Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

How to Avoid Helplessness and Apathy in the Face of Natural or Manmade Disaster

One dangerous result of the BP oil disaster is apathy.

I am always curious about what political and social events clients bring into their therapy. President Obama's candidacy and election had meaning for almost everyone who entered my office during his run for office and immediately after his election. 9/11 of course. Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in Haiti are others. And in the past weeks one after another of my clients has spoken with distress about the British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Almost all of the discussions revolve around a sense of combined horror and helplessness. Questions about what we can do are quickly replaced by anger at the government for what it is not doing. Depending on whether or not they initially approved of Obama, clients have echoed the general public's feelings of either disappointment or outrage at his response to the situation.

Obviously something must be done, and, as my mother used to say, it needs to be done yesterday. But by whom? And how? As a student of the human psyche, I believe that the danger here is not anger and frustration, but feelings of apathy, helplessness and hopelessness. Outrage and righteous indignation give us a momentary a sense of power. While we are angry we feel that we have the capacity to act. When apathy takes over, we can do nothing.

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In November 2000, David O. Solmitz

, a teacher with thirty years of experience in the public school system, wrote a painfully prescient essay called "The Roots of Apathy." Among other things he said, "Many of us wonder to what extent politicians from either party represent the commercial interests of their big financial supporters? Therefore, we feel powerless. For example, huge corporations control health care, ranging from HMOs to prescription drugs. Many of us are troubled that some mainstream politicians, who rely on these corporations to help finance their campaigns, appear unwilling to come up with alternatives that will create a healthier society. We are troubled, at a time of a heating oil shortage and the high cost of fuel that politicians seem to take no action against the oil companies that are making a huge profit by selling their oil to European countries."

I too am terribly disappointed not only in President Obama, but in the entire U.S. government. But what worries me more is the attitude of many of my clients, colleagues and friends, that this problem is with those in authority. Like small children who resent their parents' rules but believe that they have no choice but to follow them, we seem to be having difficulty doing more than simply stamping our feet in frustration that the grownups are not doing their job better.

I believe that part of the disappointment in President Obama comes from the fact that he, in his campaign, offered an antidote to the feelings of political powerlessness experienced by so many Americans in the first years of the new century. Many of my clients who had never before participated in a political campaign became involved in his. Everywhere there seemed to be a sense that the "little guy" could finally have a voice.

It is extremely important that we, the people of the United States of America, find our voice again. This outrage is not simply perpetrated by the President, nor yet by the government, nor even solely by the oil companies. We the people are the ones who don't want windmills in our front yards (or in our ocean front). We the people are the ones who don't want to drive less or fly less or use our ski-mobiles, motor boats or jet-skis less. We don't want to face the inconvenience of using public transportation or the discomfort of lowering our heat in winter or using less air conditioning in summer. So we encourage and support the oil companies in their search for ever more fuel to sell us.

I am as bad an offender as anyone else, so I am, sadly, not speaking from a position of superiority. In fact, I would like to ask for suggestions from any of you who are working to use less fuel in your lives. What do you have to give up? How does it work? And what does it feel like, not just physically, but psychologically? Do you feel that you have any more emotional power as a result of giving up some fuel power?

If you, like me, have only made tentative steps in this direction, I'd like to hear what you're doing and what you're thinking about. I'll start: I have bought into wind energy through my electric and gas company, and I have bought myself a solar charger for my phone and mp3 player. I live in NYC and use public transportation and my feet to get around. And I have also checked with Move On, the grassroots lobby organization, and am supporting their demand for a permanent ban on new offshore drilling. Any other suggestions for political action?

Meantime, of course, the oil continues to spew out. Feelings of helplessness in the face of this disaster are understandable, but we must act in order to avoid apathy. I appreciate tremendously the efforts of volunteers who are trying to help protect the birds, fish and animals and the entire ecosystem being damaged by this process and offer them as much financial support as I can. But this is only part of the action we need to take. I would love to hear any ideas you have.

Other issues will - actually, as I write this, have already begun to - distract us from these problems; but if we do not start to take some action, we will fall deeper into the realm of political and personal apathy. David Solmitz ends his essay on apathy with a plea to teachers and school administrators to give students more opportunity to express their opinions and have an impact on the system itself. When schools "encourage and empower students to become independent thinkers who are able to listen to and respond with appreciation and understanding to the thoughts and opinions of others," he writes, "students become healthier, energetic, caring, socially responsible and active participants of the society."

The same can be said about all of us in relation to our government and the world we live in. However, it is not those in office who can give us this power. Only we can do it - for one another and for ourselves.

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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