At a New Year’s party several years ago, a neighbor, a mostly retired philosophy professor with attitude, asked me what psychological theory I subscribed to. He even threw a few names of some common theorists out to see whether I might snatch at any of them, but I did not. I knew he was baiting me and I knew why he was baiting me. The alcohol may have been affecting him, for sure. There was also the notion that the foundation of all PhD training is philosophy, since underlying the study of any academic field is a philosophy or method of thinking, often inferential, that guides it. For some strange reason, my neighbor had the idea that, as a philosopher, he had a better understanding of the formal thought that created my field than I did, and, like Socrates, he could argue and dispute even in my field because of the universality of his.
I guess what he forgot was that, as a result of training in psychology or in any field, you are essentially handed a guidebook, a measuring stick, and a magnifying glass to be sent off into the big, wide wonderful world to make sense of everything. You are not given a peg board with round holes and square pegs to fit into them. If you were, as we all know, with use of a hammer, almost any peg can be made to fit snugly. We could make people conform to our expectations with a little pounding even though we know from experience that it does not always work and most often does not. There may be one oddball who will pound back or else, if the person is so vulnerable as to permit being pounded upon, we may fracture the inner person, creating an individual who is not useful to anyone, not even his/herself.
For a PsychSurvivalist, the task is to consider the person in the world, to make sense of that person’s perception of the world and also how the world has left its marks on him/her, what scars the pounding has left on that person’s mind, heart, and soul. This is an interface between the person and environment, an environment that includes culture and history, the person being simultaneously the creator and product of the world the person lives in. It is in that interface that we find meaning and test our hypotheses as researchers. It is also there that we find our strength. We could say that we go out into the world’s battle zones and try to make sense of who our enemies are and who among them is not really our enemy, but may be a friend. You don’t need a textbook to tell you this. You only need experience and a will to understand so that you might better survive. This is at the core of PsychSurvival. The goal is not to just survive, but have the tools to succeed and to thrive by being attuned to all that is around you, in your physical environment, your culture, your family, your friends, as well as that of others. Everything is the subject of study, what is on your TV set, your computer or mobile device, or what your classmates are saying to drive you off the playground or to force you inside yourself to fester.
What I’m describing is a form of Gestalt Psychology that approaches the world with a wide lens but that finely sifts through events, nevertheless, events that affect us. It looks at the inter-relationship between a person, often under assault, and the environment or ground that that person lives in. The underlying questions are the same. What do these people and events mean? How do these things have impact? What can one do to improve the situation? But, all of this would be useless without closely evaluating a person’s inner perception of events and how those perceptions compare with the reality of the events they perceive. PsychSurvival is both a mirror to the self and to the world so that the two may more accurately reflect the other. In other words, you can’t take accurate aim if you can’t see straight nor can you dance if you don’t know where your body is in space. It is the same with human thought and human feeling.
To me, unlike in medicine, survival is more than having a heartbeat and brainwave. It is having enough understanding of the rules of your environment, your thought, and of living, to examine yourself both from the inside and from outside, to become someone who is not only a product of the rules, but who can affect the rules of living by thinking and acting differently than you or friends or family or community may be used to. Successful survival does not only occur in the wild, but also in everyday life. It is a product of bringing with you everything that you know and everything you have learned from being alive. It has a history and, it is hoped, has a history of living creatively in civilization. It is living with imagination, where it is not always dog eat dog, even though it may sometimes descend to that. Survival must aspire for something more if it is to have any use. Not just a therapy, PsychSurvival is surviving intact as a whole in the world and within ourselves so that we can get more meaning out of being alive and find a better way through all we encounter, the good and the bad.