America is a hodge-podge of once-lofty ideals riled up by grunts battering her face

— Image from the National Archives
Detail from a World War II poster urging, “Remember Dec. 7th,” the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, bringing the United States into the war.

For Walt Chura of Simple Gifts

In the summer of 1954, the great innovative psychotherapist Carl Rogers presented a paper at a mental-health conference in Toronto, Ontario called “Personality Changes in Psychotherapy.”

He wanted to share with the conferees the results of a four-year study he conducted that asked the question: What is therapy?

One would think that everybody at a mental-health conference would know what that was (especially Rogers) but the conferees wanted to hear what the cordial mystic guru — to some a miracle-worker — had to say about how better to help people heal. His words were always instructive.

Of course, Rogers’s research team was interested in what takes place during the therapeutic session, how the “talking cure” affects a person’s cognitive development: remembering, understanding, analyzing, and all the other dimensions of human consciousness.

They were trying to nail down the click that takes place in a person’s mind when a door opens and the aspirant moves from point a to point b, then from b to c and so on, and at each stage becomes a more mature (realized) adult; many dedicatees experience past, present, and future melding into one — further relieving anxiety. (No small feat even for a pro.)

People who experience success in therapy are happy to share stories of their new-found-freedom: They say they feel better; get along better with others — even somebody they meet on the street; they say they see things clearly — read situations better — and thus find themselves in fewer hissy-fit-hassle-ridden conflict situations, even when the other person is at fault. They say they feel closer to achieving their dreams: Nirvana might be just around the corner? That’s not an LOL.

In Toronto, Rogers referred to the patient who makes great strides in therapy — who is better able to relate to others as an adult — as a “well-adjusted person.” It’s not a phrase we hear in the United States anymore because the country no longer has shared, agreed-upon values to adjust to, there are no ideals that say how one American should relate to another for a “common good.”

Much has been written about how the United States did have a collective sense of herself after World War II, when some/most people thought everybody was in the same boat or, if there were different boats, the big boats weren’t sticking an oar into the little boats’ eyes.

That sense has dissipated, deteriorated to the point where the country is rudderless, afloat like an anchorless ship — a serious mental disability a lot of people still refuse to admit exists. They have distanced themselves so far from feelings associated with a harmonious community that nothing anybody else does matters to them; they’re nihilists. The country is flooded with nihilists.

Of course, as soon as anyone hears the words “well-adjusted,” they ask: Adjusted to what? Which is the right question, and an especially poignant one for America right now because there is no United-States-of-America; “America” has no home; is homeless — I just said an anchorless ship — we’ve lost the competency to relate to each other in a cordial neighborly way, which the framers of the Republic, with all their flaws, were hoping that was the least Americans could do.

And relating to others in a cordial neighborly way is in fact a competency — techniques and frame of mind — that people must learn, and practice, and get good at it, if they are to have a society where, for example, everybody has enjoyable work to do, where people feel part of a nurturing family, a culturally-enriching school district, and friendly local “fraternal” organizations like the Rotary Club and the Bicycle Days Committee.

The idealists say everybody should get two months of vacation each year, fully paid, all the sick leave they need, and a sabbatical every 10 years: a whole year to think and read and study and ponder and do the things their soul is longing for — paid in full — untaxed — no one having to worry about a guy at the mall whipping out an Uzi to mow the food court down.

(I’m thinking of putting out a pamphlet called “Ways to Have a Healing Vacation.”)

Thus, if a sincere person wishes to be a well-adjusted American, what America is he going to commit himself to? America is a mirage of shifting identities. It’s like someone looking in the mirrors of a barber shop to see what they really look like.

When a lieutenant in the Proud Boys hears “well-adjusted,” he thinks of the recruit who spews venom at the system, preys on human weakness, keeps ammo hidden in the car — long guns aside — and a bunker to hide in when the cops come; he does everything the Proud Boys Handbook requires, uses violence to settle scores, interjects suspicion in every group he comes upon. Looking at such a recruit, a Proud Boys lieutenant will say: I say, that boy is one “well-adjusted Proud Boy!”

Using “well-adjusted” alone, therefore, shows why Rogers said “well-adjusted person,” person being the operative word, as in: What’s the difference between a well-adjusted Proud Boy and a well-adjusted person? And a “person” is not an “individual,” a unit among “units” for utility’s sake — paying social services and the police to clean up deviant detritus.

After many years of observing and helping people grow into adulthood, Rogers put together a book called “On Becoming a Person” in which he touches upon every aspect of therapy right down to the words people use when they experience a seismic shift in their personality — as it’s happening — patients the true definers of what therapy is.

Also, while people refer to themselves as Socialist, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Anarchist — whatever — there is a group whose members call themselves Personalists, always making clear that Personalism is not a political stance but a way of life that has implications for politics. One personalist I know says he votes 365 days a year with his body — the kind of devotion some say a healthy Republic needs to stay alive.

When people entered Rogers’s study, they were handed a list of the qualities of a very mature person and asked to pick which ones most reflected them, and then to put in another pile the qualities that were not like them — it was a base from which the team would work.

Then each subject was asked whether the self they were right then, squared with the person they thought they ought to be, or wanted to be, or felt called to be, their “ideal self,” the self they had to bank their life on.

Looking at how people scored themselves on these dimensions, Rogers and his team saw right away that troubled people experience a wide gap between the self they see themselves as and the self they feel they ought to be, maybe the self they were born with. It’s a tricky subject to document because people don’t like talking about “self” stuff.

Which explains why America is a hodge-podge of once-lofty ideals riled up by grunts battering America in the face. Imagine: Some folks are still calling for civil war — ready to hack down a neighbor like they did by machete in Rwanda in 1994, a homeland where no one felt at home.

I love the song “America the Beautiful” but now I hear “America the Confused,” “America the Angry,” “American Despair” identities that swish back and forth like dirty tide water.

At this stage of my life, I find all this so sad. I have no god but, if I had one, she’d be the goddess of understanding and compassion, the genealogical mother of love.