Psychobabble (Happiness Series #2)

September 12, 1999



Two weeks ago we began a series on happiness: how hard it is to define, and how many miss it by searching so directly for it instead of zeroing in on other commitments from which happiness comes as a by-product. I hoped it would be an adequate beginning, but as some of you made perceptive comments afterwards it was clear how complex this topic is, and the risk one runs in trying to deal with it in brief segments. In fact, my feelings today could be summed up by an incident that happened out in Berkeley, California where a woman by the name of Margaret Wilson, who had been blind since birth, was standing on a busy street corner waiting for someone to help her across. A man stepped up and asked, “May I go across with you?” Cheerfully, Mrs. Wilson said, “I would be very glad if you would.” When they were safely across, the man thanked her before she could thank him, which surprised her for a moment until he said, “You know, it’s a mighty big favor to have help crossing the street when one has been blind as many years as I have.” So, given all the differing notions of what happiness is, and how we come to possess it, it may be hard to know who is helping whom when we talk about it this morning.
We are still in the stages of talking about what happiness is not, which is no surprise since there’ve been so many dead-end streets in that long search. One of them we talked about Sunday before last: that preoccupation with the self which seems especially rampant at the moment and which makes the highest kind of happiness impossible. Since it was inevitable that this narcissism would develop its own language, let’s take a look this morning at the special vocabulary of the cult of the self. I’m not sure who named it first, but Richard Rosen used the word some years ago as the title of a book which he called Psychobabble. For him it describes what is half psychology and half incoherence, a gobbledegook mixture of meaning and nonsense which he finds in questions like these: “Are you in touch with yourself? Are you making the most of your space?”
He sees the whole country awash in soggy therapeutic cliches as more and more people feel the need to catalog, for anyone who will listen, the condition of their egos. He says it’s hard to avoid this official language of the Narcissus cult, and that one often feels a little embarrassed at not using it oneself — like that mild humiliation you feel in Paris when so many of the natives speak excellent English and you can’t manage even a single French phrase. We’ll hear more of this jargon in a moment, but first a question to which, inside a church, we certainly owe an answer. Is this something the pulpit has any business talking about? Is the way people use language a theological issue? No suspense here!—I’m obviously going to say Yes because the Bible, in several places, pleads for unpretentious and unequivocal speech. Even in a time when with no radio, movies or television the problem of gobbledegook must have been minimal, Jesus still came out in favor of simple, clear communication. Bothered by pretentious public piety, he prescribed that radical cure you heard ______ read earlier: “Whatever you have to say, let your ‘yes’ be a plain ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be a plain ‘no’” — hyperbole, to be sure, but exaggeration was his favorite way of startling people, and the serious meaning behind the exaggeration was: Don’t be vague and fuzzy, don’t try to impress by using words that pretend to deliver substance and deliver only hot air.
Which, of course, is what psychobabble is: windy, pretentious talk. I’m reminded of those three men on a hunting trip in Canada: one a theologian, one a psychologist, and the third an engineer — all of them engaged in useful occupations but as it turns out, all a bit too willing to impress each other on occasion. Needing shelter one day when a sudden storm blew up, they stumbled upon a trapper’s small isolated cabin, and knocked on the door. No one was at home, but the front door was unlocked so they entered — and immediately saw something strange: a large potbellied castiron stove was suspended in midair by wires attached to the ceiling beams. Why, they wondered, would a stove be elevated from the floor? Each man, finally, explained it in the verbiage of his own occupational discipline.
The psychologist pondered the sight and concluded: “It’s obvious that this lonely trapper, isolated from humanity, has elevated his stove so that he can curl up under it and vicariously experience a return to the warmth of his mother’s womb.” The engineer theorized: “The man is practicing certain laws of thermodynamics. By elevating his stove he has discovered a way to distribute heat more evenly throughout the cabin.” The theologian pontificated: “I’m sure that hanging the stove from the ceiling has religious meaning. As you may know, fire, lifted up, has been a religious symbol for centuries.” While they were still debating the matter, the trapper returned and they immediately asked why he had hung his pot-bellied stove by wires from the ceiling. He was a plain man and he gave them a short, plain answer: “Had plenty of wire, not much stovepipe.”
I am too much in love with language to leave the impression that it always has to be blunt or exasperatingly brief. I sympathized with the father who was telling how his son came home from college over a holiday weekend. “I asked him,” he said, “how things were going?” He said, ‘Good.’ I said, ‘How’s the food?’ He said, ‘Good.’ ‘And the dormitory?’ ‘Good.’ Hoping for a little more dialogue,I said, ‘They’ve always had a strong football team. How do you think they’ll do this year?’ He said, ‘Good.’ I said, ‘How are your studies going?’ ‘Good.’ I said, ‘Have you decided on your major yet?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Communications.’”
That may be carrying simplicity in speech a bit too far, but so much more often we go to the other extreme…We try too hard to be impressive — and simple, direct speech becomes a victim. Jesus was weary of theological shoptalk that day when he begged his followers to speak plainly, to say “Yes” rather than “In my considered oipinion that calls for an affirmative response,” and an unadorned “No” instead of “I have feelings of negativity on this issue.” Christ’s antidote to overly-pretentious rhetoric is part of the Good News I am expected to preach, so here is an example of how not to talk gibberish. I recall it from a counseling session once, long ago and far away.
