simple solutions for common problems
Professor Dirk De Wachter is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and lecturer at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) as well as Head of system and family therapy at the Academic Psychiatric Center Leuven. Following the success of his books, Borderline Times (2012) and Love. An impossible desire? (2014), he became one of the leading psychiatrists in Belgium and gives regular talks in the Belgian and Dutch media. I spoke with him at his home in Antwerp.
“If my psychiatric colleagues could see me now sitting here with you, talking about your game, they would probably laugh. A psychiatrist should be writing prescriptions for medicine and looking after his patients. However, my patients not only allow me to take a look into their soul, but also into that of society itself. They are a part of society and I, as a Psychiatrist, am as well. The stark reality is that we are all patients. All sorts of factors determine why one asks for help from a therapist, while another one doesn’t. We like to think , in our sickly engineered society, that we are the creators of our own success. We then give ourselves a pat on the back: ‘Look at me and all I have achieved with my job, family and holiday in the Cayman Islands.’ We take a harsh view on those who are less fortunate in life. We would rather refer them to a therapist who should, in no time, resolve the problem with some tablets.
There are, of course, people who need psychiatric help, but we have taken the labelling of people too far. A bit of sadness every now and then is quickly regarded as a phsycological problem. Initiatives such as Stars of Empathy are most important and, as a psychiatrist, I fully support them. In my practice I see a lot of people who aren’t so strange at all, but who are an image of the society in which we live. A society which doesn’t live together. A hyper individualistic, ‘I like’, extremely commercial, non talking, screen culture in which we have great difficulty in properly engaging with our peers. However, this connection is crucial for purpose. As a psychiatrist I feel it is my duty to restore this into society. Therefore, I am very much in favour of bottom-up processes such as Stars of Empathy, which emphasises what I so ardently support, namely; normality.
Normality is outdated. We live in a kick culture in which we must enjoy. Whereas in the past enjoyment was forbidden, we have now swung towards a new commandment: Thou shalt enjoy. Good is not good enough. It needs to be fantastic. We want the ultimate happiness and we want it now. But by simply being able to have a little unhappiness every now and then, you avoid real misery.
That isn’t an easy message in our pseudo-constructible society. We would rather race through the day, leaving no time to reflect. For relaxation, calm and contemplation. No time to take a look at ourselves in the mirror, only to check our sixpack. Only when the notorious burn-out looms we ‘buy’ a moment of relaxation. A wellness weekend or mindfulness training. Commercialized tricks which enable us to get back on the speedboat and go full throttle again.
We constantly try to perfect everything further. The creatable society is an illusion when it comes to love. We have made God in heaven redundant and play at being God ourselves. That is a mistake. I am not saying that we should go back to the conservative times; not at all. We are inclined to think in extremes and outer limits. Any nuance seems to be gone. So too in the divine. I am not necessarily pleading for more religious belief, but certainly for more meaning. The human being is condemned to meaning. Levians, one of my favorite philosophers, says: the divine appears in the expressions of others.
I am critical about the culture, but I am hopeful too, as cultural criticism isn’t the same as cultural pessimism. The undercurrent, the movement of people who are willing to discuss things, is promising to me. Stars of Empathy is a wonderful example of this. It’s the younger generation of people who need to think. Young people who think about meaning, about the excessive neoliberal system. Those people who can talk about things in a gentle and subtle way. Their children come into a new paradigm. Now for the first time we can use our intellect to change the system without any bloodshed.
To pretend that we are so tolerant is a hollow phrase. Anything out of the norm we will put a label on it and send it to the therapist. First try a wellness weekend and if you are still sad afterwards then there is something very wrong. That is a mistake. We need to learn to take care of each other once again”.
Stars of Empathy is a boardgame for primary school children aimed at improving their social emotional development. Through asking each other questions and fulfilling tasks, children practice expressing themselves, listening to others and develop a connecting with other children. Stars of Empathy is about creating conditions to discuss all that is human, such as; happiness, sadness, jealousy, friendship, cravings, etc. By sharing feelings and ideas, children experience; connection, support, relief and shame diminishes. Moreover, it has a positive effect on their ability to learn.
The game is designed for all children and not only those with (social-emotional) problems: it is essential for all children to learn to express themselves, find words to describe what they feel and think and to relate to others. This is crucial to everything human life encompasses and gives meaning; friendships, relationships, caring for others and developing their own unique identity.
Dirk De Wachter: “Nobody can evade sadness, setback and disappointment. But it is during hard times when the ‘meaning’ becomes apparent by sharing in this saddness. It is a huge problem that the ‘I-like society’ looks away from those who experience a hard time and refer them to the consulting room of the psychiatrist. Feeling sad isn’t strange, but healthy. Not being able to feel sad because everything has to be fantastic: that is strange. I am way too busy.
It’s very good when children learn to speak about what is on their mind. Especially when they are in a primary school age. It’s much more difficult to start when they are around 20 years old”.