Searching for a Firm Persuasion

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

Nearly ten years ago a patient of mine suggested I listen to a recording of a Welsh poet named David Whyte. I agreed to do so, and I haven’t really been the same since. After hearing this man recite poetry, explain it and bring it to life with his unique delivery, an entire world of literature opened up for me and I entered. I’m there still.

Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books 2001) is Whyte’s second book of prose and seems to be written specifically with our profession in mind. At least, that’s what I was thinking at the end of every chapter.

On the very first page Whyte repeats an idea of William Blake’s that sets the tone for the rest of the book. It is that work at its best provides us with a sense of dedication Blake called “a firm persuasion.” This is a feeling that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at exactly the same time. Think of that. Is this what your work has become? How many therapists do you know who feel this way about their time in the clinic? Perhaps many of us have a sense of this, but find that the feeling is rare and remarkably short lived. Whyte offers a solution, but, as you might imagine, the path toward a firm persuasion is neither obvious nor easy.

Whyte tells us “Work at its best is the arrival in its outer form of something intensely inner and personal.” This sort of thinking resides most commonly in the world of art where every effort is directed toward the growth of creativity. In a clinic where success is measured in much the same way it would be on the production line of any factory unique and personal solutions to clinical problems might easily be seen as counterproductive and thus the opportunity to feel and express the art of our practice is lost. With that, Blake’s firm persuasion becomes little more than a rumor and, eventually, nothing more than an old, unrequited desire of the veteran therapist who does nothing more than follow protocols and fill out forms all day. I’ve met a few. When I travel to teach I commonly meet therapists who express their frustration and disappointment with their current job. Clearly they do not feel that their personal worth as an individual is honored or used there. They are a licensed body only, and thus easily replaced.

As I said, the solution to this problem is not easy. Whyte tells many tales of the “courageous conversations” that he and many others have had at the beginning of the road upward toward a kind of work that engages us, expresses us and leads to the triumph of human existence that work might become. These conversations often produce conflict, ostracism, ridicule and, ultimately, isolation. An “unknown sea” is the perfect metaphor for the kind of passage anyone hoping to find their firm persuasion must make, and I feel certain that every innovative therapist would agree that it might have been easier (to say nothing of more lucrative) to go along with the traditions of care they first encountered. But if your heart isn’t in it because your mind cannot accept what you see as mistaken and ineffective methods, work no longer represents a calling or means by which you might discover who you truly are. Instead, it becomes a job that reminds you again and again of who you truly aren’t. There is a remarkable passage near the end of the book that might describe many PT departments today: “What we have to confront in the present workplace is the reluctance to engage in conversations that really invite the creative qualities hidden deep inside each human being. It is a reluctance born of the knowledge that by inviting creativity and passion, the organization must also make room for fear and failure.” Here I feel Whyte not only refers to our management and treatment skills, but to our patient’s movement toward recovery as well.

My copy of this book contains numerous markings, underlined statements and lines I will repeat to my classes for years to come. Get a copy of your own, and see what it might offer you.