Reviving Compassion: Mary Pipher’s Work

Politics can be a difficult animal to grasp. They can either feel very distant – like nothing more than elections and the machinations of lawmakers far-removed from their constituencies – or too intellectual and abstract – like a thick academic exercise in which seemingly everyday behavior is politicized and its modes of discourse and influence dissected. While both these aspects of politics are important, neither feels tangible, close. After all, if you wanted to become more politically active, how would you do it? Run for a Senate seat? Get a PhD? Probably neither – but there must be a way to be connected, involved. In her books, “Letters to a Young Therapist” and “The Middle of Everywhere,” Mary Pipher limns a closer, more personal path.

Pipher, a retired psychiatrist, was a clinical supervisor for the University of Nebraska’s graduate psychology program for a number of years. “Letters to a Young Therapist” is structured as a series of letters to “Laura,” an archetypal graduate student who is learning to practice on her own. Pipher introduces herself by telling the story of her start: “In 1972 I saw my first therapy client, a young homeless woman from a brutal alcoholic family.” (p. xi) After describing how the woman whispered about rapes and beatings and winced whenever she received even the smallest verbal compliment, Pipher reflected that, after three years of reasonably successful therapy, “No doubt I learned more from her than she learned from me.” (p. xi)

Such humility and compassion pervades “Letters,” which was written throughout 2002 and follows the progression of the seasons. Each letter opens with a theme, such as “marriage,” or “danger,” and provides related practical advice on how a therapist should handle things such as bickering couples or potentially violent clients. Sentences such as, “Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are more easily managed if the client isn’t homeless, fighting breast cancer, drinking heavily, or in an abusive relationship,” (p. 82) have the ring of common sense, and yet also have an underlying depth: Pipher is careful to credit the complexity of each client’s life and approach it with patience and perseverance. Moreover, her careful observation and commitment to her craft over the course of her career allow her to give simple, cutting insights, such as when she discusses communication in marriage: “Good communication doesn’t mean saying everything. Lots of couples who communicate spend their time nagging, criticizing, and venting, none of which necessarily helps.” (p. 101) Throughout “Letters,” Pipher is funny, kind, generous and inquisitive as she gives guidance to a younger generation.

Reading “The Middle of Everywhere” provides a wonderful contrast to “Letters.” The book presents Pipher in a different role – that of a self-styled “cultural broker” for refugees who have arrived in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. As she says, “One of the best ways to understand the refugee experience is to befriend a family of new arrivals and observe their experience in our country for the first year. That first year is the hardest.” (p. 24) Pipher tells stories of refugees from, among other places, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Sudan.

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But “Everywhere” is not a tell-all; it is a call to action. Pipher structures the work around her own progression as a cultural broker – she describes how, after she befriends a family from Pakistan, she quickly becomes an impromptu driving instructor, helps the daughters of the family navigate the city’s educational system and takes the family camping to show them the glories of the Great Plains. Throughout the book, Pipher talks not only about the difficulties refugees face in adjusting to American culture, but also about the difficulties she herself faces in helping the families – for example, the Helleresque horrors of dealing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or the care she must take not to accidentally offend someone due to a cultural misunderstanding.

Pipher becomes a learner, an advocate and a doer in a burgeoning, amorphous and unnamed phenomenon that involves globalization, the mixing of cultures and the massive displacement of peoples. These tectonic shifts are discussed and agonized over – and then Pipher makes it personal and basic. She does something to help. She coaches a Dinka man named Joseph on how to behave during an American job interview; she helps refugee parents relate to their kids, who often adapt more quickly than their mothers and fathers do to the US; she leads Afghani women in an art project to cope with the tragedies they have witnessed.

“Everywhere” is, as much as anything, a field guide. The appendix has a section on how to work with people for whom English is a second language, as well as instructions on how to become a cultural broker yourself. Moreover, Pipher is constantly giving practical advice – for example, she points out that some refugees fear police stations because, in their native countries, police stations are mainly torture centers. And she strikes a nice balance between realism, respect and compassion, as when she writes: “Refugees are sometimes portrayed as helpless victims, but the truly helpless victims don’t make it here. Generally, it takes work, intelligence, patience, charm and luck to be selected as a refugee…. However, after the victory of safe passage, years of hard work follow.” (p. 57) Impressively, Pipher is willing to roll up her sleeves and get started on that hard work. Since writing “Everywhere,” she has founded the Pipher Refugee Relief Fund and has spoken throughout Lincoln about the need for more cultural brokers.

In both “Letters” and “Everywhere,” Pipher demonstrates that politics can be tough, intimate, dear and uplifting – and that politics is as much about how a person carries herself as it is about some abstract ideology or rote voting record. In “Letters,” patience, caring and understanding aren’t just some goody-two-shoes personal qualities. They’re what make humans worth knowing – what makes them good spouses, friends, parents, lovers and siblings. And who hasn’t known a person whose acuity, perseverance and kindness makes the people around her more engaged, harder working and more generous? From Pipher, you get the feeling that such an influence is truly important – after all, people are social beings, connected to others through family, work and friends.

In “Everywhere,” Pipher dares ask readers to extend their influence to those who don’t have their own nodes of connection – to refugees who don’t know anyone here, who are anxious and uncertain. During election year 2010, filled as it was with Muslim-bating and unleavened vitriol toward immigrants, Pipher’s request seemed brave, almost heroic. More than that, it felt political. Being patient and compassionate can be a political act if it is filled with intentionality, if it is more than just a broader smile or a kind word, but is instead a concerted effort to provide assistance and love where needed. It is a personal commitment to continual self-improvement and to being a better, stronger, healthier and happier person each and every day and helping others do the same.

Pipher’s legacy, evident not just in “Letters” and “Everywhere,” but in all her work, is compassion and kindness. She preaches empathy, openness to learning and personal improvement by incremental steps. Her politics is one that can be practiced on a daily basis with people you already know. It’s revolutionary in that it’s simple to understand, can have a profound effect on those around you and can be extended to people who are different from you, people you don’t know and people who need it most. And in the xenophobic, mud-slinging, hate-filled political climate still lingering after the 2010 elections, you could sure do a hell of a lot worse than that.