pursuit of wisdom can transform the way we sit with our clients, who are people struggling just as we struggle, people striving, as we do, to get through life with as clear of a picture as can be mustered. The spiritual dimension and quest for personal meaning in our human interactions are at the forefront of these pursuits and struggles. But we must be aware that such struggles and tensions take place on a spiritual plane. And as we navigate between action and reflection, we must take what we learn from this process to navigate the similar tension between when we are active with our clients versus when we we rest with them in the midst of ambiguity and the unknown. As I stated above, this is not only a navigation that our students and interns are seeking to scull through; all of us, regardless of how long we’ve worked in this field, or what stage of life we’re in, know this tension. We experience the pulls, doubts, and confusion that exist within us, as well as our clients. Although we possess techniques and knowledge of interventions we can use with clients, we also possess our human experiences that have led to our reflective growth that life is for learning, and learning is for life. Preferably, we do not leave what we have gleaned through life’s struggles at the door when we enter the counseling room.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/January 14, 2014