La Terapia de los Pobres

We see and hear a lot about traditional therapy. We also hear a lot about complexes- Freudian complexes, the prison industrial complex. But beyond all this lies a different model of emotional development and catharsis: la terapia de los pobres, the therapy of the poor.

This therapy is religion – specifically the fervency of the evangelical church and the revival/charismatic strain of the Catholic church.

These groups meet in small, store-front parishes on weeknights, and Saturday nights. You’ve seen them along Broadway in Downtown LA, and in Spanish Harlem. These are nearby destinations, walkable Bible study for people in need. And the things they are in need of are real: money in the bank, time in the day. Supportive relationships. Food stamps. People make prayer requests for their alcoholic brother. For their friend with HIV. For their estranged son, who went off and got violent and never came home.

What do these churches give that $150 a session therapy also hopes to give – esa terapia de los ricos? Affirmation.

That what they’re thinking is not crazy. That life is hard, and is as of yet still happening to them. But – there’s a way up, and a way out. Even if that way is just a different perspective.

Because unlike rich people’s therapy - learned in expensive schools – la terapia de los pobres is about being felt. And being seen.

And included.

Last month, I went with my mother and sister in law to their church in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil. They requested newcomers come up to the front, and after some initial shyness and pressure from my in-laws, I eventually went up. I awkwardly held my baby in front of me, facing the congregation in some sort of Simba pose.  

My son and I looked up and out, and saw dozens of kind eyes, soft faces, bending towards us in blessing.   

And I was profoundly moved. It was overwhelming, this beautiful output of prayer and well-being. Because in all of the chaos and fumbling that is early motherhood, perfect strangers took one minute to truly see us, and bless us.  And hold space for what is hard about parenthood. Beyond the bigger questions like,  what kind of society will he grow up in, will people be nice to him – we struggle with basic adult routines.

Our days are punctured by crying and bottles and strollers and boredom and public screeching. says this should all be schedule-able, with predictable 60 minute intervals of accomplished check-list tasks. But the reality is that pregnancy and infancy are inconvenient. Mothers and babies need special changing tables in bathrooms, we need ramps on the sidewalk, elevators, chairs. Changes of plans. We can’t stand for more than an hour, and we need to eat all the time. We need filtered water. We need stretchy clothes (that constantly need to be laundered).

We need attention.

Standing there, I felt validated. Respected, for what I’m doing. For this routine of plastic and dish soap, that isn’t reimbursed on maternity leave. That in fact gets a “maternity tax” in workforce payscales.

 I felt grateful that so many people sent wishes for health and happiness for my son, someone they don’t even know. I felt loved, at the center of my squishy post-natal universe – potbelly and all.

People pay therapists lots of money to feel like this. And foundations and governments invest a lot of money for neighborhoods and communities to develop this sort of safe affinity. Initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper try to do just that - make people feel empowered, connected. Look out for each other. Have someone wish you, “Hey, have a great week.” Have someone look out for you, follow up with you.

That's the foundation of Gregory Boyle’s Homebody Industries gang intervention program in East LA.  

Marx said that religion was the opium of the masses. That is partially true. But narcissism is the religion of the elites, and it doesn’t do anybody any good. Human beings are social animals, and they need connection and validation. Some people get it in therapists’s offices, othersget it at church.

People need to be seen, loved, and hugged. That’s how my baby develops, and it reminds me that that’s how adults develop, too. Ve la magia de eso – no cuesta nada, esa terapia de los pobres.