Pipher, Mary

Mary PipherDr. Mary Pipher is a clinical psychologist and the author of seven books including New York Times bestsellers Reviving Ophelia, The Shelter of Each Other, and Another Country. She has written articles for Time magazine, Psychotherapy Networker, the Journal of Family Life, and other publications. Her work combines her training in the fields of psychology and anthropology. A special area of interest is how American culture influences the mental health of its people. We talk to her about her recent book, Writing to Change the World.

Writing to Change the World book cover

tompeters.com asks …

In your epigraph, you quote Woody Allen, “More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we will have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

MP: Isn’t that a great line?

It is! I was caught a little off guard by that epigraph.

MP: I also thought about adding the Lilly Tomlin line, “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.” I think that’s a good line to describe the times right now. You’re not cynical enough, you know?

If you’re going to talk about really serious things, use as much humor as you can. The funniest book I’ve written up until now was my book about old age, death, and loss. The topic was so sad that I worked like heck to have every possible joke in there.

What I say in the introduction to Writing to Change the World is really quite serious, about the world and what terrible shape it’s in. Most people deal with the very complex and difficult world we’re in by using denial. They don’t deal with it. They pretend it’s not out there. One of the most important, basic points I talk about in the book is, “How can you write in a way that encourages people to pick up burdens they don’t want to pick up?” It’s understandable that they don’t. Who wants to think about global warming, the hundreds of thousands of homeless, hungry people in the world, or the AIDS epidemic? Nobody enjoys that. They’d rather play with their dog or call their friends.

I think that the only way you can hold a person’s attention is if you make them laugh, if you tell them a great story, or if you form a strong, trusting, intimate relationship with the reader. They’ll stay with you because they like you. Those are techniques I use when I’m talking about something that people don’t want to deal with directly.

It’s very hard for people to push good causes or to try to discuss the world right now. First of all, there’s a lot of mockery, joking about people that are too serious or idealistic. Secondly, even if you’re totally sincere, and feel like you have an enormous amount of support, it’s quite hard to figure out how to impact enormous problems. It’s pretty easy to impact the small problems that are in front of your nose every day. Those are the ones I prefer to work with. I just got back from a board meeting for a group that works on feeding the hungry people in our town. You don’t have to have a lot of time, energy, or vision to be able to find, in your own daily life, countless ways to make the world a better place.

It’s hard to write articles encouraging people to be more cautious in their use of electricity or more careful about what fish they order in restaurants. When you remind people of these things, you trigger their guilt because they know that they aren’t necessarily being as careful as they should be. When we feel guilty, it makes us uncomfortable.

There’s also a push-back that’s hard to deal with. My daughter was a vegetarian and Nebraska is named—I’m not kidding—the beef state. She was a 13-year-old girl when she decided to be a vegetarian. When she would tell people, they would get mad at her. They’d start giving this young girl trouble because it was threatening to them that someone would bring into their mind the idea that maybe it wasn’t right to eat all this beef.

Is she still a vegetarian?

MP: She is not. She was for a long, long time. If I weren’t married to a Nebraskan beef eater, I’d be a vegetarian. I’m becoming a Buddhist. I don’t call myself a Buddhist; I call myself buddhish because I don’t have a great grasp of Buddhist history and theology.

For me, Buddhism is the finest system for understanding and dealing with mental health issues. I’m a psychologist who’s impressed with Buddhism’s understanding of the mind, the emotions, and the body—and how they interact with each other. I’m also an American in 2006. As the world’s gotten busier, faster, and less habitable, we all need more internal equipment to just stay calm and happy, and to continue to do our best and be useful.

From my point of view, Buddhists understand that internal equipment better than most. They’re vegetarians, because as you understand the interrelationship of our lives, you really don’t want to kill life if you can avoid it. There’s a moral imperative that comes with that understanding.

You’ve been a therapist, and several of your books touch on that work.

MP: Right. I’m now writing my eighth book. All my books have been therapy books, in one sense. I want every book to convey a particular point of view. I want to explain to the reader how the world looks from a group’s point of view, so that you’ll have more empathy and spirit to be active on that group’s behalf. It could be refugees, adolescent girls, old people, or families.

Essentially I see my books as social change agents. I like Pete Seeger’s response when he’s asked, “Do you think this song is good?” He says, “Ask me what I think it’s good for.” I’m very much that kind of person, very practical. I don’t write because I think I’m a great lyrical creator of aesthetically amazing writing; I write with a purpose.

I had that feeling when I was reading your book. I had the sense that you wanted to write about writing, but that it wouldn’t be enough for you. It had to be about some kind of writing, and you call this “change writing.”

MP: There are so many people that write about writing. Virtually every writer at some point or other decides they want to write about writing. There are wonderful books on writing to which I have nothing to add. There’s no way I would presume to write a book on writing better than, say, Anne Lamott or Peter Elbow.

I’m lucky in that I came to writing late in life. I already had a certain point of view on the universe. I’m a self-taught writer. What I think is unique about my education is that I started out in anthropology, and I ended up with a PhD in psychology. The question I’ve always been interested in as an adult is, “How does culture affect mental health?” When I was in anthropology, in the ’60s, all over the world indigenous people were being uprooted. It was a globalization era of a different kind then.

