The HeART of Conversation, and Care – by Jennifer R. Harper, MDiv, DD, NCPsyA

04 Jun 2020 5:02 PM | Krista Argiropolis (Administrator)

 Jennifer R. Harper, MDiv, DD, NCPsyA

The HeART of Conversation, and Care

Conference: College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy
Sunday, March 1, 2020, Afternoon Plenary Keynote Address,
The Westin Hotel, Times Square, New York City


I’d like to acknowledge my own introduction to CPSP last winter, specifically on February 23rd. At the invitation of Parthenia (Tina) Caesar, I spoke to a gathering of CPSP members at their meeting which was held in Harlem, here in NYC. The meeting was sponsored by the Harlem Family Institute. I met Tina through Michael Connolly, President of HFI (here today) and it was at that gathering where I met your very own, Raymond Lawrence.

That whole day began a wonderful conversation between us all about CPSP and the early CPE movement. I learned of what you have been doing for these past 30 years now.. and I must say, I was struck to re-discover the cultural roots of the CPE movement that had shaped my CPE supervisors - and my own experience of hospital chaplaincy during seminary. Upon graduating from Seminary, I began my training in psychoanalysis. Simultaneously, I was aware that the CPE movement was being adopted by the ACPE organization that defines so many of our hospital settings today; and frankly, in the midst of these traffic circles, I lost track of your (CPSP) journey. So, all these years between then and now, while I’ve been teaching and practicing at the intersection of Psyche and Religion, teaching about Pastoral Care and Psychoanalysis, I was quite delighted to discover that CPSP had been born of that transitional time for Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care, and that it is very alive and pursuing its mission to preserve Anton Boisen’s original vision: Keeping the Soul in Focus, with Care. So, here we are, lost and found, and after all these years, re-united! I’m delighted to be here with you..


As I considered this conference today and wondered what might be useful to offer into your larger conversation for the weekend, I thought about the various and many settings in which we Carers, provide Care. Whether in the sanctuary of Clergy offices, or psychotherapy clinics and private consulting rooms, or as chaplains at the bedside of a struggling soul in hospital, or on their path to the transformation we call death. I would like to add to this, teachers and students in educational settings of all ages.. We Carers, offer ourselves into these spaces and we are asked to hold so many stories and to be present in so many known (and unknown) ways... with others, always finding a way to Care.

I found myself mulling over the many and common challenges that we share, across this great bridge of Caring, and I considered what might join our mutual concerns for the ministries in these spaces, as a focus for our attention today: How do WE vitalize and re-fresh What we are doing, and How we are doing that?

Related to this, I also reflected on the many and complex issues that confront us as we work to offer our best Care, and was reminded of a central concern that I believe we all appreciate. This concern relates to the rapidly growing influence of ‘professionalism’ and ‘corporate interest’ in what we do. Of course, this is not News. We’ve all experienced these forces in our various settings where we work to educate, train, and offer these specialized versions of Care that we loosely term as Pastoral and Therapeutic, and very human, in their natures.

Our rich history of Pastoral Care (I will suggest), is slayed by what we face today. The neatly organized categories of Care that were codified with terminologies and prescriptives for their dispensation - for the assuagement of suffering – as far back as our ancient sages and through the middle ages of the Roman Church, the Reformation and forward again, through the 19th century of Protestantism – these prescriptives (like, religio, socio-cultural remnants) for spiritual care, offer us pathways for understanding the evolution of pastoral theologies that fade into parochialism when faced with our modern challenges for Caring, today: we live in the midst of endless distractions and forces that fragment ourSelves daily as we seek to live between the many and often conflicting compartments of our own lives. These wonderfully rendered theologies for Care (given to us through history) don’t work in our vocational spaces today.1 Anton Boisen, as we know, was the great Reformer of these former dispensations for addressing the sick and suffering. And he helped us to reimagine how to be with one another, In witness to the suffering of Soul.

I want to focus my talk today on the overwhelming impingements that we all share in our respective vocations and settings today, and to propose a possibility for resisting these incursions on us all. I will suggest some ways for strengthening ourSelves, in spiritual and tangible ways, that I believe can deepen. 

