Conversion & the Psychology of Change
November 1999By Art & Larraine Bennett
Art Bennett is a practicing psychotherapist who regularly provides seminars on the psychology of men and women for Catholic marriage preparation programs. Laraine Bennett, an M.A. in Philosophy, is a writer and mother. Both are Catholics and are home-schooling their four children.
The following are all instances of change. What do they have in common?
- A man goes to a psychotherapist hoping to be cured of his depression. The therapist says that he does indeed have a lot to be depressed about; in fact, he should schedule four hours each day to devote just to being sad. The man laughs and says, "Well, it's not that bad."
- A judge travels into the desert to visit a famous hermit. On the way he meets an old man of whom he asks directions. The man tells the judge not to bother going, for the so-called holy monk is a fool, and all the talk of his saintliness is fraudulent. The judge returns home, disappointed, but grateful to have saved himself a trip to no purpose. Later he learns that the old man was the hermit he had been seeking. The judge is greatly edified.
- An alcoholic is told that her weakness for drink is an incurable disease, that willpower won't avail her, and that she will be an alcoholic for the rest of her life with no hope of ever being anything else. She never takes another drink.
- A man who yearns for conversion to religious faith and struggles endlessly to believe in God is told to give up the struggle because no one can be converted by his own wish for it but only through the grace of God. This realization initiates the man's conversion.
Shift of viewpoint, mental breakthrough, epiphany, quantum leap.... What are we to call such events? Perhaps the most accurate and useful conceptualization of such enlightenments is that offered in the book Change (by Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, 1974), the concept of first-order change versus second-order change. These psychotherapists illustrate the difference with a striking image:
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