I was very interested in how people change when they’re confronted with a new civilization. For example, what happens to ancient Central American people when United Fruit Company comes to their area? As a psychologist, I wanted to know, “How does the culture affect this family’s life?” Within psychology, and most fields of study are this way, there are many specialties, which focus on only a small range of questions. I think because I approached my work with the double vision of anthropology and psychology—I was always looking at both the person and their interaction with culture—it gave me a unique voice that most psychologists didn’t have when they wrote.

The other question I’m interested in is, “What does time do to people and their culture?” I grew up with relatives who didn’t have indoor plumbing. Even though I was born in ’47, many people born in ’47 grew up in suburbs. My parents were both from farming families in very remote areas. My early life was in a different, quieter culture.

Being a writer and a psychologist, I’ve experienced such different times and places than my childhood led me to believe that I would. In my books, there’s almost always a section called “Then and Now.” I talk about some aspect of life, comparing my childhood to the way things are now. In my book about families, The Shelter of Each Other, I talked about how my mother was raised on a ranch in eastern Colorado, seven miles from town, with no newspapers, radio, or TV. I compared that to how my own kids have been raised, and how children are being raised now. I like those contrasts and use a lot of them in my writing.

You also mention a strategy that you use in your work as a therapist. When clients are working through a problem, something that anchors them to the past, you encourage them to use the phrase “Up until now …” “Up until now I was a gambler, a spendthrift, or whatever.” I thought that was a great way to delineate “that was then and this is now.” It creates a nice sharp break for someone.

MP: Exactly. One of the reasons the world—I mean our world leaders, our business institutions—gets so stuck is that we don’t update our pictures of the world frequently enough. We don’t note how different it is. [John Kenneth] Galbraith just died, and one of his eulogies quoted him, “In my long career in economics, the one constant in my life has been change.” That’s such an important concept to use to understand life.

Because people don’t often realize that the secret of life is accepting the everyday change in relationships, the world, and their own feelings, they aren’t able to grow as efficiently and as fully as they might. They aren’t able to adapt to the world as it is, because they’re relating to the world as if it were the way they think it was 10 years ago, or 20. Of course, they may even be wrong about how the world was then.

That reminds me of another quote from your book, “Therapist Carl Rogers was the wisest of change agents. He did not suggest ‘Be like me’ or ‘Do this’ or ‘Improve yourself.’ He communicated, ‘I accept you totally.’ And when he conveyed that message, his clients began to transform themselves.”

MP: That’s very similar to what happened to Buddha. If you look at Buddha’s life, he punishes himself, goes into forests, and renounces his family. He does strict, health-debilitating meditation exercises for years until he realizes the secret of life is accepting it as it is. So there’s a great paradox in Buddhism that’s the same great paradox in psychotherapy, change writing, or social activism. People will only change when they feel respected and valued for who they are in the moment. They won’t change if they feel pushed or judged.

It’s a very hard lesson to remember. I first became aware of this in a very real way when I was working at a place where I would see a lot of neglected and abused children. My instinct was to run towards those children and nurture them. But I realized that when I did that, the parent who was nearby would immediately be jealous of the child. The parent would feel that there was something wrong with them because I seemed to connect with their child and love their child. Nobody had nurtured them or accepted them the way I was accepting their child. And I was modeling for them how much better I was at being a mother than they were. They would become guarded and defensive. I learned that when I walked into a room with a fragile, abused child and the child’s parents, I should immediately go to the parents. I would start nurturing them, “Oh, this must be difficult for you. Can I get you a cup of tea? I really want you to feel comfortable here.” It wasn’t until I empathized with them and they felt accepted and understood that I could afford to turn to the child.

It’s tricky stuff. It’s the same for people who think a lot about social change and how to make the world better. It’s so hard to walk between all the raindrops involved and succeed. You need to have a little magic dust in there.

In a later chapter you mention your advocacy to save conservation land near your home.

MP: That’s a very personal cause.

I thought it was pretty brave of you. You include a letter that you sent to the board, as well as one that your friend sent.

I thought your friend’s letter summarized much of what I thought you were trying to accomplish in the book. It was about connection; she refers to all the constituencies that would be affected by changes to the land. She proposes that maybe there’s some other solution. It was very plain spoken and just brilliant in the way it connected everyone who was involved in that decision.

MP: One of the best things you can do when you’re speaking, writing, or advocating for social change is to take that one-down position because people always identify with you. Say, “Let me give an example of how stupid I’ve been.” If you explain how exemplary your behavior is, people immediately resent you.

It’s funny, because when we ask someone to do difficult tasks, it’s a natural tendency to try to bolster our credibility by saying that we do them. But it’s probably better to confess how hard it is for us to do them. For example, I don’t eat shrimp because of the way shrimp are farm fished. It’s very destructive to local ecosystems. It’s one of the number one things you can do to save the wetlands of the planet. I love seafood. When I go to a restaurant with people who know that I like seafood, they’ll point out a shrimp dish on the menu. I’ll tell them that I don’t eat shrimp and why. But when I do, I tell them how utterly hard it is for me and how every time I go to a restaurant I’m tempted to just throw that out the window. Then I’ll probably mention a few other things that I do that are really terrible for the environment. Otherwise, people think you’re just a pontificating know-it-all. You really have to work hard to defuse that with people.

It was a pleasure reading your book and I think Tom was quite moved by it.

MP: Thank you very much. I’m honored that you took the time with me.