She said to him: “I’m really into my anger right now.” “That’s OK,” he told her. “That’s your space. Go with the anger.” “Yes,” she said, “but I feel this hostility toward you and I feel that I want to let that hang out.” “That’s cool,” he said. “That’s the space you’re in. I can understand exactly where you’re coming from.” “That resonates with me,” she said, “but I still have all this anger that needs venting.” “Well,” he said, I want you to know that I affirm your anger.”
I had real doubts that any real solution was going to come from this froth of words. They seemed more a kind of in-style filibuster, designed to keep anything real from coming to a vote. A thoughtful humorist named Russell Baker has long since gone on to introducing Masterpiece Theater, but back in the days when he was a syndicated columnist he did a piece of social criticism he called “Babble, babble, glub, blub ,” in which he pretends to cite case histories from a book called The Annals of Babble , a study of language in decay.
He has fun with the West Coast greeting, “What are you into these days?” and responses like “I’m into tennis now,” which is meant to suggest something considerably more important than would be the case if one simply said, “I’m playing tennis.” Here’s the paragraph in which Mr. Baker takes care of that particular piece of jargon: “Irving Candora wanted to be into. And why not? All the other members of his crowd had been into for years. Sometimes it seemed to Irvin that everybody in the country was into , except [him]. In college his friends had been into Zen, into kidnapping the dean, into marijuana….”
Baker has a little more fun with how much Irving’s reluctance to be into anything at all annoys his friends, before going on to describe another character, named Nora, who for years locked herself alone in a room every night and tried to relate. She did this because at work and at play, everybody else was relating. They talked of little else, and she listened with shame because she had never related. As a little girl she had never even thought of asking her mother about relating , and if she had thought of it she wouldn’t have dared ask, because she knew her mother depised people who spoke nonsense.
Still fuming about psychobabble, Baker goes on to describe poor Absalom Ashcurst, who didn’t know whether he knew who he was or not….and what was worse, didn’t care. In the evenings his friends would sit boasting that they really knew who they were , or complaining that they could not possibly go on until they discovered who they were. To all of which Absalom was totally indifferent. When Carla Braxton would boast that she really knew who she was , he would answer: ‘So what?’ And when Kevin Toop would groan, ‘If only I knew who I am,’ Absalom would say, ‘You’re Kevin Toop, old sod.’”
I remember a student who told me once he was leaving college to “find himself,” as if he were a set of misplaced keys. When I saw him a few months later he said he was deeply “into” his own research project entitled, “Who Am I?” Happiness seemed to be escaping him in this inward-bound journey focused so much more on who he was than on what he might become. The good news is that after another year of rummaging through his mental pockets and finding nothing except lint, he caught on finally that most of us don’t “find” ourselves; we “become” ourselves. Or, as a wise old friend of mine said the other day, “My life has been on-the-job training.” He has spent his life becoming — and on the way, happiness caught up with him.
I saw a piece in Harper’s magazine once by an author who had met a person who was looking for happiness by being “into” mysticism. He wrote: “[The man] was telling me about his sense of another reality. ‘I know there is something outside of me,’ he said. ‘I can feel it. I know it is there. But what is it?’ ‘It may not be a mystery,’ I said. ‘Perhaps it’s the world.’” Not a bad reminder for someone hunting happiness by means of intense introspection. If you know someone who worships the “Trinity” of Me, Myself and I, you might suggest gently that there is a world out there, beyond one’s fascination with self-discovery, and that the best hope of happiness we have is to step out of ourselves to meet it, with all it’s beauty and pain, all its glory and disgrace, and a firm resolve to make something of it.
I am content this morning to remind you of two things: first, that the silly psychobabble so often employed by those who hope to find happiness in hovering over their own psyches is an insult to the gift of language, and that Jesus spoke good linguistic advice and sound theology when he said, Keep both your speech and your heart unpretentious . And, second, that if you concentrate on aiming directly at happiness, you’re going to miss it. As the wise English novelist and scientist C. P. Snow once put it, “The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase: if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.”
I have promised in this series to leave you each week on a positive note, so here is a quick potpourri of suggestions that minister to happiness: Don’t allow yourself to become permanently depressed over the absurdities of human behavior, including your own. Hate things, not people, remembering that all of us are flawed and broken, and that without compassion and forgiveness we end up at last with nobody but ourselves. Waste no precious energy on vain regrets about the past; use it instead to build a better future, no matter how brief that future may have become. Dwell on your blessings, which are almost always more numerous than your misfortunes. And believe with all your heart that what you do matters, because to think otherwise is to turn into a slug. But don’t imagine that what you do is likely to matter enormously or you become a pompous fool….and no pompous fool, in all the history of the world, has ever been happy.

Be with us, gracious God, in the journeys of this week. Amen.