In a brief overview of our current challenges:

We have Chaplains with logs to fill of visits for which there is never enough time to be at true leisure with their patients. The burden of ‘demonstrating’ their value to the bottom line of in-hospital care, aligned with ‘evidence-based’ practices and their requirements for record-keeping (in and of itself this becomes a new game of deadening ‘docu-speak’) -- how we document the patient conversation: with protections for ourselves, the institution, and the patient in mind, too easily becomes a kind of prophylactic against real connection. The subtlety of this relational erosion lies in the directional flow of its philosophy, which seeks to shape our practices of Care into measurable conformities that evade and subvert our unique and idiomatic Selves. How we ‘show up’ for others, in this environment, has become ‘monetized’.

The impingements to learning with verbatims in these environments, is quite real. To even write a verbatim for the purpose of learning, for God’s sake, one must have had a real Conversation.

Clergy who are often half-time at best, in dwindling congregations, are expected to care for whole flocks of souls and to prepare sermons for Shabbat and Sunday mornings, as well. This leaves little time for teaching and guiding our youth with our time and nurture for their challenges of growing up in schools and religious communities; and even less to be invested in the ancient tradition of offering ourselves, as Curers of Souls, in these congregations.

Students seeking further education in these vocations find themselves facing myriad pressures; family obligations, financial stress, multiple jobs in a gig economy; shrinking chaplaincy departments, clergy in under-resourced communities, increasing numbers of adjunct faculty in our institutions of higher learning – we are all faced with the fundamental challenge of creating non- anxious environments for healing, growing, and learning.

Teachers, mentors, and supervisors, who cannot offer the time that is required for the slow brew of conversational rapport so essential for students to be become seasoned and steeped in the slow broth of learning – the kind of learning that is central to establishing real foundations of Self. A Self that lives at home within us, the Self that is central to our various and vocational identities, as Carers..

Having said all of that.. I want to reassure you that my intention today is not to leave us in a place of despair.. however, I believe we must look at these forces, and give them our attention, to better understand how we might strengthen ourselves against their corrosive effects. So, bear with me just a bit more as I shift our focus to speak of some related forces that also threaten our capacities for Care.

We are experiencing an unprecedented assault on our very ability to communicate. Rapidly advancing technologies bring us into instant and constant contact; yet, we (as individuals and society) are suffering from a lack of real connecting – within the communities where we live, the institutional cultures in which we work, and within the intimacy of our closest relationships. We need only to read the news to learn of the growing epidemic of young people taking their own lives. And while there are many and complex reasons that lie behind this tragic unfolding for our society, we are left to wonder and challenged to understand!.. how are we failing to give our young people lives of experiences and the capacity to bond deeply in their relationships with others, to foster their strength for attachment and membership within our human family; quite literally growing their emotional tenacity for Hanging On... to the group!

On another front...

How many of you have had a sense of disorientation after a long day of reading and writing emails (digital communications) with the back and forth of ‘talking’ with real human beings through cryptic and evolving new languages of virtual space – (emoticons!) it can leave us spent with a vague sense of not having been part of anything actually ‘felt’, through otherwise personal contact. We may later see the person with whom we’ve exchanged our important emails, but we’ve missed out on the feeling of being IN that conversation, together.. Very subtly we are deprived of our own growth that is uniquely stimulated by encouraging the tendrils of human bonds. Like blades of new grass, these tentative tendrils of human connecting are best nourished when we are with another person. Only this proximity of ourSelves, in real time and flesh, can offer the richest soil for nourishing what we all crave of this palpable connecting of which I speak. We call it Presence.

[Personally, I think this has a lot to do with being next to each other, in our bodies! There’s a lot of energy - in and around our bodies – the delicate network of these communication systems that weave their magnetic field through and around our flesh, these highly tuned ‘signal systems’ .. they are blunted in virtual space. But that is for another talk.. ]

Even the information we exchange in this virtual space can elude location in our memory. If you have ever noticed that you suffer from this ‘digital dementia’, of remembering content, but not recalling from whom or where you learned of it.. You’re not alone. Our daily distractions combined with information overload, create the ‘slick’ on these virtual platforms that become breeding grounds for facile relating (even more than Fake news!), leaving us veiled with a sense of disorientation to our inter-personal worlds, with feelings of social dissatisfaction. We feel accomplished, we get our tasks done. Our emails are answered, everything is tidy .. yet, we feel lingering traces of ‘meh’. Living life behind this ‘plexiglass’ of seeing through to the other with whom we are ‘speaking’, we too are seen, yet, not ‘felt’ with true connection. This sensory distortion has the effect of fillers added to cheap breakfast cereal to simulate the texture of whole grains: we are satiated, but deprived of real nutrients that nourish our feelings needed for strengthening the human bonds that grow us into larger versions of ourSelves... this strength of bonding among us creates the biome of our social and emotional immune system. These are the building blocks of our resilience, and they are critical for us to thrive..

