Through the Glass, Darkly: an Alternate View of Abnormal Psychology

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For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.  -Cor 1:13 1


Knowing oneself is the goal of psychotherapy; that is, successfully reaching and maintaining a healthy, vibrant "ego", or sense of self. In this regard, the work of the mental health professional-- a counselor, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist-- can be compared to the function of a mirror, or even more specifically, that of a soothsayer's speculum, such as that described in Corinthians 1:132. That is, it is the polished and reflective nature of the therapeutic relationship and technique that provides the querent with insights that direct him or her to health, from the wellspring of his or her own "better", healthier self.

This describes the best of scenarios, of course; for it is true that when generally healthy, well-adjusted people seek therapy, very often they will find that inner equilibrium that life's challenges knock off course. But what of instances of a deeper, more nefarious inner discord?

When developmental, personality, mood and psychotic disorders are present in the client, the "mirror" of the therapeutic relationship may appear tarnished and warped, solely for the reason that what is perceived, and thus what is reflected, is an incomplete and fractured view. It is a sense of self seen "through the glass, darkly": a poor reflection of being. It is easy to assume that, in our age of advanced pharmaceuticals and psychological technologies, especially in the case of more extreme disorders, the therapeutic relationship is ineffective and irrelevant. But is this true?

Is it possible that the "dark glass" of the fractured self could be made whole again by the clear seeing of relationship? According to the praxis of Transpersonal Psychology, that answer is a resounding "Yes": even in cases of the most severe disorders, wholeness can be achieved through discovery of not just the pieces of oneself, but meeting all of the self, so that the "highest" aspect of oneself is known intimately and completely.

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

-Cor 1:13, NRSV version

As the Transpersonal method is the only field of Psychology which accounts for multiple "spiritual"3 dimensions of human development, the use of the often-quoted Biblical passage of 1 Corinthians 13 is fitting for this short exploration of an approach to abnormal psychology from a Transpersonal Psychology perspective. In the beginning of the passage (quoted at the top of this article), the author of this passage, Paul of Tarsus notes that at present, he has only a partial understanding of reality; but his faith turns to knowing the whole, as a soothsayer knows divinity, as well as he knows himself. It may be said that this wholeness represents the ultimate, or "transpersonal" of human development as outlined by the transpersonal lexicon, in which a person develops from the "pre-personal" (or as a child, before a healthy personality has been developed) to "personal" (a healthy personality, or ego) to "transpersonal" (a "peak experience" of the developmental kind, wherein a healthy ego "transcends" a notion of individual selfhood in favor of unity with all things)4.

Embracing the nebulous aspect of human ego know as "the spirit", Transpersonal Psychology understands abnormal psychological development-- from personality, mood, and other disorders-- as a possible aspect of "spiritual emergency". Corinthians 1:13 provides a good example of this; looking at the passage at the start of this section, we may recognize some conditions of abnormality in the prophetic behaviors of the author's subject, such as "speaking in tongues" or "prophetic powers". It is easy to recognize the often-ridiculed city-corner doomsayer character of our current day, never-minding the abundance of similar prophets in the Biblical age. And, given the stigma attached to DSM-IV disorders, we may also assign these characteristics to people we characterize as being "mentally ill". What is common to these conditions-- that of prophet, or madman-- is lack, the very lack of "love" as noted in the quote. The translation continues, "...if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing5."

"For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears."

Cor 1:13, New International Version

How does mental illness present in society, and what on Earth does "love" have to do with it? Indeed the stigma of mental illness in its many guises is at the forefront of popular media, given the recent shootings in Tucson, and the under-addressed PTSD of soldiers returning home. As such, the average person, by the affect of some disturbance in his environment, genes or psyche finds in his own mind the seeds of doom, and works diligently in his own way to find symmetry and rest in a fractured state of disorganized perception. It is not just the popular image of some unrelated 'fool on the corner' banging his drum, singing to the tune of some impending Armageddon; rather, the affects of "mental illness" can be felt in the most intimate of social sectors: the workplace, the coffeeshop, the family home.

Unfortunately in our society, our stigmatized view of mental illness is itself a direct cause of underserved populations. According the the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI),

Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.6

How do we best respond to others with these disorders, or even to ourselves if we are the ones bearing the stigma? Stigma is beget by fear, and misunderstanding; and, it may be argued, by a lack of agape, a selfless, unconditional and non-judgmental love7 that lies at the heart of this famous passage. Again quoting Corinthians 1:138,

Love is patient, love is kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Agape is at the heart of understanding and clinical success inTranspersonal Psychology, for it is an orientation to self and other that transcends the fear of "losing oneself" to the horrors of mental illness. Instead, the agape individual welcomes all states of mind, in himself or in others, with equanimity, respect, and hope. Thus the "clinical" Transpersonal agape is a logical refinement of Roger's "unconditiional, positive regard9", which espouses, as Rogers did, that if unimpeded the individual naturally will tend toward growth, and that this "actualizing tendency" is fostered best in an atmosphere where the values of regard and respect are consistently nurtured. In other words, healing comes by way of careful, skillful, fearless human compassion.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.10

The "dark glass" of the fractured self can be made whole precisely because of what the soothsayer knows so well, looking into the murky reflection of his speculum. A similar case can be made for the prospect of successful treatment of abnormal psychological disorders within the construct of Transpersonal Psychology: for although the murky reflection of a fractured psyche would seem the least likely to beget wholeness, by the grace of agape often it is the dark, indirect surface that yields the clearest view.

More Resources on Transpersonal Psychology and Mental Illness

Poll: The Stigma of Mental Illness

What is the best way to address the stigma of mental illness in our society?

  • Better pharmaceuticals- normalize these individuals so they can blend into society
  • Education- introduce the topic of mental illness in schools
  • Spiritually- places of worship should address the presence of mental illness in the community, with an emphasis on support and acceptance
  • Legislation- introduce laws that ensure the equality of these individuals, and the availability of treatment/services
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