Human Reductionism

Have you ever noticed that we love to paint people with broad brush strokes in one color? Depressed people? “Mentally ill.” Whoosh goes the brush. Your husband? “Lazy.” The brush in your fingers slides across the canvas with one big Whoosh. The disabled? “Sad and needy.” Swish. Zooey Deschanel? “Quirky and adorable.” I pick up a big dollop of baby blue on my brush and smear it across the canvas. My sister’s kids? “Bad.” I sweep across the canvas with black.

Painting people this way keeps it simple. You might even call it minimalist and feel a little hip. We do it to ourselves too, you know. Who am I? “Chubby.” And just like that, we make a sweeping judgment of our desirability and moral character. It’s uncluttered with ambiguities. It enables us to assess a person and situation in a snap. We instantly know our place in the world, and theirs.

In my world of mental health and therapy, broad brush strokes look like diagnoses, or even the word “illness”. It’s disconcerting to think that dishing out diagnoses allows clinicians to see themselves as healthy, objective, or distinct from the clients they treat, as they sit in their sterile office and write notes about patients in the file. “Sick”, “borderline”, “depressed”, or “bipolar” are potent words that instantly categorize an entire personality. And of course they clearly delineate how I am different from you. Unfortunately, in the highly-therapized (that might not be a word) atmosphere of Pasadena/Santa Monica/Los Angeles, it’s not just therapists who label people with clinical-sounding epithets. You could get labeled by your sister, yoga instructor, or even the guy at the In-N-Out drive-through. Seems like everybody around here knows the correct psychobabble to categorize people in a snap of the fingers.

Such judgments bear some, shall we say, interesting fruit. They give me a right to feel superior to others who fall into a different category, such as “bad” or “sick”. I don’t have to go through the time-consuming process of understanding their complexity. (Who has time for that?) I get to take a small part of their character that shows itself on the tip of the iceberg, and make-believe that is all that person is. And since they are clearly bad and not likeable, I’m justified in keeping my distance and using language that vilifies that person behind their back. Maybe I even get psychologically woke and lay down some boundaries to keep their toxicity from corrupting me. It gives me that little dopamine boost of pride and superiority. And it sure justifies the humble-brag or the all too ubiquitous “prayer request” shared with eager friends.

On the flipside of the coin, however, the oversized paintbrush technique also permits me to sulk in my own worthlessness. Because if we label people so readily, then we ourselves will end up with some undesirable name tags as well (see Luke 6:37-38!). When we boil ourselves or our family members down to one defining characteristic that fails to pay homage to the fullness of our humanity, shame is the usual byproduct. Embracing such labels for ourselves makes it hard to socialize with people who we label as better than ourselves. We shy away from approaching people we admire because we see ourselves as nothing more than worms that they would never want to rub shoulders with. Rather, we shrink into a corner somewhere and avoid the inevitable rejection we are too convinced will occur.

But at the end of the day, at the final count when all the facts are laid bare, it becomes clear that these cheap, categorical judgments are neither fair nor true. Why? Because not a soul on God’s green earth is all-healthy or all-sick. Nary a person can deny their borderline moments in which they split or do the pull-push dance (while driving their loved ones batty). The disabled are not fully helpless. The depressed are not utterly sad! No one can say they come from an always-loving family, while even the worst families generally have some beauty, even if we have to hunt around a while to find it. Not a one of us is all-good or all-bad. Each member of the human race is a complicated mix of characteristics. We are neither victims nor perpetrators; powerful nor helpless; ugly nor beautiful. We are all of those things, and we do well to look into our brothers’ and sisters’ eyes and realize we are all cut from the same cloth. The greatest to the least of us struggles with shame, with not feeling worthy, with insecurities that make us want to stay home and avoid taking risks. But these silly labels we put on people take human intricacy and reduce it to one trait or diagnosis. They take a 5-course gourmet French dinner from Julia Child’s kitchen, complete with the hors d’œuvre, entrée, plat principal, fromage, and dessert, and then simply label it “soup”. (The foodie in me is so offended right now.) It isn’t right.

When a client walks into my office, I don’t think of him or her as a sick person. No, they hurt, just like I hurt. They ache for love, a listening ear, and a strong sense of themselves, just like I ache. If a diagnosis helps me understand an aspect of a person’s experience, that’s well and good, but if it instead engages me in a sort of human reductionism, then I do well to throw it far away from my mind. I’m going to run to Michael’s and pick up some fine-tip paintbrushes. Who wants to come along?

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