It takes courage to be Up Close; to really be, with one another.

While this all may sound overstated and benign, it’s really not. A steady diet of digital relating distorts our appetites for human relationship. It fobs off our desire for real depth of human connection: the true quenching waters of soulFull exchange. Our deepest desires for human relating, get hi-jacked. Pornography is one, pervasive example of this hi-jacking of our desire: seeking to find the ecstasy of intimacy through our bodies, with images alone.. Pornography thrives on our fear of being with, and of being known to Another.. Our addictions and compulsions, fueled in these virtual environments, detour the real drives of our desire, gripping them into spiritually deadly feedback loops that cauterize our ability to grow and flourish.

We become misaligned with people whom we call family and friends. How many times are serious misunderstandings and hurt feelings fostered through texts and emails that flatten and miscarry this felt sense of the presence of our intent. In our vulnerability as human beings, with our deep need for emotionally rich connections with other humans, we lose our way when navigating the flat- scape of our virtual worlds where our emotional antennae can betray us as we pick up fuzzy signals. We are gradually losing our courage for the deep conversations required for real connection, and living lives of inter-personal richness. It becomes easier to hide from and to ignore each other. In social passings, our eyes avert, greetings are not forthcoming, text messages are unreturned. Young people do not speak on their phones. It is more expedient to send brief, encoded inquiries, or not. We hear of ‘ghosting’ in the brave new world of dating. The cutoffs of new tendrils of our relating that strive to connect in virtual time and space, shatter real hearts, by this failure to acknowledge one another, in fact and existence.

In these manifest results of our Electronic-Lives, like our accommodations over time of degrading ‘new normals’, we become smaller versions of ourselves.

We become afraid of one another: afraid to engage. We become afraid, to speak. We are afraid of having Conversation...

Conversation is powerful. Conversation grows us.. we are changed by it.

Sherry Turkle, a Sociologist and a licensed Clinical Psychologist at MIT, has studied the impact of technologies on human relationships for over 30 years, specifically their influence on our human capacity for ‘empathy’. In her acclaimed study on Empathy, she was called in to consult with the faculty of an Eastern, private middle school. Her study began on a retreat with the faculty who poured out to her their observations of their students. According to her Study Diaries, the Dean of the School reported to Turkle, “These kids aren’t cruel. But they are not emotionally developed. Twelve-year olds play on the playground like 8 year-olds. The way they exclude each other is the way 8 year olds would play. They don’t seem able to put themselves in each other’s place. They say to other students: ‘you can’t play with us’.” ... “They are not developing that way of relating where they listen and learn how to look at each other and hear each other.” (Turkle, pgs, 5-6).2 A psychoanalyst would suggest that they are failing to understand and interpret ‘affect’, which is critical for growing their capacity for interpersonal relationship: in plain English, they aren’t ‘reading’ each other emotionally – which is crucial for developing the capacity for Empathy.

The study is fascinating and I recommend her book to you, titled, ‘Reclaiming Conversation, The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. I won’t delve further into the details of her study here, because our focus is related, but elsewhere, but I can say that the study revealed an alarming sense of relational ‘miscarriage’ that is rising in our culture today. A kind of ‘canary in the coal mine’ feeling that we as a society are quite literally becoming ‘unhinged’ from each other: disconnected. In our race to grow more environments of digitally simulated contact with each other, we are losing (and I would suggest, not growing) the inter-personal strength that is needed for creating and building real human relationships and attachments. We are free-falling through the very human networks that we need to thrive and grow, ourSelves.

