Two quotes from therapists I admire have been on my mind lately. First a quote from Carl Rogers, a trailblazing therapist who controversially (but thankfully!) led the shift among psychologists from seeing clients as someone needing to be fixed by an expert ("expert") to simply a person needing human support:
"When I look at the world I'm pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic."
The second quote comes from Dr. Gabor Maté, an influential psychiatrist who has spent most of his career working with and writing on addiction:
“Any gardener knows that if a plant hasn't grown, most likely the conditions were lacking.”
What I believe Carl Rogers meant with feeling optimistic when looking at people was that once you actually begin to get to know someone, once you begin seeing them as a person and strive to understand them, you quickly notice how similar they are to you and how they, just like you, are fighting to get by and to grow. Sure we can ask ourselves what the hell is wrong with the person who cuts us off in traffic or who is rude to the cashier but Maté reminds us that we don’t know anything about this person, what they’ve been through or what struggles they’ve been through to end up here so we should hold of on our judgements.
Carl Rogers, in describing his novel approach to therapy used to the phrase self-actualization to refer to an innate human tendency he believed every person had to grow, develop and improve. Just like the seed of an oak tree contains all the instructions and information it requires to grow into a towering oak tree, so does a person have the instructions it needs to grow. The oak’s growth will be heavily affected by the conditions it is exposed to. Access to light, water, space, protection from storms will influence how it grows and its potential, but as long as the conditions aren’t too overwhelming, it will grow. Rogers believed that people were the same and that their growth would be impacted by very similar conditions. Are they loved? Nourished? Safe? Life will heavily affect the destiny of a person but through it all the person will seek to grow and make the most of what it has.
I suppose Rogers and Maté remind us to have more compassion for one another. To remember that we don’t know what others have been through and that instead of judging, we should seek to understand. Once we seek to understand one another we can all feel more optimistic about the trajectory we’re on.