March 1st, 2013

The first 20 years

Last month marked the twentieth anniversary of New England Psychologist. This month is the twentieth anniversary of this column. It started with a telephone call from the publisher and an invitation to write a column about the day-to-day experiences of a psychologist and the reflections to which these experiences gave rise. And so we called the column, In Person. In all that I have written, I have always intended and hoped that my experiences would reflect yours as we journeyed together through our changing personal and professional lives.

If you are reading these words in the later stages of your career, you were there. You know what it was like to change jobs but not professions. Like me, some of you lost jobs or had your professional roles re-defined when the agencies where you worked closed, reduced their workforce or changed their mission.

We have raised families, seen our children grow to adulthood, suffered the losses of loved ones and begun to face the challenges of aging. I like to think that, as psychologists, we share a way of looking at life that honors reflection, appreciates the importance of stories, celebrates diversity and never forgets that, in the words of Harry Stack Sullivan, “we are all much more simply human than otherwise.”

If you come to this column in the full stride of your professional life, you might have been one of my students. Chances are I have written about you in these pages, not you in any identifiable form, but as the people who inspire, energize and motivate me to do my best to pass on what I have learned from my own supervisors, teachers and life experience. Perhaps I have told of your encounters with patients so disorganized by their mental illnesses or beaten down by the effects of unimaginably hard lives that your first challenge was to establish yourself as a good listener. You did this by making yourselves available, stopping by to say hello and staying for as long or short a time as you were welcome. You persevered and when I saw you walking with your patients across the hospital grounds, I knew the work of therapy had begun in earnest. Often, you had to leave long before the work was complete but your successors took up the task and your patients grew stronger with the benefits of each new therapy building on the successes of the past.

In recent years, we have worked together as colleagues, some of us in the same department in the same hospital. Just last month, we sat around the conference table to decide which students to invite to join our training program. More often we work in different places but, even then, we may be separated only by a phone call or a letter of reference recommending yet another psychologist in training who will take his or her place in our professional family tree. We take the opportunity to say hello and remember through the thicket of densely packed years those days when our collaboration first began. At times like these, it is always a great pleasure to glimpse how far you have traveled and how much you have contributed in your work as psychologists.

If you happen upon these pages as a current graduate student, you are stepping into a minor stream that began to flow before you started school. You have navigated the long and challenging river of childhood and adolescence to arrive at the place where the water grows broad and deep. Now you are poised before the channel of a career that you will ply until you retire and I hope you might gain something from this mariner’s journal. You will certainly contribute to it because you are the people who keep your teachers and supervisors fresh. In your enthusiasm to test your knowledge and ideas about psychology against the real-life demands of clinical practice, you generate an atmosphere of lively and productive discussion from which we all learn.

Psychology has not been the only topic of my musings in this column over the past 20 years, though we might argue that a psychological perspective can be applied to any life experience. The world has changed in many ways and we could not help but take notice. Human and natural acts of violence from the horror of 9/11 to the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the devastation left by hurricanes in our own country took the lives of thousands, strained the resources of survivors and reminded the rest of us of the values and beliefs that sustain us and the obligations we have to one another as citizens of the world. Any and all of these things may have led to a column.

Life goes on from day to day in the comforting rhythms of the changing seasons, the familiar parade of holidays and the countless odd and funny incidents that can brighten our moods if we take notice and let them. These are the raw materials for stories that we share around the dinner table, tell at the office or think about when we’re stuck in traffic. I hope the ones I have shared in this column remind you of your own favorites and keep you on the lookout for more.

No one knows what the next 20 years will bring. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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