Psychoanalysis brings a specific and particular lens to how we develop our wonderful Selves. The essential techniques, or tools, of this craft make use of the ongoing transference and countertransference (present in all human relationships), and Resistance. Our resistance to knowing what we do not want to know. These points of defined engagement create boundaries within which this ‘specialized’ conversation can unfold. Analyzing the transference and counter- transference, by analyst and analysand, with techniques to elucidate the latent content of our dreams, reveals a kind of forensics of the anatomy of ‘mind’ – our conscious and unconscious ‘mind’ - emerges. In the back and forth of this boundaried relating (the analytic dyad), a renewed and developing sense of Self may emerge. The ruptures and the reparations that unfold over time in this ‘specialized conversation’ serve to revise old narratives that have fed our operating selves. Over time, the earlier version of ourSelves may undergo many shifts of growth and renewal as the healing of old (self) wounds contributes to an expanding sense of ourSelves; in process, Growing .. again.. If this all sounds a bit technical as a method for growing ourselves; it’s really not. This process happens between two real human beings, in a room, together. And both are changed by it... every time.

Religion reminds us that Prayer can grow, and change us.

Prayer is a practice that all religions acknowledge. Prayer brings us into focus: in prayer, the fragments of ourselves are gathered and they center our awareness on how things really stand within us. Prayer is a pathway for intimate conversation between us and our God that can grow us into larger, clearer versions of ourSelves as we seek to respond to the God who is always seeking Us. In real prayer, we cannot avoid ourselves; our pettiness and our trespasses float through our awareness. The ebb and flow of our hopes and fears, are met: in prayer; we see ourselves as we are and face these places in us where we hide from knowing and being known more truthfully, with our God, and others.

Ann and Barry Ulanov write about this voluptuous conversation in their gem of a book titled, Primary Speech. ‘If we are listening, to the other side of this conversation,’ [to the Other who seeks to be known to US], ‘we are pull[ed] into a life of.. unceasing abundance, .. ‘Prayer takes us into our central self’, ..‘and through it into the very origin of all self. This [primary] speech of our prayer [of our unedited selves, reflects to] us .. new life for psyche and soul that comes [alive] when we open [our hearts] to the One who [waits for us] knocking...’ (Ulanov, pg. 9)3

Our western culture has lost a strong connection to understanding the intimacy and power of this particular conversation.

Prayer may not change God, (although, I would suggest that it does!) but it can change our understanding of God. Prayer changes us. Prayer grow us into better versions of ourselves. Prayer heals our brokenness, and our relationships with others; When everything else fails, there is still Prayer.

In a short and brilliant article, ‘Beyond co-existence to mutual influence: an interdisciplinary method for psychoanalysis and religion,’ psychoanalyst and Episcopal Priest, the Rev. Amy Lamborn discusses the interdisciplinary relationship of psychoanalysis and religion. She writes, ‘I envision psychoanalysis and religion, as near neighbors, moving along a space of shared concern. This space is the location of our desire and effort to reach toward a sure and certain abundance of life; to respond with all our heart, soul, and strength to the holy Presence which ever summons us (Deut 6:5). It is the place from which we struggle to know and become [ourSelves], to live authentically and creatively, and to be grasped by what [Paul] Tillich calls our ‘ultimate concern’ (1963). In this shared frontier between psychoanalysis and religion there [is] a mutual regard for the fullness of human being and living, the opening of the self in/to freedom, and the [possibility of] receiving that which is renewing and enlivening.’ (Lamborn, pg. 518)4

Psychoanalysis and Religion, are unique in their conversation: each, uniquely, deal directly with the mind’s capacity to make symbolic meaning of our experience of suffering. Through separate and related pathways, each practice wants for us to become the greatest versions of ourSelves... [CBT and Solution focused therapies are rationally based disciplines that fail to resolve real suffering. True suffering is only requited through our capacity for symbolization; our ability to make meaning of that which is held in the boundaries of paradox.]


Due to the length of Ms. Harper's presentation, we are unable to publish it in its entirety but have linked the PDF version of it below, for your reading pleasure.  

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The HeART of Conversation, and Care,
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Jennifer R. Harper, MDiv, DD, NCPsyA, LP, Director of the Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program for Pastoral Care at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, NY Campus. She is a faculty member at the Blanton-Peale Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, and a former Dean of Training at the Westchester Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, A past-President of the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, she is currently Chair of the American Board for Accreditation in Psychoanalysis. Ms. Harper received her Masters of Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in NYC and her certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Westchester Institute. She is in private practice in NYC and Bergen County, NJ. 

Ms. Harper is the recent recipient of the Helen Flanders Dunbar Award for Significant Contributions in the Field of Psychotherapy, and was presented the award at the 2020 CPSP Plenary in March.