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In Paul Tillich’s Seminar


By Robert Coles | October 1986

In 1957 I had finished medical school and was trying to decide whether I would be a pediatrician or a child psychiatrist. In order to be the latter, I had to take training in adult psychiatry, and did so at the Massachusetts General Hospital and at Mc­Lean Hospital. I did not have an easy time of it. I kept hearing men and women described by various psychiatric categorizations in a rather rote and of­ten haughty manner. Not that those descriptive ef­forts were necessarily wrongheaded or unhelpful. When I heard a particular person, a young wife and mother, being called “phobic,” I was being told something important about her. But there were other aspects to her life that deserved recognition. On psychiatric grounds, never mind human ones, it was important to know her other sides: the thoughtful and plucky and resourceful individual she also happened to be. If she was going to make progress in her struggle with her fears and worries, she would need to summon those strengths — and we, her doctors, would have to acknowledge their presence, as well as help in mobilizing them.

The foregoing is obvious to the point of ba­nality, yet was not then so evident to many of us — all caught up, as we were, in the heyday of psycho­analytic reductionism. We were entranced with our ability to use psychiatric labels, to explain every­thing as the result of certain somethings — those linear extrapolations from event A in point of time A to event B in point of time B which seem to give psychological diagnosticians and practitioners the mighty aura of science. The more ambiguities or ironies we permitted ourselves to notice — I realize in retrospect — the less clear-cut and decisive our sense of ourselves would have been: mere readers, say, of Dickens or George Eliot or Tolstoy, rather than doctors!

At that time I was still not sure I wanted to practice psychiatry — and as I heard any number of psychiatrists talk (and, alas, gossip endlessly about one another’s “psychodynamics”), I had increasing hesitations about seeking “treatment” for myself. Instead, I tried to enroll in a seminar the theolo­gian Paul Tillich was then giving at Harvard Univer­sity, only to find that many others had a similar in­tention.

Tillich patiently and conscientiously inter­viewed each of us, and ultimately I was allowed to audit the seminar, I think because he saw a certain sad desperation at work in me when we first talk­ed. To this day I remember a remark of his on that occasion. I had told him what I was doing, and he had smiled and told me of his interest in psycho­analysis. Then suddenly his face relinquished its lively upbeat appearance. He lowered his head and took off his glasses, to clean them — a bit of a tic, I would eventually observe, as if he repeatedly had to find a better perspective for himself. Finally, these words: “Psychiatry, today, is a faith for the faithless, certain ones of them.” That remark, espe­cially the last qualifying phrase, was vintage Tillich — the careful and learned scholar who at times re­alized all too well that he himself had been elevat­ed in the minds of some to the deity: yet another of America’s authorities, relentlessly hounded for whatever pontifical assertions he happened to have available at any given moment.

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