I actually don’t recall when I first read this book – probably a few years after it was first published in 2001. I am certain that the science that this text draws upon has moved forward leaps and bounds from when this book was published, but what is cutting-edge about it is not the neuroscience it is rooted in (which I think is still quite valid) but rather the ‘general theory’ itself.
One of the reasons I remain a religious person is the experience, now and then, of convergence between what I learn about scientific discovery, and what I learn about people, and what I learn about God. For a long time now, my focus in religious life has been in cultivating wisdom. I think that we come to know God through wisdom, and that we come to know ourselves and our world by the same means. The same tool-box works for all of the above.
At least, I hope it does.
In A General Theory of Love, three mental health professionals with three different backgrounds present their convergent theory about how to help people. In brief, their theory draws on the fact that our brains have a section called the limbic system that is kind of what makes us mammals. We have a reptilian brain that handles our reflexes and some initial fight-or-flight responses, composed of things that reptiles also have in their brains. Then we have a mammalian layer that handles some of our social functioning and emotional life and instinctual care-taking behaviors called the limbic system. Last, we have the cortex, the top part of the brain that makes us people, which handles our thoughts and guilt and abstract reasoning and other fun things.
What the Theory of Love says is that the most important thing in a helping professional is their healthy limbic system. That if the helping professional is centered and responsive and loving, their limic system will talk to the patient’s limbic system and re-orient it over time toward mental and behavioral health. Our limbic system is the part of the brain that talks to other brains without us knowing it, picking up on subtle clues and body language and voice modulation, and it has some helpful mirror neurons. The limbic system is why emotions are contagious, whether positive or negative.
The big insight in this theory is that the important aspect of a helping professional is not their specific theoretical background or clinical training, though these things are helpful. Rather, what is key is a relationship with the person being helped which will enable the healthier limbic system to re-train the hurting one – and that this will happen almost entirely unconsciously.
Even since I read this book years ago, this has become the core of how I go about trying to help people, whether as a pastor or as a friend. It is my theoretical approach and methodology, and part of what I like about it is that it is paradoxically a non-method. The only thing I have to do is to build rapport, and care about the person, and remain self-aware with good boundaries in place. And then gradually, over time, the other person’s brain can learn from my brain. I just listen, and talk, and care – three things I’m at least OK at.
So we get back to the wisdom, because what I see as the way to become better as a helping professional is to grow in wisdom. I am probably not going to go back to graduate school and seek clinical training – I’d love to, actually, and it has been recommended to me, but I just can’t afford it. On the other hand, I hear loud and clear the admonitions that all clergy should hear that we must not “play doctor”, meaning behave as if we are clinicians. We are not. We are not psychotherapists or social workers or counselors. We take a few classes in pastoral counseling in Seminary, perhaps, but we are not qualified to do that work.
But, as clergy, as religious people in general, I think we are very much in the wisdom business. We are in the love business. We are in the listening business. And this theory of helping others that is laid out in A General Theory of Love fits very well with my other training, in theology and in contemplative practices, in ethics and, yes, in pastoral counseling. And so far, it has served me well. It feels like something that should be true about the world – love should heal. And my experience has been that it does.