I’m just starting to read the book Born To Be Good by Dacher Keltner. It’s about the rather novel idea that we might actually be good at heart at a biological level.
This might come as a bit of a shock to Sigmund Freud and some religious figures who assume that we are, at heart, self centred beasts only interested in meeting our own needs.
The book starts with a description of “jen”. Jen is a concept invented by Confucius 2500 years ago. It describes a mixture of beneficial qualities that can exist between people including: kindness, humanity, respect, awe.
The description of Jen that Keltner gives really caught my eye.
“a person of jen brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion”
“Bringing the good things of others to completion” sounds to me like a pretty good definition of therapy / counselling / teaching or any kind of people helping.
This idea about people starts from the point of view that:
- There are good things in others – possibilities, potential, resources that can be enabled or developed
- That these good things can be brought to completion – what lies hidden and unused can be fully developed.
- That the job of the helper is to release and nurture what is already there.
This is a profoundly optimistic point of view and what I strive to embody in my work.
Unfortunately, this train of thought led me to think of some of the therapists and counsellors down the years who did not seem to be “people of jen”. Rather than bringing the good in people to completion, they had some other agendas at work.
- Ego – a desire to be recognised as someone important, skilled and talented – helpers where the helping relationship is all about how good they are.
- Need – using their clients to meet their own un-met needs for love and belonging
- Power – using their clients as part of a power game, training them to be obedient and dependent followers.
Sad to say, I’ve met a few people who’ve fallen into these categories; people who I would rather run away from than talk to about anything important.
These thoughts reminded me that many years ago, when I was doing a teacher training course, I read a great book called “Teaching As A Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartener. It is a radical take on what education should be. Re-reading it, it seems even more relevant today than it did back in the 1970’s when it was written.
One part of the book sticks in my mind, it was a 16 point check-list for an interview process for aspiring teachers. A process for identifying the kind of people who would help their pupils grow, i.e. people of jen.
Here are two of them:
9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their in-service training.
This need not be psychoanalysis; some form of group therapy or psychological counselling will do. Its purpose: to give teachers an opportunity to gain insight into themselves, particularly into the reasons they are teachers. (emphasis mine)
I know that many counsellors and therapists have to undergo therapy as part of their certification. I don’t know if the focus of the therapy needs to be on the reasons they want to be people helpers, but I think that might be a very fruitful line of enquiry.
14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
If the teacher can get someone to say,’ I love her (or him)’ she should be retained. If she can get two people to say it, she should get a raise. Spouses need not be excluded from testifying
At the time this seemed to me to be a good way of winnowing out people who may have been using teaching to meet their “non- jen” needs.
Now it seems to me that these recommendations would a useful way to discover if would-be therapists, counsellors and other people helpers where “people of jen” – oriented to the good of their clients rather than their own.
What do you think?Image courtesy of Ivan Walsh