While I was training to be a psychotherapist I wrote this dialogue between Socrates and a psychotherapist. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Socrates: I see you have found time to come to the Agora today!
Psychotherapist: Yes, one of my patients cancelled today and I thought I’d get some fresh air — perhaps hear you engaged in one of your amusing debates with one of the youth of our dear city.
S: I assure you I am not trying to amuse anyone. I am, however, aware that some find my cross-examinations amusing. Perhaps since it is early and no one else is around I could ask you to help me understand what it means to be a psychotherapist.
P: Socrates, don’t take me for one of your youths — you know perfectly well what I do.
S: I assure you I do not. I know people come to you because they suffer in some way that a regular physician cannot cure. I know you engage in some kind of talking cure, but I do not, I assure you, know what a psychotherapist is or does.
P: It is quite simple — you almost said it yourself. While a physician heals the body, a psychotherapist heals the soul.
S: Do you mean that somehow through talk you heal your patient’s soul.
P: Yes, precisely.
S: How does this cure work?
P: Let’s imagine a patient. I’ll call him Robert. I’ll talk with Robert until we develop a relationship, until he feels safe to divulge his inner most thoughts and feelings. We work together through dialogue so that he can come to a self-understanding so that he can take responsibility for his own being and feel free to choose the life he wants — ultimately, to be happy.
S: This is fascinating. Perhaps there is something I can learn from you after all. But you’re not going to get away that easily.
P: Very well, I expected no less from the great Socrates.
S: I assure you I possess no greatness. So, you say you heal the soul.
S: And, of course, you would never bring harm.
P: Yes, of course, never.
S: Now, you claim understanding is necessary for healing.
S: Who must gain understand? You or Robert, the patient?
P: Both of us, I suppose. It is a cooperative process — we work through dialogue as I said before. I try to understand the Robert’s way of understanding and this helps him understand himself.
S: That sounds rather complex. I am not sure I understand what you just said, but I will proceed with my questions nonetheless.
S: How do you understand Robert?
P: Well I must ask him questions.
S: But how do you ask him questions?
P: Now the tables have turned and I do not understand you.
S: How do you know what to ask?
P: There’s a lot of guesswork. I listen, I try to find some lead, some opening; I am open to him; I use my intuition; I pick up hints. For example, if a patient tells me his heart hurts, he has gone to the doctor and no physical ailment has been found, I ask him to tell me more about his pain: when it hurts; how it hurts; where it hurts; are there times when it doesn’t hurt.
P: I assume Robert’s pain is a kind of metaphor — that his figurative heart hurts because of some “heart-breaking” situation. I want to know what that situation is.
S: Are you always right? Are your questions always on the mark?
P: No, of course not. It is hit or miss. But the better I get to know the patient, the better my intuition gets.
S: So understanding, in a sense, begets greater understanding.
P: Yes, precisely.
S: But here lies the problem.
P: Now I am confused. Just when I think we have arrived you claim the journey has just begun.
S: What is more helpful to Robert: more or less understanding?
P: Why more, of course.
S: So any lesser understanding, any pre-understanding, any pre-judgment could in fact be harmful.
P: I don’t follow.
S: Anything less than the greatest cure must contain some amount of harm. The very process of your talking cure is harmful even if it is so less and less.
P: Now I’m really mixed up.
S: Do you ever fully understand your patient?
P: No, that is impossible. The patient is infinitely more than I can know.
S: So you must, by definition always harm your patient.
P: I would prefer to look at it as incrementally bringing the patient closer and closer to health.
S: But this healing — in its fullest and most radical sense — is and can never actually be accomplished.
P: No, I suppose not.